Saudis’ New Clothes: Can PR Sell Mohammed Bin Salman to the West?

Published March 8th, 2018 - 12:09 GMT
Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince and the kingdom’s new power-broker comes to visit, he is being feted by journalists, businesses and diplomats as the bringer of a new age. (Al Bawaba/Rami Khoury)
Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince and the kingdom’s new power-broker comes to visit, he is being feted by journalists, businesses and diplomats as the bringer of a new age. (Al Bawaba/Rami Khoury)
  • The public heralding of Mohammed Bin Salman’s U.K. visit is unprecedented
  • But a series of PR firms, working closely to the British and Saudi governments, are trying to sell the Prince’s reformist image
  • Whitehall implies we have no choice but to welcome him and is discouraging protests against the war in Yemen

There was a time when Britain was deeply uncomfortable about its close links and extensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia. State visits happened, and protests came with them. But it was a topic officials discussed with painful awkwardness.

Saudi Arabia was treated like an embarrassing relative, who had to be humored and taken to parties so as not to risk the inheritance, but who we all prayed would sit in the corner and not talk to anyone.

How times have changed. Gone are mumbled excuses about needing to maintain our strategic alliances in the Middle East. As Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince and the kingdom’s new power-broker comes to visit, he is being feted by journalists, businesses and diplomats as the bringer of a new age.

The really astonishing change is in the visibility of it all. The last time there were this many posters and advertisements celebrating a royal figure was probably Prince William’s wedding.

One spate of advertisements came from a company called AEI Saudi, which had advertisements in the free Evening Standard newspaper, on buildings, and on billboards. The adverts feature Prince Mohammed’s portrait and the slogan “He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia”. AEI Saudi is a “market-entry consultancy” that facilitates new businesses wanting to set up in Saudi Arabia.

There were also vans with “#Welcome Saudi Crown Prince” slogans driving around Whitehall, with a corresponding Twitter account. It is uncertain who paid for these ones, although they have attracted rather more derision than serious messages of welcome.

UK’s PR Campaign for Bin Salman

A poster of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. ‘This is the man behind the rolling blockade of Yemen’s rebel-held ports, preventing the supply of essential food, medicine and fuel to Yemeni civilians.’ Photograph: Ibrahim Chalhoub/AFP/Getty Images

However, there are many more troubling manifestations of pro-Saudi public relations efforts in Britain than some awkward pictures on vans. Yesterday, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism published an expose revealing that a senior Foreign Office diplomat, currently on special private-sector leave, was working for the communications company Consulum, which has accounts with the Saudi government to promote a number of Prince Mohammed’s projects. The scope of Consulum’s work for Prince Mohammed is unclear, though one of its projects is promoting the Prince’s charitable foundation that fosters Saudi entrepreneurship.

This is not to rail against Saudi liberalization or the fund itself – there is no reason why the Prince should not support Saudi entrepreneurship, or employ a communications company to promote the fund. But the fact that a senior diplomat, who is still a Foreign Office employee, is working on symbolic communications projects designed to freshen Saudi Arabia’s global image looks a lot like a conflict of interest.

It recalls the Mail on Sunday’s expose of the UAE’s intensive lobbying of politicians and journalists to launder its image. While there were clear violations of journalistic independence and political integrity in the UAE case, it is also often difficult to draw boundaries of practice in the murky world of political PR. And this murkiness is something Saudi Arabia is now using to its advantage.

Dr Andreas Krieg, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Department of Defence Studies at Kings College London, told Al Bawaba:

I think we have seen a massive effort by Saudi Arabia over the past year to alter its image in the world. Saudi has emulated the Emirati strategy of information warfare to implant narratives within public debates and with political elite discourse. Wary of their terrible image in the Western world and in dire need for financial investments in a troubled economy, the kingdom has spent extensively in Europe and the United States to appear as a liberal and tolerant country with whom it is easy to do business.”


Unwavering Support

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman arrived in the UK on Tuesday evening and was received by UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. (SPA)

What is also striking on this state visit is the very public appeal by British diplomats not to upset Prince Mohammed. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote in an opinion piece for The Times that “…the Crown Prince… has demonstrated by word and deed that he aims to guide Saudi Arabia in a more open direction”, and that this visit will “turn a new page” in British-Saudi relations.

Former Secretary of Defense Geoff Hoon wrote in The Independent that he was “…quite confident that Saudi Arabia wants to get out of this war as much as, if not more than, anyone else”, and warned protestors against the conflict in Yemen that if they “…cannot clearly articulate what they want from the Crown Prince, then there is a risk of damaging diplomatic relations with a key intelligence and security ally.” He added that the Saudis themselves were increasing humanitarian aid to Yemen, and that withdrawal from Yemen would empower Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and Al Qaeda. Both Johnson and Hoon insist that the pace of reform in Saudi Arabia is positive and unprecedented, and there is nothing to be gained from alienating Prince Mohammed over Yemen.

 The problem with these demands for good behavior from the public is that they are framed through a thoroughly false choice, one in which we are either to completely alienate Saudi Arabia, or just to keep quiet and trust that it will come clean in Yemen at some point. And the limited reforms the Prince has already made is all we have to go on that he will one day do as we hope.

That Prince Mohammed is lifting bans on women driving and aiming to rein in extremist religious views is undeniably good news. And Johnson is correct to suggest that we cannot influence Saudi policy towards Yemen without meeting its leaders.  


But it isn’t unreasonable to protest the visit when there is very little reason to believe the UK government is serious about trying to stop Saudi Arabia’s bombings in Yemen. This is particularly so when Britain’s use of secretive “open licences” for arms exports increased by 75% in 2017, and it has sold more than $6 billion worth of arms to Riyadh since the war began.


Oversimplifying the Narrative

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman arrives at 10 Downing Street for a meeting with UK PM Theresa May. (AFP)


Both Prince Mohammed and the British government want the world to believe Prince Mohammed is the reformer he claims to be. A reformer he may be, but not one fashioned in our desired image. Relaxing laws around cinemas does not cancel out the ongoing aid blockade by the Saudi-led coalition around Yemeni ports, furthering starvation.


The Saudi’s own aid package to Yemen fails to address the blockade at all, which suggests that the policy of denying aid to areas it wishes to weaken will continue, no matter the cost to civilians. In a recurring theme, the aid package was criticized as little more than a PR stunt, and indeed there are several British and American PR firms promoting the aid plan.


True, all sides in the Yemeni conflict have committed horrific crimes. But the UN Human Rights chief has also accused the Saudi-led coalition of causing the biggest proportion of casualties in Yemen.

Dr Andreas Krieg added: “
I think it is hard to imagine that paid billboards, ads in newspapers and comments by senior Saudi officials can black out the images of Saudi war crimes being committed in Yemen. Western public are not susceptible to oversimplified narratives that are not grounded on substantiated evidence. These billboards are seen as what they are, expensive propaganda. The fact that a state needs to pay to whitewash its image means that something is not right.”

The British public might have been far more optimistic about the visit if they felt they could trust their own government to practice what it preaches, and take a tough line to try and remedy the appalling human costs of the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, the sycophantic PR campaign flies in the face of any such hope. We find ourselves instead like the crowd being told to gasp in awe at the Emperor’s new clothes – or in this case, the Crown Prince’s new reforms.

No one is seriously suggesting that we can save Yemen by completely disavowing Saudi Arabia, nor that all of the Prince’s reforms are unfavorable.

But right now the public is being asked to keep quiet and believe that the same Prince who was instrumental in beginning the Saudi intervention in Yemen will soon do the right thing, on the grounds that he has changed a few laws at home. There is no PR firm good enough to spin that.

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