WASHINGTON — It landed with a thud on newsstands at Walmart and rural supermarkets last month: Ninety-seven fawning pages saluting Saudi Arabia, whose ambitious crown prince was soon to arrive in the U.S. on a PR blitz to transform his country's image.
As questions swirled about the glossy magazine's origins, the Saudis said they were just as perplexed as everyone else, declaring on Twitter: "If you find out, we'd love to know."
But files obtained by The Associated Press show that a digital copy of the magazine, produced by American Media Inc., was quietly shared with officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington almost three weeks before its publication.
How the early copy made it to the Saudis is unclear. Yet the revelation adds another mysterious twist to a murky tale playing out against the backdrop of bids by both President Donald Trump and David Pecker, the tabloid publisher who supports him, to build goodwill with the Saudi kingdom's leaders.
The worlds of Trump, the Saudis and AMI have overlapped before, often in dizzying ways. The Trump administration has aggressively courted the Saudis and found a willing partner on a range of issues, including Iran, counterterrorism and Middle East peace, in the kingdom's royal family. And AMI's flagship publication, The National Enquirer, has been accused by critics of acting as a keeper of secrets for Trump.
AMI denies that it shared an advance copy of "The New Kingdom" with the Saudis or consulted with them on the project, and AMI says the Saudis did not pay the company to produce the magazine. But an individual with knowledge of the situation said AMI indeed reached out to Saudi officials in the U.S. before publication to seek help with the content. The Saudis never responded, said the individual, who wasn't authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.
Merely sharing an advance copy with the Saudis, while a deviation from traditional journalistic practice, is not legally problematic for AMI. But the unusual circumstances and continuing mystery of the magazine's origins have led legal experts to point out a separate issue in federal lobbying law: If the Saudis or any other foreign government did direct or pay any company to produce such a magazine, that company would be required to register with the government under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.
There is no evidence any such direction, in this case, occurred.
Why would American Media, best-known for publishing salacious stories of sex and scandal, sink money into printing 200,000 copies of a magazine with a grinning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman splashed across the cover?
The crown prince is no household name in the U.S., especially in states like Nebraska where the magazine showed up. And at $13.99 a copy and with no advertisements, the publication seems unlikely to be a money-maker.
Prince Mohammed has won praise in the West for trying to modernize Saudi Arabia and improve some rights for women, but the magazine omits any criticism on such core issues as his hard-hitting tactics, Saudi Arabia's restrictive political system and the country's bloody intervention in Yemen's civil war and strong-handed tactics toward Lebanon.
AMI spokesman Jon Hammond said he expected the magazine to turn a profit by selling 60,000 copies, comparing it to other AMI special editions on the Olympics, the Kennedys and Elvis Presley — topics that, unlike the Saudi crown prince, are of obvious widespread interest to tabloid readers in the U.S.
"Absolutely not," Hammond responded when asked by the AP if American Media had collaborated with the Saudis on the magazine or been paid by them.
Saud Kabli, the Saudi Embassy's communications director, said the embassy had "no role in the production of the magazine."
"We don't have a problem with the magazine, but we just don't think it is effective," Kabli said.
Metadata embedded in the PDF file, obtained by the AP from two different individuals, show it was produced by an AMI production employee at 8:41 p.m. on Feb. 19. Shortly thereafter, it started circulating internally among Saudi officials, including the embassy's military office, according to individuals familiar with the situation. It was also passed to Nail al-Jubeir, the former embassy spokesman and brother of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, recently named Saudi ambassador to Ireland, the individuals said.
By the next day — Feb. 20 — Saudi officials had started forwarding it to Washington foreign policy contacts, giving them an early look, said the individuals, who weren't authorized to discuss the situation and requested anonymity.
A month later, on March 19, Prince Mohammed arrived in the U.S., with the magazine serving as his literary red carpet.
"Meet the next king," the cover exclaimed, describing the crown prince as "our closest Middle East ally destroying terrorism" and the visionary behind a "city of the future" which "will be operated by robots."
The magazine draws heavily from newswire photos and stock images — many with no connection to Saudi Arabia, according to Tineye, a reverse-image search tool. Among the supposed Saudi Arabian highlights pictured are sand-dune surfing in Namibia, a massive indoor greenhouse in the Netherlands and wildlife pictures taken in Zambia and Israel.
"There are lots of things that warrant answers," political law attorney Josh Rosenstein said about the pro-Saudi magazine.
As Saudi Arabia starts to open up to Western entertainment, American Media has sought to expand its media empire into the kingdom — the kind of lucrative opportunity that often comes with the blessing of the Saudi royal court. Last summer, Pecker dined at the White House with Trump and a French businessman with close business ties to the Saudis, and later traveled to Riyadh to pitch Saudi investors on helping AMI acquire Time magazine, The New York Times reported. AMI denied making such an ask.
Trump's son-in-law and senior aide, Jared Kushner, has also tried to enlist Prince Mohammed's help with his ambitious Mideast peace initiative. Kushner paid an unannounced visit early in the administration to Saudi Arabia, which also was Trump's first overseas destination as president.
Kushner's family real estate firm, The Kushner Cos., once sought money from a Saudi investor to buy out its partner in a Manhattan skyscraper that had been losing money for years.
Pecker is close to Trump and his struggling tabloid empire also has ties to the president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Following an FBI raid on Cohen's office this month, investigators are believed to be examining whether The National Enquirer was involved with Trump's campaign.
The Enquirer endorsed Trump's quest for the presidency. During the 2016 race, the tabloid paid a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump $150,000 to keep silent about the relationship. Last week, the company agreed to let the model, Karen McDougal, out of that contract.
The AP has also reported that AMI had made a $30,000 payment eight months earlier to a former doorman at a Trump building who had a juicy tip about him, requiring the doorman to sign a contract that effectively prevented him from going public. AMI said it paid the doorman not for his silence, but for exclusive rights to the story, which AMI never published because it said the story could not be authenticated.
Associated Press writer Chad Day contributed to this report.
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