Google risks upsetting its employees with new Aramco deal

Mark Bergen December 22, 2020

(Bloomberg) --Google will start selling its cloud-computing services in Saudi Arabia through a deal with oil producer Aramco, risking a backlash from staff who oppose doing business with the fossil fuel industry or regimes accused of human rights abuses.

The partnership gives Alphabet Inc.’s Google regulatory clearance to set up what it calls a “cloud region” in the Kingdom, the companies said on Monday. Employees at Google have called on the company to abstain from work in the oil and gas industry, citing environmental concerns, and work with authoritarian regimes.

Still, Thomas Kurian, chief executive officer of Google’s cloud unit, has pushed to service the energy industry. It’s one of a handful of fields where Google is trying to chase Microsoft Corp. and Inc. in the cloud-computing market.

“With this agreement, Google Cloud’s innovative technology and solutions will be available to global customers and enterprises in Saudi Arabia to enable them to better serve end consumers,” Kurian said in a statement on Monday. Aramco described the market for cloud services in the country as reaching $30 billion by 2030.

Google is partnering with Saudi Aramco Development Co., a division of the state-run Saudi Arabian Oil Co. Aramco will find a local reseller for Google’s cloud services in the country. That includes Snap Inc., a Google cloud customer that provides its app in the Kingdom.

Aramco announced it had signed a preliminary agreement with Google in 2018 prior to a highly publicized Silicon Valley tour by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On that trip, the crown prince visited Google and met with its top executives.

Months later, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist and prominent Saudi critic, prompted widespread international condemnation. Many businesses pulled out of a Saudi financial conference and some questioned investment in the Kingdom over human rights concerns. The Central Intelligence Agency looked into claims that the crown prince ordered the murder, straining relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

Later that year, Google released a set of public principles for its technology and artificial intelligence after staff protests over its work. That included a prohibition on AI systems “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”

A Google spokesperson said that any work from the company’s cloud commission will continue to obey the AI principles. Also, the Aramco partnership doesn’t involve any services to facilitate oil extraction. The company isn’t disclosing financial terms of the deal.

Jack Poulson, a former Google researcher who runs nonprofit group Tech Inquiry, said he’s concerned Google cloud services in Saudi Arabia may be used to surveil citizens and dampen freedom of expression. “It’s irresponsible of Google to do this without some clarification of its scope,” he added.

On Monday, Google also announced it was opening cloud centers in Chile and Germany.

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