Saudi Arabia funds new digital news platform in U.S., launches White House lobbying effort

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Saudi Arabia is funding a yet-to-be-announced digital news platform, which will have a studio in Washington, D.C., as the kingdom begins a new lobbying effort aimed at the White House and Congress.

The new effort, which had yet to be reported, is being backed by a subsidiary of the Saudi Technology Development and Investment Co., or Taqnia, according to new foreign lobbying disclosures filed with the Department of Justice.

Journalists and presenters involved in the project have past experience at Fox News, Al Jazeera, NBC and SiriusXM satellite radio.

The creation of what one of the documents calls a “news platform” comes as the kingdom has started hiring a new team of lobbyists as the Saudis seek access to President Joe Biden‘s administration and the new Congress.

It also arrives almost three years after the death of Washington Post journalist and Saudi royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi. A recent U.S. intelligence report says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.

Biden, however, opted not to punish the crown prince for his alleged role in Khashoggi’s death.

“We held accountable all the people in that organization — but not the crown prince, because we have never that I’m aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him,” Biden said in a recent interview with ABC News.

The subsidiary backing the initiative is Taqnia ETS, a company that focuses on engineering and technological services for Saudi Arabia.

PitchBook says Taqnia is based in Saudi Arabia, which “prefers to invest in the life sciences and health, security and defense, information and communication technology, material sciences, energy and environment and water technology sectors.”

Taqnia’s website says it is owned by the kingdom’s over $400 billion Public Investment Fund, or PIF, the country’s massive sovereign wealth fund that’s meant to invest into projects and help boost Saudi Arabia’s economy. The lobbying disclosure report says Taqnia ETS is “supervised and financed by the Saudi Ministry of Information.”

The PIF’s executive board includes members of the royal family such as the crown prince.

The lobbying documents give a glimpse into the upcoming Saudi-led news venture.

One of the lobbying disclosures shows that a company called Prime Time Media is helping lead the effort. Prime Time Media’s CEO, Elie Nakouzi, is assisting in the creation of the new digital news organization. His company is getting paid at least $1.6 million, the document shows, to help guide the project.

The purchase order included in the lobbying disclosure describes the work being done by Prime Time Media as “English content for news platform.” More than $75,000 has already been spent on equipment, freelancers and a Washington, D.C., studio, the documents say.

The lobbying filings were signed by Nakouzi last month and the purchase order included with the disclosure is dated September 2020. The order form is marked by Taqnia ETS’ logo.

One of the documents listing Nakouzi says Prime Time Media will “assist client in the video production of English news content. In doing so, registrant will not participate in the dissemination of said news content.”

Nakouzi, who, according to the disclosure, has citizenship in Lebanon but resides in the United States, has a history of working in Middle East media circles. While working for an Arabic television network, Nakouzi interviewed then President George W. Bush during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nakouzi confirmed to CNBC in an email several aspects of Taqnia’s project, including that it will be a new online platform and that a studio has been created. He declined to comment further on the news content of the upcoming site and referred all questions to Taqnia who did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

“Taqnia plans to launch an international online platform before the end of this year,” Nakouzi said in an email Tuesday. “As for the Studio, we have built a fully equipped virtual green room for future use,” he added while noting that it will be based in Washington.

“Prime Time Media is not entitled to speak on their behalf. We are a video production house and we don’t do lobbying or PR services,” Nakouzi said.

Eric Ham and Craig Boswell, two U.S.-based journalists, will be anchoring online shows for the Saudi-funded venture. Both Ham and Boswell have so far been paid $6,000 each for what’s described on the disclosure reports as being writers and presenters.

“Mr. Eric Ham and Mr. Craig Boswell will be hosting online shows that are still in production phase,” Nakouzi said in the email.

Boswell and Ham did not return requests for comment before publication.

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