Elon Musk, No Friend to Joe Biden, Looks to Grow Tesla’s Foreign Footprint

The billionaire CEO, who has been accused of ignoring US labor laws, is reportedly in talks with Turkey and Saudi Arabia about establishing EV factories abroad.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan  meets with Elon Musk  ahead of the 78th session of the United Nations  General...
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets with Elon Musk (L) ahead of the 78th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly at the Turkish House in New York, United States on September 17 , 2023.By Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Confronted with stateside regulatory headaches and an unsympathetic White House, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has been looking beyond the US to expand his electric vehicle company. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Tesla has been in early talks to open a factory in Saudi Arabia since the summer. Over the weekend, Musk also heard enthusiastic offers from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, a marked Saudi rival, to build a Tesla factory in his country.

Meeting with Musk at Turkish House in Manhattan on Sunday, Erdo?an called on Tesla to set up its seventh factory in Turkey and proposed a separate collaboration between the country and Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX,?according to the Turkish state media agency Anadolu. In response, Musk reportedly declared Turkey “among the most important candidates” for Tesla’s next manufacturing facility.

By 2030, Tesla hopes to reach an annual sales mark of 20 million vehicles, nearly double the number sold in 2022 by industry leader Toyota. Tesla, by comparison, sold only about 1.3 million cars last year. So if Musk hopes to reach his lofty, end-of-decade goal, Tesla—which currently operates six plants across the US, Germany, and China, and plans to build another in Mexico—would need to construct more than a few new factories.

Enter Saudi Arabia: The autocratic monarchy hopes to make Tesla a key player in its long-term goal of diversifying its oil-gripped economy, focusing instead on manufacturing, renewable energy, and other industries. The Journal reported that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has for years desired a Tesla plant in the country, given the impact such a move could have on the kingdom's emergent need for foreign investment. However, Musk, who has said he aims to name a location for a new Tesla factory by the end of the year, denied the Journal’s reporting. “Yet another utterly false article from WSJ,” he wrote?in a post on X Monday.

Saudi Arabia, per the Journal, has attempted to sell Musk on its labor supply as well as its ability to procure the metals needed by Tesla and other electric vehicle companies, including cobalt. The Journal previously reported that the Saudis have approached the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s leading cobalt supplier, about securing metal assets in the Central African nation, but the sides have yet to reach a deal.

Musk’s reported talks with Erdo?an and the Saudis come as Tesla faces new domestic pressures this year. For one, the company has had a particularly combative relationship with Joe Biden. Musk has accused the president of shunning Tesla and described him as a “damp sock puppet in human form,” while CNBC reported in February that the White House had no plans to meet with Musk after Biden sat down with the chief executives of Ford and General Motors.

Tesla’s non-union status is reportedly a main point of contention between Musk and some in the Biden administration. White House climate adviser Ali Zaid has argued that Biden should only meet with the heads of unionized car companies, according to CNBC. Far from meeting this standard, Tesla was found by a federal appeals court in March to have illegally fired a worker engaged in organizing efforts at its plant in Fremont, California. The same court found that Musk had illegally shared anti-union musings on social media.

Tesla has also come under fire from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration?over an autopilot feature that allows drivers to cruise hands-free for extended periods. In a July letter to Tesla, the federal regulator wrote that the “relaxation of controls designed to ensure that the driver remain engaged in the dynamic driving task could lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.”

Publicly, the White House has, for the most part, downplayed its conflict with Musk. “Tesla has done extraordinary things for electric vehicles and that’s a big part of why the whole industry now knows EVs are the future,” a White House spokesperson told CNBC in February, though they added that Musk has “unfortunately” voiced opposition to the administration’s EV tax credits despite benefitting from them.