Image: G20 Press Office/AP

Here’s a fun scene for you to think about, reported by the Wall Street Journal this morning:

One sunny afternoon in August on a yacht off the Red Sea coast, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Vice Media Executive Chairman Shane Smith discussed an unlikely collaboration.

Just two extraordinarily wealthy dudes hanging out on a yacht. No big deal! Beardy rich people hang out together all the time. But what could they be up to? What could this “unlikely collaboration” be? According to the Journal:

Prince Mohammed was advancing a Saudi strategy evident in the earlier joint ventures: Build an international media empire to combat the kingdom’s rivals and remake its image in the West, according to bankers, consultants and people with knowledge of the Saudi effort.

“In their view, the problem is that they haven’t been telling their own story up to now, and they’d like to start,” said Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Damn. What a noble and worthy cause! Helping the Saudi regime “tell its own story.” Unfortunately for Smith’s clearly philanthropic goals in this venture, the deal with the Saudis hit a nasty little speedbump when the regime kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in November. Shucks! Per the paper:

The talks with Vice about a business partnership are unlikely to move forward, according to the people familiar with the discussions. Vice said it was reviewing its deal with government-controlled Saudi Research and Marketing Group, or SRMG, to produce documentaries about Saudi society.

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Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to recently transcribed conversations reported by the New York Times, was already thinking about Khashoggi’s murder around the time he hung out with Smith on the yacht, telling an aide that he would “use a bullet” on Khashoggi.

Per the Times’ reporting on Thursday:

In the conversation, Prince Mohammed said that if Mr. Khashoggi could not be enticed back to Saudi Arabia, then he should be returned by force. If neither of those methods worked, the crown prince said, then he would go after Mr. Khashoggi “with a bullet,” according to the officials familiar with one of the intelligence reports, which was produced in early December.

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According to the Journal, MBS’s little brother, a fan of Vice’s hip, edgy style, set up the yacht meeting with Smith:

The Saudi connection with Vice came in 2017 through Prince Mohammed’s younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and a fan of Vice’s provocative approach to news, according to people familiar with the discussions.

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Prince Khalid initiated his brother’s meeting on the yacht last year, believing Vice, in partnership with SRMG, could speak to young Saudis more attracted to online platforms like YouTube than the satellite channels their parents watch, said one of the people familiar with the talks.

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Fortunately, the Saudis have had plenty of success with other American media brands, like the Trump-friendly American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer and now a Saudi propaganda magazine as well. At least the weather was nice for Smith and MBS’s little cruise!