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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

If CEOs are the new politicians, many of them don't seem to have thought carefully about foreign policy — particularly about working with autocratic regimes.

Why it matters: Corporate America continues to do business with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who allegedly oversaw the beheading of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and to court business in places like China and Turkey.

American CEOs are increasingly stepping up to take positions on domestic issues like gun control, transgender rights and climate change. But when it comes to abuses that take place outside U.S. borders, they tend to fall silent — or say things they regret.

Driving the news: Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took a social media beating yesterday, after telling "Axios on HBO" that the Khashoggi murder was "a mistake" and then compared it to Uber's self-driving accident in which a woman was killed. (He said after the interview that he regretted the comment.)

Khosrowshahi will talk more about his Saudi Arabia remarks to Axios at an all-hands meeting later this morning, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Uber is not alone in what looked like a soft shrug at the crime:

  • After boycotting the Saudi regime's "Davos in the Desert" investment conference in 2018, shortly after the murder, many high-profile companies and CEOs fell in line and attended the event this year.
  • While the Business Roundtable made a statement in August about the importance of social responsibility, its CEO members haven't tackled the knotty issue of profiting from business conducted in autocratic regimes.
  • Noteworthy example: BlackRock CEO Larry Fink — who has taken big public stands on gun control and corporate social responsibility — has continued to do business in Saudi Arabia since the Khashoggi murder, saying in 2018 that "everyone has their own theories" about the murder.

There are exceptions:

  • After Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel returned $400 million of Saudi money in March, the possibility opened up that other companies would take a similar stance and treat Saudi Arabia in much the same way as they might treat a gun manufacturer.
  • That hasn't happened.

Be smart: U.S. companies are still wary of taking a stand on international issues.

  • The list of joint global coordinators for the upcoming trillion-dollar Saudi Aramco IPO includes all the big U.S. investment banks, among others.
  • The banks — Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and HSBC (which all declined to comment to Axios on Monday), as well as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan, and Credit Suisse (which didn't respond to a request for comment) — all stand to make millions of dollars in fees when the Saudi state oil company goes public.
  • While taking a moral stance may look good in the eyes of some customers and employees, CEOs ultimately have to consider business implications like their responsibility to shareholders and the potential actions of competitors. 

The bottom line: There's a long tradition in America that "politics stops at the water's edge." Insofar as CEOs are the new politicians, they seem to have adopted the same principle.

  • This is reinforced by a Trump White House that selectively refuses to take action or speak out against autocratic governments for human rights abuses, including the Khashoggi murder.
  • As JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon told Axios last year, regarding Saudi Arabia: "We will abide by what the American government decides, not what JPMorgan decides."

Go deeper: Axios' Dan Primack wrote in October about how corporate America remains happy to do business with the Saudis.

MBS' big bet on getting away with murder

Scoop: The grandees headed to Saudi Arabia's "Davos in the Desert"

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.

Biden Cabinet confirmation schedule: When to watch hearings

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Jan. 16 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The first hearings for President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet nominations begin on Tuesday, with testimony from his picks to lead the departments of State, Homeland and Defense.

Why it matters: It's been a slow start for a process that usually takes place days or weeks earlier for incoming presidents. The first slate of nominees will appear on Tuesday before a Republican-controlled Senate, but that will change once the new Democratic senators-elect from Georgia are sworn in.