Independent joins Saudi group to launch Middle East websites

Tie-up raises questions over growing influence of Gulf finance in British media

The Independent has joined up with a media group that has close links to the Saudi royal family to launch websites across the Middle East and Pakistan in a deal that will raise questions about the growing influence of Gulf finance in the British media.

The joint partnership will see four Independent-branded sites launched in Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Persian by the end of 2018.

Although the sites will be Independent-branded, the content would be almost entirely produced by Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) journalists based in London, Islamabad, Istanbul and New York, with the Independent contributing only translated articles from the English-language website. The sites will be “supported by operations staff in Riyadh and Dubai”.

The websites will be owned and operated by SRMG, a publishing business whose chairman was until recently Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud. He left last month to take up a position as Saudi minister of culture.

Mohammad bin Salman
Mohammad bin Salman was appointed crown prince in June 2017. Reporters Without Borders says that despite his talk of reform, he has had no positive impact on media freedom. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

Prince Bader hit the headlines at the end of last year when he paid a record $450m for a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ, allegedly as a proxy bidder for Saudi’s new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Last summer, a 30% stake in the Independent was sold to a Saudi businessman named Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, who had no previous public interest in the British media. He was thought to work for NCB Capital, an arm of National Commercial Bank, which was controlled by the Saudi government, although he provided paperwork saying he was making the investment in a personal capacity.

Although the international expansion was only announced this week, the web addresses for the new foreign-language Independent websites – independentarabia.com, independenturdu.com, independentturkish.com and independentpersian.com – were registered last November, suggesting the proposals had been in the works for some time.

The Independent, which has been an online-only publication since closing its print edition in 2016, said the expansion would bring the “highest-quality, free-thinking, independent news, insight and analysis on global affairs and local events” to new audiences.

However, questions will be raised about the journalistic decision to partner with a publisher with strong links to the Saudi government.

Reporters Without Borders rates Saudi Arabia at 169 out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. It said the country had “no independent media” and the “level of self-censorship is extremely high”.

“Despite his talk of reform, the young Mohammad bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in June 2017 has had no positive impact on the freedom to inform,” the organisation said in its annual round-up on media freedom.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been involved in a web of geopolitical alliances, rivalries and hostilities, with the battle increasingly involving attempts to influence press coverage and dominate social media.

The decision to launch a Persian-language version of the Independent, staffed by SRMG journalists, would come under particular scrutiny given the Saudi state’s hostility to Iran, with both countries backing rival sides in the ongoing war in Yemen.

The Independent is not the first media company from the west to partner with SRMG. Last year Bloomberg signed a deal to produce an Arabic-language version of financial news service.

The Independent’s parent company, which is controlled by Russian oligarch’s son Evgeny Lebedev, grew its operating profit to £3.2m in 2017, according to recent accounts. However, the Evening Standard – Lebedev’s other news outlet – slumped to a £10m loss.

The Independent said all editorial practices and output of the new sites would conform to the “world-renowned” standards, code of conduct and established ethos of the existing English-language publication.

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Jim Waterson Media editor

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