A Saudi investor has taken a significant stake in the Independent, potentially pumping millions of pounds into the liberal news website but may spark a controversy about the human rights record of the Middle Eastern country.
Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel has taken a stake of between 25% and 50% in Independent Digital News and Media, the holding company of the Independent, according to filings at Companies House.
Abuljadayel is listed as being 42 and based in Saudi by the filing. He appears to have no other business interests in the UK.
It is not clear if Abuljadayel has bought the stake from another shareholder or if the holding company issued new shares to him, a move that would dilute the shareholdings of all other investors. Either way, Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Indpdendent’s parent company, ESI Media, has seen his shareholding fall below 50%. Justin Byam Shaw, the chair of ESI, also retains a significant stake.
The deal, which was first report by Middle East Eye, could value the Independent at more than £100m.
The Saudi investment is likely to cause concern among staff at the Independent given the publication’s liberal stance and the Middle Eastern country’s record on freedom of speech. Saudi Arabia is one of several Middle Eastern countries that has demanded the closure of broadcaster Al-Jazeera in return for lifting a blockade of Qatar. The Independent has written a number of articles questioning Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.
Lebedev announced in February 2016 that the Independent and Independent on Sunday would cease printing as newspapers and go online only. He told staff at the time that the move “preserves the Independent brand and allows us to continue to invest in the high quality editorial content that is attracting more and more readers to our online platforms”.
Since then, the Independent has reported a surge in online traffic, in the UK and US, and it now has about 100m unique users a month. The latest financial results for Independent Digital News and Media show it record a £1.7m pre-tax profit in the year to 2 October 2016, up from £1.3m the previous year. Revenue almost doubled from £8.2m to £14.3m. The Independent’s digital operation employed an average of 49 people last year and ran up a wage bill of £5.5m, including directors.
A spokesman for the Independent said: “The editorial independence of the Independent has been formally protected by a new agreement between the shareholders.”
The spokesman said that bringing on board a new shareholder would allow the business to continue to grow: “To secure further strategic growth for the Independent, Independent Digital News and Media Ltd has expanded its investor base to include a minority shareholding by Sultan Abuljadayel. The new investment and the guarantee of editorial independence will allow the Independent to flourish into the future.”
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