Elon Musk, a boss under the influence of Riyadh and Beijing?

US President Joe Biden admitted on Wednesday that an investigation into Elon Musk’s financial and commercial ties with China or Saudi Arabia could prove useful. The challenge ? Determine if the new owner of Twitter has become a threat to US national security.

It’s $1.89 billion that makes even Joe Biden uncomfortable. The American president estimated, Wednesday, November 9, that this large sum put in the pot by Saudi Arabia to help Elon Musk to acquire Twitter was likely to justify “that we are interested in cooperation and commercial relations [du patron de Tesla] with foreign countries”.

The goal ? Establishing whether the new owner of Twitter is a man under foreign influence and could, as such, represent a “threat to American national security”, as suggested by an American journalist who asked the question to the tenant of the White House.

Elon Musk, the friend of China and Saudi Arabia?

This journalist is not the only one. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy also called on October 30 for an investigation into whether Elon Musk’s business and financial connections would allow countries like “Saudi Arabia to exert influence on an important platform of political communication like Twitter”.

So far, Elon Musk’s ties to foreign powers seemed to be limited to China. The importance of the Chinese market for Tesla’s electric cars had prompted several media, in June 2022, to highlight the risk that Beijing could use this lever to encourage the American businessman to make Twitter more Sino-compatible.

Elon Musk had already shown in the past a desire to please the masters of Beijing. In March 2022, he opened a branch of Tesla in Xinjiang, despite Western criticism of the repressive policy carried out in this region against the minority of Uyghurs.

A few months later, in August, he had signed a column setting out his vision of the innovations of the future in the official magazine of the Chinese administration for internal regulation – China’s chief web censor.

But that was just the start. The publication in October of the list of investors who helped Elon Musk raise the $46.5 billion to buy Twitter suggested that other authoritarian countries may have offered themselves the right to influence the future of the famous social network.

Indeed, there is the $1.89 billion from the Saudi investment fund, but Qatar Holding also participated in the takeover for $375 million while Binance, the Chinese-Canadian cryptocurrency giant, has advanced $500 million to complete the acquisition.

“The Qatar Holding and the Saudi fund both have direct ties to the government of their respective countries,” says the Brookings Institute, in an analysis of the implications for American national security of the acquisition of Twitter. “These are not states that defend the same conception of freedom of expression as in the West on platforms like Twitter”, underlines Hamza Mudassir, co-founder of the British consulting firm for start-ups Platypodes.eu and professor of strategy. entrepreneurship at the University of Cambridge.

No evidence of threat to national security

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has already demonstrated that it has a very particular conception of the role of Twitter. In 2017, the Wahhabi kingdom launched a small army of “bots” to attack the famous social network to carry out a vast influence operation. A former Saudi employee of Twitter was also convicted in August 2022 of spying on the social network on behalf of Riyadh to obtain data on Saudi dissidents active on the platform.

Elon Musk has therefore brought potentially problematic investors into a company, repeatedly described as important for the democratic debate. It holds valuable personal information (e-mail address, telephone number, history of private messages) on all users of the site, “sensitive data that could be of interest to authoritarian states”, underlines Democratic Senator Chris Murphy.

So many disturbing elements which do not however demonstrate that Elon Musk “did something inappropriate”, insisted on qualifying Joe Biden. “The response of the American president is fair: he recalls that there is no proof at this stage that Elon Musk represents a threat to American national security, but that the financial arrangement of the takeover is sufficiently complex to require take a closer look,” summarizes Hamza Mudassir.

Large-scale financial operations such as the takeover of a company the size of Twitter “often require calling on a multitude of investors”, notes this expert. And those who have links with China, Saudi Arabia or Qatar ultimately represent only 6% of the total amount of the operation.

Safeguards to protect national security?

It’s not much, but it can be enough to weigh on the functioning of Twitter, “especially since we don’t know exactly what these investors get in exchange for their contribution”, underlines Hamza Mudassir. Did the Qataris or the Saudis offer themselves seats on the board of directors or simply the right to receive dividends from future profits?

This would be one of the points that a possible investigation should clarify. In the United States, they are conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) which can examine foreign investments in American companies to determine whether national security is at stake.

The mere fact that a company has personal data on a portion of US citizens – as is the case with Twitter – “may be enough for CFIUS to open an investigation,” notes the Brookings Institute.

This federal agency has very broad powers, such as prohibiting a foreign acquisition or investment (even retroactively). But before reaching such a decision, this Committee can decide on measures aimed at limiting the risk.

According to Hamza Mudassir, this prospect would be most likely if the CFIUS were to consider, after investigation, that the acquisition of Elon Musk undermined national security. One solution would then be “to improve state supervision of what is happening within Twitter,” he says. The CFIUS could require that all personal data be kept on servers located in the United States and that they can only leave after obtaining authorization from the administration.

Such a solution could be all the more necessary since Elon Musk took Twitter out of the Stock Exchange… A withdrawal which has the effect of making its operation less transparent since the group is no longer obliged to report to shareholders. An opacity which is not necessarily reassuring for a site supposed to promote freedom of expression with Saudi, Qatari or Chinese investors.

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