Qatari royal invested about $50 million in pro-Trump network Newsmax


A member of the Qatari royal family invested roughly $50 million in Newsmax, according to documents and representatives for the media company and the royal, in a moment of acute Middle East tensions during the Trump administration. The investment bolstered a key conservative media outlet at a time when Qatar was facing intense diplomatic pressure from its neighbors and seeking allies in the United States.

At the time the investment was made, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had established a diplomatic and economic blockade against Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups across the Middle East. Qatar had counted on its relationship with the United States for protection, but President Donald Trump initially sided with its regional rivals, praising their move in 2017 and criticizing Qatar for funding terrorism.

In 2019 and 2020, Sheikh Sultan bin Jassim Al Thani, a former Qatari government official and the owner of a London-based investment fund, Heritage Advisors, invested in Newsmax. The investment has not been previously reported.

Newsmax had been looking for outside investors to better compete with its much larger rival, Fox News, according to people who spoke at the time with its founder and CEO, Christopher Ruddy. Before and after the investment, senior newsroom leaders urged Newsmax staff to soften coverage of Qatar, current and former employees said. A representative for Newsmax strongly disputed that the network “slanted coverage to be favorable to Qatar,” and that Ruddy had told staff not to criticize the country.

Newsmax and Heritage Advisors confirmed the investment after being presented with documents detailing the transaction, which show that Sultan subsequently transferred his stake to a Cayman Islands-based corporate structure. The $50 million investment represents a significant minority stake in Newsmax, a privately held media company estimated to be worth between $100 million and $200 million, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The documents came from a trove of roughly 100,000 leaked files from Genesis Trust, a Cayman Islands-based financial services provider, which were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and reviewed by The Washington Post.

Schillings, a London-based law firm and representative for Heritage, said that Sultan bought the stake because he “saw potential for the investment to be profitable” and had not acted on behalf of the Qatari state.

Among the documents were internal forms prepared by Genesis that proposed the corporate structure would be “set up with the intention of benefiting the State of Qatar.” They depicted Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani, the younger brother of the ruler of Qatar and vice chairman of the country’s sovereign wealth fund (QIA), as the “option beneficiary,” a term for a person who would take control of the structure under certain circumstances. The documents also state the structure’s funds “will be used as directed by Sheikh Mohammed (on behalf of the Emir), most likely for the Qatar state pension fund.”

Sultan and Mohammed are both members of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family, which numbers in the thousands.

Schillings said that the forms were erroneous and that neither Sultan nor anyone from Heritage had seen those documents before The Post and ICIJ reached out for comment. It said that the structure never had an option beneficiary and was not set up with the intention of benefiting Qatar. A spokesperson for the financial services firm Highvern, which acquired Genesis Trust in 2022, said that Sultan has always been the sole owner and beneficiary of the Caymans corporate structure.

Highvern director Roger Priaulx wrote in an affidavit in response to questions from The Post and ICIJ that the error on the forms was made without Sultan’s knowledge and resulted from preliminary estate planning discussions during which Mohammed was considered as the option beneficiary, who could make decisions regarding Heritage’s investments in the event of Sultan’s incapacity or death. The documents summarized these ideas but the plans were never put in place, the affidavit states.

“We operate independently of any government and make investment decisions based exclusively on our goal of creating value,” said a Heritage representative. “Where we invest in media, we have no editorial or management control. Any suggestion that our investments are driven by ulterior motives is simply false.”

Though it was not mentioned by name, Heritage was described in the January federal indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) as having “ties to the Government of Qatar.” The indictment alleges that a Qatari government official associated with the investment firm provided Menendez’s family members with tickets to the Formula One race in Miami. The Post has previously reported that the unnamed firm in the indictment matches the description of Heritage. The firm is not accused of wrongdoing. Schillings did not answer a question about the indictment’s characterization of the firm.

Newsmax had been in conversations in 2017 and 2018 with QIA, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, about buying into the company, according to people familiar with the matter. A Politico report at the time said that Mohammed was the Qatari official overseeing those talks and noted that Ruddy denied that Qatar was going to invest in his company.

Newsmax representatives confirmed that the outlet approached Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund about a potential investment “around 2017,” and the fund ultimately passed.

Representatives for Heritage Advisors and Newsmax stated that Sultan’s 2019 investment was a separate transaction from the earlier talks with the Qatari government.

Other investments by Heritage Advisors in recent years include a Miami-based real estate developer, a professional soccer team in Indiana, and The News Movement, a media entity founded in 2020 to target a Gen Z audience and co-founded by William Lewis, who became publisher of The Post this year.

Ruddy, a longtime media executive with deep ties to Republican politics, has long been a fixture at Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club and spent much of Trump’s presidency positioning himself in close proximity to the former president, according to club members and former Trump aides. In the months following Trump’s 2020 defeat, Newsmax amplified Trump’s false claims that the election had been stolen from him.

Newsmax’s coverage denying Trump’s loss helped briefly lift ratings, so much so that for one night in December 2020, Newsmax bested cable news giant Fox News among the key demographic of 25- to 54-year-old viewers during its 7 p.m. hour. “We’re here to stay,” Ruddy said at the time. “The ratings are showing that.” But Newsmax’s viewership, as measured by Nielsen, a media analytics company, plateaued and then quickly shrank.

Before and after Sultan’s investment, the outlet’s top editorial brass urged staff to soften on-air coverage of Qatar, including by avoiding discussion of the nation’s human rights record and treatment of migrant labor ahead of it hosting the World Cup in 2022, according to two Newsmax employees at the time who witnessed the exchanges and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the Newsmax CEO.

“We were not allowed to criticize Qatar,” one of these people said. “We were told very clearly from the top down, no touching this.” Ruddy verbally reprimanded a host in 2018 for her on-air comments about Qatar, according to two other people who saw the exchange.

A Newsmax representative, Bill Daddi, said that Newsmax has published “numerous critical items about Qatar” and largely tracks with major wire and news outlet reports. He pointed to several examples on Newsmax.com, including an interview with a former Israeli ambassador who attacked Qatar for having ties with Iran and Hamas. He also provided examples on Newsmax’s TV channel since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which the outlet’s hosts and guests frequently condemned Qatar for funding Hamas and allowing the movement’s leaders to reside in the country, among other things.

Ruddy “categorically denies he told any host to not criticize Qatar,” Daddi added. “While he is involved in coverage from a general perspective, Mr. Ruddy never tells hosts or correspondents what to say on air.”

In early 2018, a lawyer working on behalf of Newsmax to raise money, Christopher Nixon Cox, described a potential Qatari investment as a way to improve the emirate’s standing in Washington. Joey Allaham, a businessman and lobbyist working on the investment for Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and Mohammed, shared with ICIJ and The Post WhatsApp messages between himself and Cox, and said that he introduced Ruddy and the Qatari officials but was eventually frozen out. Allaham said he was not informed of the subsequent deal involving Sultan.

Cox wrote an opinion article for Newsmax — the publication of which was approved by Ruddy, Cox told Allaham — praising Qatar’s cooperation with the United States in fighting terrorism. That article “will help me make the case” to the Qataris, Allaham wrote Cox.

“Newsmax deal is incredible for Qs,” Cox wrote to Allaham roughly two weeks after the article appeared online. “Literally is a game changer.”

When asked about his WhatsApp messages, Cox did not directly address them but he told The Post that he had approached the Qatari sovereign wealth fund “approximately six years ago” about an investment in Newsmax, and that “they decided not to invest.” He added that “Newsmax has proven itself a great company and investment and worthy of any major fund’s investment.”

Allaham also showed The Post and ICIJ his WhatsApp messages with Ruddy. The two met at a steakhouse in Florida, where Allaham says they discussed a potential Qatari investment.

“That was the deal Chris [Ruddy] wanted to make: By not criticizing, we’ll be positive,” Allaham said. “That was the whole plan.”

For much of Trump’s time in office, Ruddy was a rare on-the-record source for journalists about the president’s views. In doing so, he became a recognizable Trump “insider” even though some people close to the former president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations, said that Ruddy’s influence with Trump was always more of an illusion cultivated by the Newsmax CEO than a reality.

Nevertheless, Ruddy’s relationship with Trump was a major selling point as his representatives attempted to secure a large investment from Qatar. A short biography of Ruddy sent by Cox to Allaham in advance of a dinner with the Qatari defense minister in January 2018 describes Ruddy as “one of President Trump’s best friends and the President’s most trusted private advisor,” and goes on to say that Ruddy “maintain[s] walk in privileges at the Oval Office and he privately dines with the President several times a month.”

Former Trump aides say that the characterization of Ruddy as Trump’s “most trusted private advisor” is false, and that while the two men see each other frequently at Mar-a-Lago, Trump is well-known for having highly transactional relationships outside his immediate family rather than close friendships.

The Washington charm offensive

For Qatar, then isolated by the Saudi-UAE blockade, gaining access to those close to Trump represented a key priority. “The Qataris were saying, ‘Of course we have to work on both sides of the aisle, but we have to particularly win over the conservatives and the far right, because these are the guys who are calling the shots,’” said Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at King’s College London who studies Qatari security policy.

Qatar launched an expensive and wide-ranging effort to convince the Trump administration of its value as a regional partner. It paid for a $1.8 billion expansion of Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East, and signed a $12 billion deal with U.S. defense contractor Boeing to buy F-15 fighter jets. Qatar’s emir visited Washington in April 2018 and July 2019, where he met with Trump and signed billions of dollars in business deals.

“They are investing very heavily in our country,” Trump said of Qatar during the 2019 White House meeting. “They’re creating lots of jobs.”

Qatar routinely touts its tens of billions of dollars in investments in American businesses, which serve to both diversify its economy and bolster its stature and influence in the U.S. capital. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, for example, has made major investments in U.S. real estate and bought a 5 percent stake last year in the company that owns Washington’s professional basketball and ice hockey teams.

According to a report released on Jan. 4 by House Democrats, the Qatari government paid over $460,000 during Trump’s presidency to Trump World Tower in New York City for properties it owned, and in 2018 members of Qatar’s ruling family spent more than $280,000 at Washington, D.C.’s Trump International Hotel. In August 2018, a firm that had received significant financial backing from Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund also bailed out a company controlled by the family of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, on a troubled Manhattan real estate investment.

Trump’s company has said it did not market properties to foreign governments during Trump’s time in the White House and that it donated profits from foreign leaders to the Treasury Department. The company that took over Kushner’s building, Brookfield Asset Management, has said that Qatar had no involvement in that transaction.

Even after Trump had backed away from his earlier criticisms, Qatar remained anxious about its standing within the administration, according to former U.S. officials and those close to the emirate.

“They were under enormous pressure,” said David Schenker, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the Trump administration. Schenker pointed to mobile truck billboards commissioned by Qatar in Washington and New York as part of its influence campaign. “I think that highlights some of their insecurity.”

A person familiar with Qatar’s strategy at the time said that it wanted to cultivate a sympathetic conservative outlet in the United States and considered Fox News too close to Saudi Arabia, as a Saudi prince previously held a 6 percent stake in the outlet’s parent company. This person said they were told by a Qatari official that the emirate “wanted to push every lever they had to establish better relations in Washington.”

Qatar is also the primary funder of Al Jazeera, one of the most influential media networks in the Arab world. In February 2021, following Sultan’s investment in Newsmax, Al Jazeera launched a right-leaning outlet called “Rightly,” which was meant to attract American conservative viewers. The outlet ended operations in December 2021.

Sultan’s investment in Newsmax was not listed on Heritage Advisors’ website. A representative for Heritage said that the firm’s website only lists roughly one-third of its investments.

Heritage Advisors’ investments include the News Movement, a digital media platform aimed at Gen Z audiences that Lewis co-founded. The firm’s website listed its investment in the News Movement as recently as January, but it was subsequently removed from the site. A spokesperson for the News Movement said it is a “founder-owned business” and that the “several outside minority investors that have provided additional funding” since its founding in 2020 “are passive with no operational or editorial involvement.”

In a statement, Kathy Baird, a spokesperson for The Post, said, “When William Lewis joined The Washington Post, he stepped down from his role as CEO and Publisher of The News Movement and has no operational involvement. He remains a proud shareholder.” Neither the News Movement nor Baird responded to other questions about the Heritage investment.

Sultan reaped economic benefits from holding the investment in the Cayman Islands, one of the world’s most prominent offshore havens. The Caribbean nation does not impose taxes on corporations — a key reason that more than 100,000 companies have established operations there. The country also has extensive corporate secrecy laws, and does not publish information on the ownership of corporate entities.

“If you have a network of companies that pass through the Caymans, it is a bit like drawing a veil over the ownership,” said Graham Barrow, a former banker who has worked as a consultant for several NGOs to advocate for policies that combat money laundering.

The leaked documents show that Heritage Advisors employees began preparations to transfer the Newsmax stake into the Cayman Islands corporate structure on Nov. 10, 2020, one week after Trump’s election loss.

Representatives for Heritage Advisors said there was no attempt to conceal the investment. They said the transfer was done for convenience following the establishment of the London-based firm, and was a common practice for entities investing in the United States.

The Saudi-UAE blockade of Qatar fizzled out just as Trump was leaving the White House — and while Sultan was in the process of putting his stake in Newsmax in the Cayman Islands.

Three years since he left office, Trump has continued to praise Newsmax. “You’re really going up like a rocket ship,” he said during an interview on the channel in May. “And that’s a fantastic thing for a conservative movement.”

David Kenner is a reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Josh Dawsey contributed to this report. The Post and ICIJ collaborated on this report.



Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *