A nearly 100-page magazine published by Donald Trump’s allies at American Media Inc. is providing a different kind of celebrity gossip than the American supermarket shopper is used to seeing. It’s selling America on a fellow Trump ally, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
MBS, as the millennial victor of last year’s Saudi palace power struggle is known, is currently on an overseas tour to cement his legitimacy. Its current stop is the United States, where MBS met last week with Trump ahead of checking the young-king-in-waiting PR boxes of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
Greeting Americans on newsstands is a high-quality glossy advertisement for MBS, The New Kingdom. It retails for $13.99, has no ads and its 200,000 copies can be found in venues ranging from U.S. airports to WalMart, Safeway and Kroger’s—raising questions about the magazine’s financing and its origins. The Saudis say they don’t know how it came to be. AMI, which publishes The National Enquirer, insists it had no outside editorial or financial assistance, from the Trump administration or otherwise.
The New Kingdom doesn’t feature any salacious gossip about MBS, but its coverage is just as breathless. “Our Closest Middle East Ally Destroying Terrorism,” the cover coos, sidestepping decades of Saudi Arabian financial support for terrorist groups and ideologues. It Disneyfies Saudi Arabia as “the Magic Kingdom.” It’s easily the most uncritical encomium to MBS since Thomas Friedman.
In terms practically designed to appeal to Trump and his admirers, the cover lines marvel at the 32-year old “next king” who’s “Controlling Staggering $4 Trillion Business Empire” and building a “$640 Billion Sci-Fi City of the Future.” Inside is an ode to his “luxurious lifestyle,” reported $3 billion personal wealth and ownership of a 54,000-square foot palace near Versailles. MBS’ goal for his subjects is described as “spreading happiness.”
The centerpiece is a lengthy advertorial for MBS’ “Saudi Vision 2030” initiative — a huge part of which appears to be rebranding the kingdom under MBS. Not since the establishment of Saudi Arabia has the kingdom gone “through such a radical transformation,” whose economic “diversification isn’t just about protecting the rich elite,” the magazine assures. Under MBS, Saudi seeks to become “a global investment powerhouse” and a tech hub. Seven pages go to promoting MBS pet project NEOM, a $640 billion planned “utopian city the likes of which the world has never seen,” ostensibly heavy on networked devices, with a cooler temperature than the rest of Saudi Arabia – literally and metaphorically. With the exception of a ban on alcohol, NOEM, the article insists, will have “a more benign attitude toward what is acceptable and what is not in terms of dress and behavior.”
All this includes emphasizing, as MBS often does, “New Rights for Saudi Women,” such as the ability to drive and attend coed Yanni performances. Behind the heavily promoted gender liberalization program is “of course: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
Unmentioned in The New Kingdom is Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship, a literal patriarchal tool that requires male relatives to provide women “permission,” Human Rights Watch pointed out, for everything from obtaining an apartment, filing legal claims, obtaining a passport, being released from prison and, in some cases, “to work or access healthcare.” (Or, as The New Kingdom puts it, women “have traditionally taken a back seat to men.”)
Other things not mentioned in the magazine: Saudi Arabia’s massive number of executions, which are conducted by stoning and even Islamic State-like public beheadings. You can see a gorgeous pictorial spread of desert-striding oryx and an adorable hamadryas baboon (“With national protection, many of the land’s majestic, formerly troubled species are thriving once again,” we learn) but read nothing about the three-year-old war Saudi Arabia is conducting in Yemen, under Defense Minister MBS, that has led the United Nations to warn of a widespread famine. The typically unbylined articles refer to MBS’ “sweeping crackdown on corruption resulting in the arrest of some of the country’s most powerful figures” but neglect the part where they had to sign over shares in their companies, their properties and even cash to get out of their gilded hotel-prison. (Even as an article boasts that MBS is “said to control almost all of the kingdom’s wealth.”)
But if the magazine sidles past the less comfortable aspects of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism and human rights records, it is firmly comfortable exalting the partnership between MBS and Donald Trump.
There are five pictures of Trump – including one of MBS shaking the president’s hand, placed adjacent to one of a beaming MBS greeting Vladimir Putin. Only cover boy MBS, with eleven, has more photos. Here is Trump triumphant in his May visit to Riyadh. Here is Trump, flanked by wife Melania and octogenarian King Salman. Here is Trump in that orb photo. MBS is quoted describing Trump as “a president who will bring America back on the right track.”
For good measure, MBS also appears photographed beside Bill Gates, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe and a giggly U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He’s a world leader “poised to spread modernism throughout his kingdom,” the copy reads. An article with no byline hails his “ambitious and unprecedented plan to bring economic, social and religious change to the traditionally conservative country.” It treats MBS’ ascendance to the throne – something secured through what the Guardian called a “slow-motion coup” – as a fait accompli, writing that “senior sources in Saudi [are] expecting him to assume the throne within the year.”
“We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era – that age is over,” MBS promises on the inside cover. That quote, functionally an epigram for the magazine, is an ambiguous reference to two seismic regional developments in 1979.
In November of 1979, Islamist militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, an act that challenged the legitimacy of the House of Saud. With French and Pakistani aid, the ruling family recovered the mosque and then accommodated Wahhabist fundamentalism at home and exported it abroad – most immediately, in support of the insurgency against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The second critical development in 1979 is the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s principal enemy and, alongside oil, the adhesive of the U.S.-Saudi alliance for the last four decades.
The impression left with a reader is that MBS is unwilling to tolerate either. The New Kingdom cites an interview with the Guardian, conducted by its aggressive Mideast correspondent Martin Chulov, where MBS pledges: “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
Most of the articles are unbylined. The exception is a piece attributed to Kacy Grine, a financial adviser to one of the world’s richest men, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whom MBS imprisoned in the Ritz-Carlton for 83 days. Accompanying it is a photo of Grine standing to the right of a beaming President Trump inside the Oval Office. Grine wants you to think of Saudi Arabia not as Diet ISIS, but as a capitalist powerhouse for the 21st century.
Grine encourages you to think of Saudi Arabia “by picturing a start-up.” In a short, buzzword-filled article with the flavor of an investor prospectus, Grine pitches a Saudi-centered “United Arabic Market,” phasing out a reliance on oil exports (“data is the new oil” “Now it’s time for a new deal – with content providers and based on data”) and essentially expanding the House of Saud’s holdings into economic sway over a billion Arabs. And not just them. Grine explicitly urges Saudi Arabia to “acquire strategic stakes in U.S. tech, media, sports and entertainment companies.”
A common market is usually the sort of thing that disgusts Trump’s nationalist base, but Grine doesn’t reckon with that. “The new Saudi-led United Arabic Market could be positioned between China and Europe,” he enthuses instead, “offering an open market (Europe-like) with monopolistic positions through a robust architecture without a constraining antitrust regulation (China-like).”
With similar euphemism, Grine assures readers that Saudi Arabia isn’t hung up on the whole Israel thing. Seven decades of “missed opportunities” for “the Palestinian cause” can be mitigated by a unified market that “could build economic relations with Israel and form a new Palestinian generation willing to create a brighter and more sustainable future for Palestine.” Left unaddressed is the central question of Palestinian political independence from under Israeli occupation, a question whose urgency is compounded now that at least one Israeli Army survey has found more Arabs than Jews live in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. That elision mirrors the one widely expected to feature in the as-yet-unveiled “peace plan” authored by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and the American version of MBS.
The magazine features no advertisements and comes with a hefty cover price, with a display notice lasting until early June, long after MBS’ American visit ends in April. The Saudis denied playing any role in financing the publication, and view it as something of a surprise.
“Neither the Embassy nor any other part of the Saudi Government commissioned this, and we don't know who did,” said Embassy spokeswoman Fatimah Baeshen.
A State Department spokesperson was “unaware of any involvement on State’s part” in the production of the magazine and referred The Daily Beast to the White House, which did not respond to repeated inquiries. Neither did the Trump Organization.
AMI, for its part, insisted it had no outside help for the publication. A spokesperson compared its decision to publish the fawning magazine to special issues it devoted to “The Royals, Elvis, The Kennedys, The Olympics, etc,” all of which are vastly better known to American audiences than a 32-year-old Saudi royal.
“Publishing this Special Interest Publication was a business decision made by AMI. AMI timed this special issue to coincide and capitalize on the news coverage surrounding the Crown Prince's arrival and reports that he would meet with President Trump and visit U.S. Executives,” a statement provided to The Daily Beast read, even though MBS’ U.S. tour has hardly generated blanket coverage, with the notable exception of a 60 Minutes interview. Plus, the magazine isn’t just about MBS. Substantial chunks of it is about Saudi Arabia itself – its history, its topography, its horse racing and falcon breeding, its cities, and its cuisine.
“No one, outside of American Media Inc., its business executives and its editorial staff, had any influence on this publication or its content,” an AMI spokesperson told The Daily Beast.