• The Saudi Green Initiative and the London Evening Standard announced a week or two ago that they would be partnering together through articles and videos.
  • The initiative produced content that presented what the Saudi Arabian government was doing to tackle the climate and was published in The Optimist section of the London Evening Standard.
  • According to the Saudi Green Initiative: “Under the patronage of HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Green Initiative will chart a path for the Kingdom in protecting the planet.”
  • Despite the intentions of this partnership between this initiative and the London Evening Standard, it restarts a conversation around Saudi Arabian involvement within the United Kingdom’s media system. 

This partnership with The Saudi Green Initiative and the London Evening Standard isn’t the first time we have heard of Saudi Arabian involvement within the United Kingdom’s media system. In 2018, a Guardian investigation found that British firms were earning millions of pounds from efforts to improve the image of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. The investigation revealed how the London office of Vice was working on a series of films to promote Saudi Arabia. It also stated that a Saudi Arabian publishing company was donating to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in return for his advice to the country.  

Fast forward to 2019, and it was revealed that Evgeny Lebedev, who owns both the Independent and The London Evening Standard, sold 30% stakes in these news outlets to an offshore company belonging to a Saudi businessman Sultan Mohamed Aduljadayel in 2017 and 2018. The British government accused both news outlets of being part-owned by the Saudi Arabian state and how the gulf state could influence editorial authority over the news outlets. Yet, it was found by Ofcom, the media regulator of the United Kingdom, that the buying of shares of these companies didn’t impact the coverage of the publications.  

Hidden buyer of Evening Standard stake revealed as Saudi investor |  Financial Times
Evgeny Lebedev sold shares of The Independent and the London Evening Standard to a Saudi Arabian businessman in 2017 & 2018. Photo credit: Financial Times

The Saudi Arabian government has a notorious reputation for its human rights abuses, lack of press freedom, and lack of effort towards addressing climate change. Despite The Saudi Green Initiative claiming that the government will be heading towards cleaner energy, the nation still relies on fossil fuels. So much so, it could be argued that the articles and the videos produced by the initiative on the London Evening Standard could be an example of greenwashing and media washing by the regime. In that sense, the partnership and Saudi Arabia’s involvement within the media of the United Kingdom could be a way of shifting negative attitudes of the gulf regime. However, Saudi’s Public Investment Fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also plays a role in why we see so much involvement from this country within the United Kingdom’s press.  

Figures compiled by UK Declassified, an investigative journalism organisation, found that £60 billion was invested into the United Kingdom by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Most of this investment was down to how Saudi Arabia was pressuring the United Kingdom to have a free trade deal post-Brexit. Because of these pressures post-Brexit, the United Kingdom agreed to have a deal with Saudi Arabia, even if it meant they were less likely to be critical of the regime. Despite most of the investment from the Saudi Arabian government being financial, it also transferred into the media seen by the takeovers of The Independent and the London Evening Standard. Critics say that having such financial leverage in the United Kingdom means Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes are less likely to be criticised.

By giving Gulf countries the opportunity to invest in Britain despite their record on human rights, Britain becomes more dependent on these countries and less able to voice a critical opinion on their autocratic rule. Britain does not only sell arms to these countries but also shields them from criticism in international organisations. We all remember how Britain used its position in the UN and supported Saudi Arabia’s application to have a seat at the UN Human Rights Council”

Madawi al Rasheed, a Saudi analyst at LSE

Should we care about Saudi Arabian involvement in the press?

The sight of the partnership involving the Saudi Green Initiative and the London Evening Standard ring alarm bells for the media in the United Kingdom and its readers. Having a foreign government initiative trying to portray themselves as tackling the climate, whilst evidence contradicts such a claim, is a reason to be fearful. Propaganda is a strong word to use at times, but looking at this partnership, one could argue that this word best describes this partnership.

At the same time, we could also be overblowing this partnership and the United Kingdom’s media links with the Saudi Arabian regime. Ofcom came out a few years ago and said that the Independent and the London Evening Standard were not affected in their coverage after the involvement of a Saudi Arabian business owner. Potentially, this signals the end of such a matter. Three companies in the United Kingdom own 83% of the national newspaper market, and 80% of the online readership is owned by five companies based in the same country, showing that maybe there is concern elsewhere and not Saudi Arabia.  

However, the bottom line is that this partnership involving the Saudi Green Initiative and the Evening Standard has restarted a conversation around foreign involvement within the United Kingdom’s press. 

Should we care about this involvement is another question entirely.    

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Hamish Hallett is a journalist/broadcaster part of the scribe team at Common Sense. He has a deep interest in current affairs, both domestically and internationally, which you can see through his written work and his podcast called A Spoonful of News. Hamish loves to understand what makes people tick and get to the root of today's issues. Away from the network, Hamish has a profound interest in reading books, keeping active, travailing, meeting new and exciting people and controversially having ham and pineapple on pizza.

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