Almost one year to the day after prominent U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi Arabian government, sparking denunciations from countless media organizations, an American magazine hosted a private Saudi yachting trip for high rollers.
According to multiple sources, the ultra-luxury publication Robb Report hosted the private trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this month for big-name executives. Invitations to the event, to which some executives traveled by private jet, were sent out to top figures in the media and advertising business this summer.
The Robb Report is a joint venture between Rockbridge Growth Equity and Penske Media Corporation (PMC), which owns entertainment heavy-hitters like Variety, Rolling Stone, and Deadline. Penske declined to comment, but a source familiar with the event told The Daily Beast that it was at a yachting event called Red Sea Week. The four-day party and conference brought together some of the largest yachts in the world, during a time when many luxury yachts are based in the Mediterranean Sea.
A second source described it as “one of the greatest concentrations of wealth ever in one place”—with the well-heeled feted by a Michelin-starred chef and Grammy-winning musicians. “Blue chip” advertisers sponsored the event, the source added, without further elaboration.
Red Sea Week comes as at a time when Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a major initiative to boost luxury tourism to Saudi-owned islands located between the Arabian Peninsula and the African continent.
The trip is the latest of business entanglements between Penske and the Saudi kingdom. Last year, PMC announced it had received $200 million in direct backing from the Saudis, later revealed to be a part of an investment from Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a Riyadh-based media and publishing company.
Over the past several years, Saudi Arabia has attempted to gain a greater foothold in the American media and entertainment landscape, with mixed results.
While there was an initial burst of interest in Saudi investments coinciding with the crown prince's visit to Hollywood last year, the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who’d emerged as a major critic of the Saudi government, alienated a number of American media and entertainment companies interested in cash from the Middle Eastern powerhouse.
Following Khashoggi’s death, media outlets including CNN, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times quickly canceled appearances at Saudi-sponsored events. Mega talent agency Endeavor was forced to back out of a $400 million investment by the Saudi fund. Khashoggi’s murder also reportedly led Vice to review its contract with SRMG, which included agreements to create promotional documentaries about Saudi Arabia.
The Red Sea Project itself has come under pressure following Khashoggi’s murder. Several major names associated with the project, including Richard Branson and AOL founder Steve Case, both pulled their support from the project following the Washington Post journalist’s death.
And while the Saudi investment has reinforced Penske Media while so many of its rivals struggle, the company has occasionally found itself in an uncomfortable position because of its close ties to the country’s wealth fund.
Last year, Penske was one of the only American media companies that did not comment on or review its investments following Khashoggi’s assassination, prompting criticism from peers in the business. While some employees privately raised concerns—and several PMC brands wrote critically about the journalist’s murder and its aftermath—the company has remained silent on the entire ordeal.
PMC’s namesake founder Jay Penske has remained one of the highest-profile figures in American media with ties to the Saudi regime. Following Khashoggi’s death, Penske attended a Formula E race in Riyadh.
Still, the media and entertainment backlash to Khashoggi’s murder has not quelled the Saudi kingdom’s desire to invest in American media. And in recent months, some interest has begun to percolate again. The Hollywood Reporter reported that independent movie studio STX was in negotiations for a potential investment from the Saudi fund earlier this summer, representing the company’s first major foray into Hollywood since Khashoggi’s murder.
—with additional reporting by Erin Banco.
UPDATED: This story has been updated throughout, including to clarify the role of the Robb Report in hosting the event.