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Endeavor returns Saudi investment money after Jamal Khashoggi murder

Ari Emanuel, Donald Trump
Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, shown in 2016, has called the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi “very, very concerning.”
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
Washington Post

Endeavor’s bid to return a $400-million investment to the Saudi Arabian government because of an outcry over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been fulfilled, according to a person with knowledge of the talks.

Endeavor, the Hollywood agency and content-packaging company, accepted the money last spring from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund after company Chief Executive Ari Emanuel became enamored with the idea that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was on the path to reform. The capital was quickly spent as Endeavor looked to pay down debt on a host of corporate acquisitions, which in recent years have included mixed martial arts and professional bull riding leagues.

But Emanuel had a change of heart after the murder of the Washington Post contributor at the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. Emanuel spoke of his displeasure at the reports during a television conference in France — calling Khashoggi’s killing “very, very concerning” — and it appeared he was looking for ways to return the money.

Sources in Hollywood subsequently said Endeavor was raising capital from other sources so it could pay back the $400 million. As months wore on with no news, some in the entertainment world speculated Endeavor was quietly hoping the controversy would pass. But the negotiation was completed several weeks ago, according to the person with knowledge of the talks. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

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Representatives from both the Public Investment Fund and Endeavor did not comment.

Khashoggi was killed and dismembered after entering the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The Senate passed a resolution pointing a finger at Bin Salman, and the CIA and United Nations human rights specialists believe he was the victim of a state-sponsored murder.

“Evidence collected during my mission to Turkey shows prima facie case that Mr. Khashoggi was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia,” UN human rights expert Agnes Callamard said last month after a fact-finding mission to Turkey.

The kingdom has disputed the claims as “unsubstantiated” and in December lashed out at the Senate for interfering in its affairs. President Trump has flouted an obligation to report on the murder to the Senate, prompting outrage from Republicans and Democrats.

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Details of the financial transaction by Endeavor were not available, but experts believe the company probably paid a large premium to extricate itself from the agreement.

“Unwinding a deal like this is a lot easier said than done,” Jonathan Bender, a partner at the law firm Wilk Auslander, said when reports of the pullout became public. Generally speaking, he said, investors have rights that make a return of capital difficult.

Some Western firms, such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, declined future investments from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in the wake of the Khashoggi murder. But no other company that had already accepted funds, including several Silicon Valley and Wall Street giants, is known to have returned them. Ride-hailing giant Uber accepted a $3.5-billion investment in 2016 to buttress itself against competitors such as Lyft.

Still, Endeavor is in a slightly easier position to give back the money. It received a smaller amount than some of the other entities and, as a private company, is able to change spending and investment strategy without fear of blowback from Wall Street.

The Endeavor investment came about as part of a whirlwind tour by Bin Salman through Hollywood nearly a year ago, in which he met with an array of media and entertainment players. They included well-known liberals such as Brian Grazer and conservatives including Rupert Murdoch, both of whom hosted star-studded events for the crown prince.

Bin Salman had positioned himself as a reformer, easing Saudi Arabia’s infamous restrictions on women driving and allowing the first public movie theater to open. He also sought to invest the country’s oil profits in a range of global entities in a bid to reduce the country’s dependence on its core asset.

The news is unlikely to quell criticism of funding of Hollywood companies, which have a history of entering financing arrangements with countries that have checkered human rights records. In recent years, a range of studios and production firms have received billions of dollars from China even as that country faces numerous protests over reported human rights abuses.

As Endeavor was returning the money, data on casualties in the Saudi-led war in Yemen were emerging. A new report found that airstrikes from the Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition had killed 203 people and injured at least 749 in the 4-year-old conflict, often with American- and British-made weapons.

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On Thursday, the European Union chastised Saudi Arabia, with all 28 member states of the continental bloc at the UN Human Rights Council asking for the country to cooperate with a UN inquiry into Khashoggi’s death and to release nearly a dozen imprisoned activists.


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