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

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - The In­de­pen­dent,

‘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

Union,

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

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