Riyadh and Russia’s Independent bedfellows
Unlikely relationship between one-time Putin critic who came in from the cold and mysterious Saudi investor. By Christopher Williams
‘This point of view definitely has the right to exist,” declared Alexander Lebedev as he tweeted an article earlier this month from which he acquired for £1 in 2010, about the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal with a military nerve agent.
Commentator Mary Dejevsky, a former Moscow correspondent who frequently finds herself outlining the point of view of the Putin administration, wrote about Bellingcat, the investigative website that identified the failed assassins as operatives of the GRU, Russia’s foreign security service.
She wondered: “Might not the group’s good name be being used to get information into the public domain that officials do not want to vouch for? And, if so, would this be to inform, or to mislead?”
Russia’s ambassador to the UK and foreign minister have since asserted – without presenting any evidence – that Bellingcat is a front for Western intelligence agencies. Dejevsky demanded that questions be asked about its funding – but, according to Eliot Higgins, the Bellingcat founder, she did not attempt to seek answers.
On her suggestion that Bellingcat could be being used, he says: “You can say that about any investigative journalist, and often oppressive regimes do just that to justify the imprisonment of journalists. So it seems like a pretty irresponsible thing to speculate on without any evidence.
“We’re funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society Foundations, Adessium, and about 50pc of our income comes from workshops we run.”
He rejects Dejevsky’s claim that Bellingcat has not published information inconvenient to the British or US governments. Its investigation of the coalition bombing of a mosque full of civilians, which the US initially claimed was actually an al-qaeda meeting hall, is readily available via a simple Google search.
“Basic research would have shown that was untrue,” says Higgins. Dejevsky said this weekend: “I was writing a comment piece, not a news report. I have been an arch-sceptic about the UK official version of the Skripals from the beginning, but have also not taken the Russian side either, because the Russians – as I said in that same piece – haven’t produced wonderful explanations either.”
Lebedev’s apparent endorsement of the attack on Bellingcat nevertheless raised eyebrows in London media circles. A former KGB officer, he arrived on the scene in 2009 with the purchase of the Evening Standard. He presented himself as a Putin opponent, telling The Sunday Telegraph that “if I wake up tomorrow morning and cannot remember Putin, that would be nice”.
However, in recent years the 58-year-old, who did not respond to an interview request, has been under attack in Russia, and appears to have learnt his lesson. His
Moscow financial institution, National
Reserve Bank, was repeatedly raided by authorities and he was forced to hand back $ 1bn
(£760m) to customers. He was also threatened with jail over a bizarre assault on another businessman on live television.
Lebedev has stopped bankrolling Novaya
Gazeta, one of few critical voices in the
Russian press. In an appearance this summer at the Oxford
Lebedev himself suggested he had been brought to heel by the pressure.
“I have started to come back to my normal activities, which I stopped in 2014 because I was nearly jailed in Moscow for something I haven’t done,” he said. “I was criticising the Kremlin for many years. But then I thought, if Putin is loved by Russian people, who am I to criticise? Putin is full of spirit, in excellent physical form. I have to admit he did a good job in Syria.”
Lebedev has now taken to campaigning for rich Russian exiles, who he claims stole money, to return to Moscow from London, in line with Putin policy.
His apparent conversion to the cause of the Russian government as it is accused of using a chemical weapon on British soil is currently not the top ownership concern for journalists toiling at The Independent, which became a digital-only publication in
‘I was criticising the Kremlin for many years. But … if Putin is loved by Russian people, who am I to criticise?’
‘The deal represented an unusual alliance of Russian and Saudi business interests’
2016. Last year Lebedev’s son Evgeny, who is now the owner of the family’s media interests in London, did a deal to sell 30pc of the business to Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel, a hitherto obscure Saudi investor.
The deal represented an unusual alliance of Russian and Saudi business interests. Until recently the two powers were implacably opposed due to their differences over Iran and Syria. But, since a 2016 deal to co-operate on oil production, relations between Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and Putin have thawed.
Very little is known about Abuljadayel, who was widely assumed to be acting with the blessing of the de facto ruler now accused of ordering the killing and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Independent executives have given staff “cast-iron, unequivocal reassurances” that Saudi ownership would not affect its coverage of the Middle East. The Independent has been robust in its scrutiny of the apparent killing of Khashoggi, alleging that the journalist fell foul of MBS due to his family’s business dealings. However, senior Independent sources admit they know little of Abuljadayel or his intentions, beyond the fact that he is part of a wealthy family and works for a Saudi governmentcontrolled bank. He is rarely in direct touch with management, who have been disappointed that his involvement has not opened up new markets in the Middle East. “Perhaps if we had been more compliant with what the Saudis wanted it would have,” said a senior source. Abuljadayel has no seat on the company’s board, but his shares entitle him to appoint two directors. The two men selected who joined The Independent board after the Saudi investment have extensive business links to the regime in Riyadh.
Eric Lewis, a partner in the New York law firm Lewis Baach, represented the powerful Saudi Al Gosaibi family in the scandal over the collapse of their global business empire. He is also representing Saudi government-backed charities in their defence against claims by the families of 9/11 victims. Lewis did not respond to a request for an interview about his role at The Independent.
The other new director is DJ Collins, a co-founder of the public relations firm Milltown Partners. It works for clients including Softbank’s Vision Fund, the $100bn technology venture capital fund backed by Saudi petrodollars. Milltown also played a role in MBS’S high-profile visit to the UK earlier this year. Collins, who was labelled “Mr Saudi” by a friend, did not respond to a request for interview. The
Independent declined to comment on its ownership or the role of its directors.
The Saudi investment means that Evgeny Lebedev, who retains around 40pc of the company, is no longer the controlling shareholder. Earlier this year he recapitalised the Evening
Standard, increasing its shareholding and diluting DMGT, the former owner and now minority shareholder. His representatives declined to comment on the funding of that transaction. Abuljadayel has no shareholding in the
‘The two men selected who joined The Independent board have extensive links to the regime in Riyadh’
Evening Standard. Since abandoning print, The Independent, which for years racked up heavy losses, has enjoyed a turnaround. A strategy based on the massive audiences delivered by social media meant that last year its turnover, mostly from advertising, increased 55pc to £22.2m. Pre-tax profit doubled to £3.3m.
Changes to the Facebook algorithm and its increasing dominance of digital advertising alongside Google have made this year tougher for free-toaccess digital publishers.
The Independent is attempting a move upmarket, including by selling subscriptions for its opinion section, which carries work by well-regarded commentators, especially on the Middle East.
However as global politics takes a darker turn, its combination of Russian and Saudi links raises more questions they cannot answer.
Evgeny and Alexander Lebedev have sold a stake in The Independent to Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel, a Saudi investor with close ties to Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia