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Saudi Arabia finances new digital news platform in the US and starts lobbying in the White House

Saudi Arabia is funding an unannounced digital news platform that will open a studio in Washington, D.C. as the kingdom begins new lobbying for the White House and Congress.

The new efforts, which have yet to be reported, are being supported by a subsidiary of Saudi Technology Development and Investment Co. or Taqnia, according to new foreign lobbying disclosures filed with the Justice Department.

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

The creation of a "news platform", which one of the documents referred to as the "news platform", comes as the kingdom begins hiring a new team of lobbyists as the Saudis seek access to President Joe Biden's administration and the new Congress.

It also arrives nearly three years after the death of Washington Post journalist and Saudi royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi. According to a recent US intelligence report, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.

However, Biden chose not to punish the crown prince for his alleged role in Khashoggi's death.

"We have called all the people in this organization to account – but not the Crown Prince, because, as I know when we have an alliance with a country, we have never gone to the incumbent head of state and this person has punished and ostracized him", Biden said in a recent interview with ABC News.

Behind the initiative is the subsidiary Taqnia ETS, a company that focuses on engineering and technology services for Saudi Arabia.

According to PitchBook, Taqnia is based in Saudi Arabia, which "prefers to invest in the life sciences and health, security and defense, information and communication technology, materials science, energy and environment, and water technology sectors."

According to Taqnia's website, it is owned by the kingdom's $ 400 billion Public Investment Fund [PIF], the country's massive sovereign wealth fund designed to invest in projects and boost Saudi Arabia's economy. The lobbying disclosure report states that Taqnia ETS "is monitored and funded by the Saudi Ministry of Information".

Members of the royal family such as the Crown Prince belong to the board of the PIF.

The lobbying documents provide a glimpse into the upcoming Saudi Arabia-led news company.

One of the lobbying revelations shows that a company called Prime Time Media is helping direct the effort. Prime Time Media's CEO, Elie Nakouzi, supports the establishment of the new digital news organization. His company will receive at least $ 1.6 million, as the document shows, to run the project.

The order contained in the lobbying disclosure describes the work done by Prime Time Media as "English content for news platforms". More than $ 75,000 has been spent on equipment, freelancers, and a studio in Washington, D.C. issued, it says in the documents.

The lobbying filings were signed by Nakouzi last month and the order attached to the disclosure is from September 2020. The order form is marked with the Taqnia ETS logo.

One of the documents in which Nakouzi is listed says that Prime Time Media "will assist the customer in the video production of English news content. The registrant will not participate in the distribution of this news content."

Nakouzi, who is disclosed to be a Lebanese citizen but resides in the United States, has extensive media experience in the Middle East. While working for an Arab television station, Nakouzi interviewed then President George W. Bush during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nakouzi emailed CNBC to confirm several aspects of Taqnia's project, including the fact that it will be a new online platform and that a studio has been created. He declined to comment on the news content on the upcoming website and referred any questions to Taqnia, who did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

"Taqnia plans to launch an international online platform later this year," Nakouzi said in an email on Tuesday. “As for the studio, we've built a fully featured virtual green space for future use,” he added, noting that it will be based in Washington.

“Prime Time Media is not authorized to speak on their behalf. We are a video production company and we do not offer lobbying or PR services, ”said Nakouzi.

Eric Ham and Craig Boswell, two US-based journalists, will host online shows for the Saudi Arabia-funded company. Both Ham and Boswell have so far received $ 6,000 each for what is described as authors and moderators in the disclosure reports.

"Mr. Eric Ham and Mr. Craig Boswell will host online shows that are still in production," Nakouzi said in the email.

Boswell and Ham did not return requests for comment prior to publication.

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