Siemens CEO explains why he won't go to Saudi Arabia

In an unusual behind-the-scenes glimpse at corporate decision-making, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser detailed why he...

Posted: Oct 22, 2018 6:16 PM
Updated: Oct 22, 2018 6:16 PM

In an unusual behind-the-scenes glimpse at corporate decision-making, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser detailed why he pulled out of this week's Future Investment Initiative in Saudi Arabia.

Kaeser's LinkedIn post on Monday offers a rare look into how a business leader grapples with a controversial issue.

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Dozens of business leaders have pulled out of the "Davos in the Desert" conference following the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2. Most just issued a one-line statement and declined to comment further.

Kaeser said he received "hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mails" urging him not to attend the conference and he attempted to strike the "right balance between values, interests and timing."

"As soon as I heard of his death, it was clear to me that we couldn't simply move on and do business as usual," Kaeser said. "We in Germany should know from our history what it can lead to if people stay out of trouble and don't speak up till it is too late."

Siemens, a powerhouse German industrial conglomerate with operations across the world, has 2,000 employees in Saudi Arabia. Siemens is under contract to provide gas turbines for a Saudi Aramco plant in Fadhili and a $1.7 billion driverless subway system in Riyadh. It is a major partner for Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 plan.

Kaeser noted that his customers and partners were not guilty of the crime and need powerful, deep-pocketed allies like Siemens to fight for transparency. But Kaeser said he struggled to determine the best way to do that.

In the end, he decided between three options: Refusing to go and "hiding among the 'mainstream,' like most," sending a company representative, or going to the conference and speaking up about Khashoggi's death.

"What should the response of the CEO of a global company be?" Kaeser asked. "We are the ones who need to fix the issues. ... We are the ones who have the responsibility to show our people the way and find a win-win solution."

Kaeser took his time with the decision to weigh the company's reputation, its business dealings with the Saudis, a business opportunity up to $30 billion by 2030, and Siemens' thousands of jobs in the country.

"In the end, I chose option 1. I will not attend the FII 2018. It's the cleanest decision but not the most courageous one," he admitted.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, media organizations, and Wall Street leaders dropped out after uproar over Khashoggi's disappearance. Saudi Arabia confirmed Khashoggi's death on Friday.

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