Saudi ‘prince of PR’ arrives in US, unleashing a royal media spin

AFP | Electronic billboards in London during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's UK visit in early March 2018.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Washington Tuesday at the start of a visit aimed at wooing US backing on issues ranging from business to confronting Iran. He will be aided by a sophisticated Saudi PR machine.


The royal feet had not yet touched US soil for the much-hailed “cross-country America tour” when a Saudi public relations drive started spinning on the US media.

A day before Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- known by his initials MBS -- arrived in the US for a visit that includes Tuesday’s meeting with President Donald Trump, CBS aired an exclusive interview with the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne on its flagship 60 Minutes show.

The 26-minute slot, filmed in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, included rare behind-the-scenes footage, including shots of the prince working late at night -- without his traditional headgear -- at the Irgah Palace and a 9pm meeting of Saudi officials focused on the prince’s ambitious “Vision 2030” initiative to diversify the economy.

Media access to the oil-rich Gulf kingdom is extremely restricted for international news organisations, and the sweeping constraints on the national press have earned the country an “NF” (Not Free) rating by the Washington-based press monitoring group Freedom House. Inside the kingdom, criticism of the controversial military campaign in neighbouring Yemen is suppressed, and foreign journalists have frequently complained about the Saudi-led coalition for denying the press access to Yemen, where Riyadh is spearheading a military offensive against Shiite Houthi rebels.

Ahead of the Saudi heir’s US visit though, the CBS team was granted a lengthy sit-down interview with MBS, during which he lauded his policy initiatives and blasted the Saudi court’s arch foe, Shiite superpower Iran, and defended a comparison he made last year, likening Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler.

Since assuming office last year, Prince Mohammed has held many posts, including “minister of defense” and “first deputy prime minister”, raising fears of a potentially destablising power grab within the vast al-Saud ruling family. Earlier this month though, MBS earned another title, and this time, it was conferred by the British press: “prince of PR”.

The latest moniker followed a massive Saudi PR campaign around Prince Mohammed’s recent UK visit that featured massive “#Welcome Saudi Crown Prince” billboards across London, sparking a Twitter storm of Londoners disparaging the “yay” for the “beloved leader”.

Ahead of Prince Mohammed’s US visit, there appeared to be few signs of a London-style PR blitz across the Atlantic. “I can’t recall seeing any commercials in the media or billboards. I’m sure what happened in London was viewed as a blunder, it was counterproductive and the Saudi embassy in the US seems to be doing a better job. But then again, American cities are so huge, I can’t say for sure if this is true everywhere,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist-in-exile living in Washington DC.

But while there are fewer outward signs of a publicity campaign, the Saudi war for the hearts and minds of Americans is being waged with ferocity and finesse, using a sophisticated arsenal of opinion-making weapons, including armies of experts employed by Saudi-funded think-tanks and unlikely alliances with pro-Israeli groups, in an extension of the age-old military maxim: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Scions of ‘the PR firm for despots and rogues’

Business is booming these days for PR firms that have signed up with various arms of the Saudi establishment as the Gulf monarchy confronts mounting criticism of its military campaign in Yemen, which has sparked a massive humanitarian disaster in the world’s poorest Arab nation.

Earlier this year, when Saudi Arabia launched a $1.5 billion initiative, called the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO), journalists received briefings from PR firms that were “successors to disgraced UK firm Bell Pottinger”, according to the Geneva-based Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) news agency.

Bell Pottinger, dubbed “the PR firm for despots and rogues”, went into administration [bankruptcy] last year following a campaign for the South Africa-based Gupta brothers that used furtive Twitter bots to spread racially charged messages on “white monopoly capital”.

The extensive list of PR firms employed by Saudi authorities include the MSLGROUP, a subsidiary of French PR giant Publicis, which won a contract worth more than $6 million from the Saudi embassy in the US over a 12-month period up to September 2017, according to IRIN.

What did not happen at the Ritz Carlton

But while there’s nothing wrong with US- or Europe-based PR firms signing contracts with Saudi state entities, the work of APCO Worldwide, a Washington DC-based PR firm, has come under scrutiny -- not for what it did, but for what it glaringly failed to do.

One of the firm’s duties was to brief journalists on the anti-corruption campaign launched by MBS last year, which saw hundreds of Saudi royals and businessmen detained at Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton.

Through the autumn of 2017, while international news organisations were being fed the official Saudi discourse of economic reforms and anti-corruption drives, reports of abuse by Saudi interrogators at the luxury Riyadh hotel were filtering out of the kingdom, circulating on Middle East policy chats and private WhatsApp groups.

The lack of access to the kingdom and the victims’ fears of talking to the media, combined with the official lack of transparency about the detentions, made it difficult for the press to corroborate the reports.

But earlier this month, The New York Times interviewed unnamed former detainees as well as a doctor in Riyadh who confirmed reports of abuse. The body of a Saudi military officer who died in custody at the Ritz Carlton had burn marks that appeared to be from electric shocks, according to the doctor who declined to be named.

The Saudi government has denied the allegations as “absolutely untrue”. Most Saudi nationals support the crown prince’s moves to tackle the kingdom’s endemic corruption and welcome his reforms, including granting women the right to drive. Analysts, though, worry about how the 32-year-old prince is going about achieving his goals while human rights groups continue to deplore the country’s crackdowns on dissent, minority rights, and the widespread use of torture and the death penalty.

Last year, while the alleged abuse at the Ritz Carlton was being conducted behind closed doors, the international press was hailing the brash, young prince on a modernising mission, with The New York Times’ influential Thomas Friedman penning a paean to “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring” and hailing “the crown prince’s big plans for his society”.

In the lead-up to Prince Mohammed’s US visit, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism last week asked APCO officials if they had made any attempt to establish the truth about the allegations of coercive and extra-legal practices in the anti-corruption campaign before their media briefings. A spokesman for the firm said, “It is only now that such allegations are coming to light. Therefore, there were no concerns for us to raise with the client, and no reason for us to question the information we were given.”

Weeks after The New York Times piece detailing the alleged abuse shook foreign policy circles, the latest 60 Minutes report shed no light on what exactly transpired at the Ritz Carlton last year. When the CBS anchor asked MBS about it, he replied: “What we did in Saudi Arabia was extremely necessary. All actions taken were in accordance with existing and published laws.” The show then featured previously released footage of the most high-profile detainee, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal showing a camera crew his Ritz Carlton room last year. The carefully orchestrated hotel visit footage failed to persuade seasoned Middle East analysts, and most ordinary Arabs understood it was a move by the Saudi billionaire businessman to protect his remaining assets in the kingdom.

“I watched 60 Minutes and they were really not harsh about the detention of intellectuals and journalists, they didn’t push it even though the team was in Riyadh,” said Khashoggi. “Everybody is giving him [MBS] the benefit of the doubt. A number of articles are saying let’s support him and turn a blind eye to the arrests of intellectuals, journalists, the intimidation, the lack of press freedom in Saudi Arabia.”

Meeting of like minds on K Street

One of the more interesting features of the Saudi PR blitz is an unusual meeting of interests between various think-tanks and lobby groups operating on “K Street” – the pejorative term used by Beltway insiders for influence-peddlers operating on the northern end of the Washington DC thoroughfare.

The pro-Riyadh Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) has a long history of effective engagement on K Street dating back to the backlash following the 9/11 attacks. But in recent months, the Gulf diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and their respective allies has proved to be good business for US-based PR firms.

Last year, the respected news site Middle East Eye reported that SAPRAC had allegedly spent $138,000 on seven 30-second television adverts on NBC-4 in Washington that accused Qatar of supporting “terrorism” and destabilising US allies in the region.

The Paris-based press rights group Reporters Without Borders has a detailed checklist of how Saudi Arabia manipulates the media based on WikiLeaks cables from 2010 to 2015. These include the use of “checkbook diplomacy” and aggressive counterattacks on journalists covering negative stories about the kingdom.

The 2016 election of Trump has seen a growing influence of pro-Riyadh US cabinet members on the one hand and a meeting of interest between pro-Saudi and pro-Israeli groups that are opposed to the Iran nuclear deal on the other.

The Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Joint Commission (JCPOA), was signed under the Barack Obama administration despite opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Shiite Iran is the bête noire of the Sunni Gulf kingdom, a hostility that was on display on the eve of Prince Mohammed’s departure with a leading Saudi daily running a front page banner headline, “Saudi and US repel Iran’s malice”.The Saudi’s adamant opposition to the Iran nuclear deal mirrors the line adopted by powerful US think tanks such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which, as noted in a Slate profile, “closely tracks” its positions to “those of the [Israeli ruling] Likud party and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”.

In a searing media critique of how think tanks such as the FDD are framing US public opinion and “making war with Iran more likely,” left-leaning news site The Intercept detailed how major US dailies such as The New York Times rely heavily on FDD experts while making no attempt at balanced coverage or providing insights on Tehran’s geostrategic interests in the region.

The problem though is that some of these groups also adopt positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Muslim immigration that are not popular on the so-called Arab Street.“I have to say that I have been invited to speak at a number of think tanks known to be supported by Saudi Arabia so they do try to appear independent,” explained Khashoggi. “But the convergence with these extreme, new think tanks that have a common denominator of anti-Iran and anti-political Islam platforms is troubling. That could put Saudi Arabia at odds with the Muslim community in the US. As a Saudi citizen, I’m really not happy to see Saudi-funded groups dealing with pro-Israeli groups.”

As Prince Mohammed begins his two-and-a-half weeks US tour, the stakes are high for the US, the Middle East and indeed global security. The crown prince’s multi-city business promotion tour, including visits to Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood are set to dominate air and column space in the US media for the next few days. With a powerful PR machinery updated following the mistakes in London, American audiences are in danger of become prisoners to a US-Saudi love-fest. But behind the scenes, K Street is also working away on critical geostrategic issues, from nuclear programs to regional rivalries that drag in the world’s major powers. The question is whether the famed independence of the American press can withstand a charm offensive from across the seas.

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