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Ari Emanuel would not commit to severing financial ties with the government of Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But the Endeavor CEO said the company is “monitoring” the situation and noted that he is “personally… really concerned.”
Emanuel’s Endeavor, which has aspirations to become a global content powerhouse, was set to receive $400 million from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But many U.S. companies are now being forced to reevaluate advantageous financial overtures from the crown prince, who has attempted to project the image of a reformer poised to open up the country — and its billions in oil riches — to modernization. He lifted bans on movie theaters in the conservative Muslim country and has also allowed women to drive. During a visit to the United States earlier this year, he was feted by titans of Hollywood, including Brian Grazer and Bob Iger, as well as business luminaries including Michael Bloomberg and Google founder Sergey Brin.
During a keynote session at the annual MIPCOM conference in Cannes, France on Monday, Emanuel noted that for “legal reasons” he could not say more about Endeavor’s intentions.
“I personally am really concerned about it,” he said. “We’re monitoring the situation and that’s legally all I can say right now. It’s very, very concerning, really concerning. It’s upsetting.”
Khashoggi — who was living in Virginia and writing columns for The Washington Post — has been a thorn in the side of the crown prince, known as MBS, for some time, criticizing the regime’s dismal record on human rights and press freedom (at least eight journalists have been jailed in Saudi Arabia).
On Oct. 2, during a trip to Turkey to visit his girlfriend, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He never came out. And Turkish intelligence services suspect that he was murdered and dismembered inside the building, with the tacit approval of MBS. (The grisly nature of the alleged crime has earned the crown prince a new moniker, Mister Bone Saw.)
The timing of the Khashoggi affair has invited intense international scrutiny just weeks before the crown prince was set to host a glittering roster of Western business leaders at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Uber’s chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi was the first to pull out. And on Oct. 15, he was joined by Ford Motor company’s Bill Ford, Blackstone Group’s Stephen A Schwarzman, BlackRock’s Laurence D. Fink and JP Morgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon.
The conference — dubbed “Davos in the Desert” — has also lost virtually all of its U.S. media partners, including CNBC, The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, The Economist and CNN.
Emanuel also fielded questions from Variety editor Cynthia Littleton about the company’s expansion into production and distribution and the potential for conflicts of interest. Emanuel brushed off the concerns –known in the industry as double-dipping – and noted that in the end, “it’s the clients choice.”
Still, the model, which WME and CAA have been pursuing aggressively, has resulted in lawsuits and some ill will. “The world has changed,” said Emanuel, noting the layers of lawyers and managers who serve as a check on any potential conflicts. “I’m creating an opportunity for the client to get ownership. We’re just creating a new box. Everything we’re doing is to create an alternative for all of our clients. The client ultimately gets to make the decision.”
And he noted that Endeavor is eyeing other content areas including podcasts and the educational space, though he did not offer details.
He also pushed back on the narrative that Endeavor could potentially become overextended given the companies buying spree of late, including the $2.4 billion purchase of IMG that set WME on its current path toward sports content creation and rights ownerships and the $4 billion deal for UFC.
Endeavor earlier this year secured a five-year, $1.5 billion deal with ESPN for UFC rights to run on the sports net’s linear network and OTT platform ESPN+.
Asked if he paid too much for IMG, Emanuel scoffed. “If you looks at that price compared to current acquisitions, that was the cheapest acquisition in the sports arena.” And then he added: “I’m really arrogant, so I’ve got to be careful here: we’re geniuses. It was a great price.”