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EXCLUSIVE: Saudi investor ploughs millions into liberal icon of UK media

Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel gains 'significant control' of Independent alongside Russian media mogul Evgeny Lebedev

Independent's newspaper folded in 2016, but fortunes have since improved with digital growth (AFP)

LONDON - A mysterious Saudi-based investor has ploughed millions of dollars into a British news organisation renowned for championing liberal causes, in a move that will enrage human rights and media freedom campaigners. 

Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel, 42, listed in company records as a Saudi-based Saudi Arabian national, has acquired up to 50 percent of the Independent website, whose newspaper shook Britain's journalism establishment in the 1980s before struggling financially and ditching the printed word in 2016.

According to registers updated on Companies House on Friday, Abuljadayel controls up to 50 percent of voting rights within Independent Digital News and Media Ltd, the company that controls the Independent brand.

An informed Saudi source described Abuljadayel to Middle East Eye as coming from an "established business family based in Medina". 

He now sits with Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a Soviet KGB spy turned Russian oligarch, as a "person of significant control" in the company. Justin Byam Shaw, described by close associates as a "serial entrepreneur," is a third.

A source with knowledge of the deal said the Independent's valuation may be as much as $130m, although MEE was unable to independently confirm the exact amount changing hands for Abuljadayel's investment.

But such a figure would be an incredible reversal of fortunes for a company that has lost millions of pounds a year for decades and was sold to the Lebedev family in 2010 for £1.

Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former Russian KGB agent (AFP)

The paper's enduring left-of-centre coverage had ensured the title remained an editorial force even as it struggled with declining sales and huge losses before eventually closing in what was a blow to British media plurality.

The Independent's fortunes have risen since the presses stopped rolling last year, however, with the company reporting a record profit of £1.7mn ($2.2mn) as online readership increased by 20 percent and revenue jumped by 75 percent.

A spokesman said "editorial independence of the Independent has been formally protected," but the Saudi purchase of a "significant" chunk of the company has sparked criticism among rights campaigners.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell told Middle East Eye: "It would not seem consistent with the Independent's record of championing liberal values for a Saudi sultan to have a significant share in the ownership of this media outlet.

"A lot more questions need to be asked, and answered, before the public can be reassured that there is no clash of values between the sultan and the Independent."

Seamus Dooley, acting general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, told MEE that he had major misgivings about the purchase.

"The NUJ is in favour of maximum transparency in terms of media ownership, and we know nothing about this group," he said, referring to the investor.

"Also, there are serious concerns about Saudi and their relationship with the concept of media freedom and the record of anyone from Saudi in terms of human rights is something that would be of concern to us."

'Questions need to be answered before the public can be reassured that there is no clash of values'

- Peter Tatchell

MEE understands the deal was signed as long as a month ago and that the Saudi move follows previous interest from a separate group of Gulf investors several years ago. 

When asked about the involvement of a Saudi national in a paper that has championed progressive politics, gender equality and LGBT rights and opposed the use of the death penalty, a source close to the deal told MEE: "We really do live in weird times."

Writing on the website six months after the closure of the print edition, the Independent’s editor, Christian Broughton, said: "Our guiding principles have not changed.

"An absolute rejection of party political ties and spin, a total commitment to honesty, a heartfelt empathy with people of every creed and colour around the world, a deep-set belief in progressive, liberal values, and passion.”

Broughton did not respond to requests for comment from Middle East Eye before publication.

Saudi Arabia and press freedom

Saudi involvement in the media outlet will prove controversial, given the kingdom's use of the death penalty and well-documented allegations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

According to Freedom House, which monitors press freedom, Saudi Arabia has "one of the most restricted media environments in the world”. 

Writers critical of the Saudi government face "harsh punishment” and the ongoing military offensive in Yemen has seen the Saudi government "shape media coverage" by "cracking down on domestic dissent and restricting access to Yemen by foreign journalists".

Lebedev, who also owns the London Evening Standard newspaper, is a regular on the London social circuit and is regularly pictured in his media outlets, often with members of the royal family. 

He courted controversy earlier this year when he appointed former chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) George Osborne to edit the Standard.

Lebedev was reported to have made an offer to buy the Daily Telegraph from the Barclay brothers.

Byam Shaw was brought in by former Standard editor Geordie Greig – now editing the Mail on Sunday - who said the "serial entrepreneur" would help negotiate the sale of the majority stake in the Standard from owner Associated Newspapers on behalf of the Lebedevs.

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