Uber CEO backtracks after calling murder of Saudi journalist a 'mistake'

Saudi Arabia is a major investor in Uber​.

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Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on stage at Tech Crunch Disrupt 2018 in San Francisco.

James Martin/CNET

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi appears to be backtracking after calling the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi "a serious mistake." During an interview with Axios on HBO that aired Sunday, Khosrowshahi defended the country's investment in Uber. He said the murder of Khashoggi by the Saudi government was a mistake, similar to how a fatal accident involving one of Uber's self-driving cars was a mistake. 

"People make mistakes," Khosrowshahi said. "It doesn't mean that they can never be forgiven. I think they've taken it seriously."  

Saudi Arabia is Uber's fifth biggest shareholder. And one of the company's board members, Yasir Al Rumayyan, is the managing director of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. Khosrowshahi said Sunday that Rumayyan is a "very constructive" board member and that Saudi Arabia is "just like any other shareholder now."

One hour after Khosrowshahi's interview, Axios reported that the CEO called to express regret over his choice of words regarding Khashoggi. He followed up with a statement the next day. 

"I said something in the moment that I do not believe," Khosrowshahi told Axios. "When it comes to Jamal Khashoggi, his murder was reprehensible and should not be forgotten or excused."

Khosrowshahi reiterated the statement in a tweet on Monday. 

"There's no forgiving or forgetting what happened to Jamal Khashoggi & I was wrong to call it a 'mistake'," he tweeted. "Our investors have long known my views here & I'm sorry I wasn't as clear on Axios."

Last year, Khosrowshahi pulled Uber out of a major Saudi Arabian investment conference saying it was the right thing to do at the time and he wanted to wait for more facts to emerge around Khashoggi's assassination. Uber didn't attend the conference again this year. Khosrowshahi said in the interview with Axios that Uber didn't attend this year because it had a board meeting at the same time. 

Khashoggi, a prominent dissident and critic of the Saudi government, was murdered in October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He was said to have been strangled and dismembered by a 15-member assassination squad. 

Both the CIA and a UN investigation have reportedly found that the Saudi government was responsible for Khashoggi's murder and that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman may have been aware. The crown prince has denied ordering Khashoggi's murder but acknowledged it "was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government."

After Khosrowshahi's interview aired on Axios, the hashtags #DeleteUber and #BoycottUber began trending on Twitter. Karen Attiah, one of Khashoggi's former editors at the Washington Post, said she deleted her Uber app over the CEO's comments.

"If one of Uber's main investors kills someone it doesn't really matter. A representative of a murderous regime can still keep a board seat," Attiah tweeted. "When you're rich, your crimes become 'mistakes'. #BoycottUber."

An Uber spokesman pointed CNET to Khosrowshahi's tweet on Monday and declined to comment further.

Originally published Nov. 11, 7:11 a.m. PT. Update, 11:44 a.m.: Adds additional background information.

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