American PR firm defends its role in Saudi Arabia’s controversial corruption crackdown

A public relations (PR) firm hired by Saudi Arabia has defended its work briefing the media on the country’s anti-corruption crackdown after the New York Times reported claims that detainees were physically abused and coerced into handing over their assets.

APCO Worldwide, a US-headquartered firm, was hired by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information in 2017, as part of a major PR offensive revealed by the Bureau last week.

One of the firm’s duties was helping brief journalists on the anti-corruption campaign launched by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (also known by his initials, MBS) in November 2017, which saw hundreds of royals and businessmen detained in the Ritz Carlton in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh.

Corruption is an endemic problem among the Saudi Arabian elite, and Bin Salman’s supporters argued that the arrests were part of a serious and necessary reform initiative.

But human rights advocates and international investors alike have been alarmed at the lack of transparent legal process involved. Rumours of ill-treatment of the detainees had been in circulation for some time, and on Monday the New York Times reported allegations from a doctor and a US official that 17 of them had required medical attention because of abuse by their captors. One of these detainees later died in custody, the Times reported.

When asked whether APCO had made any attempt to establish the truth about rumoured coercive and extra-legal practices in the anti-corruption campaign before briefing the media on it, a spokesman for the firm told the Bureau there had been no reason to.

“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”, the spokesman said.

The spokesman would not directly answer a question on whether the firm planned to raise the New York Times story with their Saudi clients, saying only that the Saudi government’s statement had denied the claims “in the strongest possible terms.”

The spokesman added: “APCO respects its ethical obligations, including honesty, accuracy and compliance with all laws governing its activities.”

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a specialist in the Gulf countries at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said that concerns about the anti-corruption crackdown long pre-dated the publication of the New York Times article.

“The allegations in the New York Times reinforced persistent rumours since the start of the crackdown in November concerning patterns of mistreatment of select detainees”, he said. “It confirmed the perceptions of many that due process, transparency, and accountability were lacking in the proceedings.”

APCO’s work is part of a multimillion dollar PR offensive launched by Mohammed Bin Salman, who is due to visit the US on Monday.

An analyst close to Saudi circles told the Bureau that the Saudis had embarked on the initiative in mid 2016, after realising that they were losing the battle for public opinion.

While Riyadh has good relationships with Western governments, which value the oil-rich state’s purchase of their weapons and strategic cooperation in the Middle East, it faces growing image problems.

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Bin Salman launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015, which has caused huge civilian suffering, while international investors have been spooked by the seeming arbitrariness of his anti-corruption campaign.

Last month, US Senators started pushing for a vote on withdrawing support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The Saudis have spent millions of dollars trying to promote a more favourable impression of their country. A former employee of one of the British PR firms likened representing a client like Saudi Arabia to being a defence lawyer. “You have to work to get the client out of trouble”, the employee said, and promote "the idea that Saudi Arabia is becoming Switzerland.”

MBS has introduced notable social and economic reforms, and his visit to the UK last week was accompanied by ads in national newspapers and on billboards celebrating him for “opening Saudi Arabia to the world” and “bringing change” to the Kingdom.

Ad in a British broadsheet paper

An energetic PR push will likely accompany the Crown Prince’s visit to Washington on Monday. Last time the Saudi ruler was preparing to meet President Donald Trump, in May 2017, US firms representing the Saudi government circulated ‘fact sheets’ (which you can read in full on this link) about the war in Yemen which emphasised the care Saudi targeters took not to kill civilians. (A United Nations Panel of Experts, by contrast, found that “Measures taken by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in its targeting process to minimize child casualties, if any, remain largely ineffective.”)

A former employee of one of the PR firms working for the Saudis summarised the ‘lines’ he would be given to push as: “‘these are unconfirmed reports for the moment’, ‘we’re working with the Americans’, ‘we’ll investigate the situation’, ‘it’s a shame that civilians have been hit but you have to look at the bigger picture’”.

The campaign has had some success. After Riyadh released a humanitarian plan for Yemen with the help of a British PR firm earlier this year, international criticism of Saudi Arabia’s role in the catastrophic hunger and health crisis there was tempered.

Document issued by a US legal firm, on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government
A mother tends her child in a hospital in Yemen in winter 2017 Photograph: Florain Seriex/MSF

Meanwhile, the UK has authorised the long term loan of a senior diplomat to one of MBS’s PR firms, the Bureau revealed last week.

Jolyon Welsh, whose roles at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have included Deputy Director of Middle East, and Head of Government to Government Contracting, was given special unpaid leave in 2014 to become a senior director of Consulum. The London and Middle East-based communications firm was founded by former executives from the scandal-hit agency Bell Pottinger.

Since at least 2016, Consulum’s client list has included Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The firm represents his charitable foundation, MiSK, and has also been reported to handle communications for a military company owned by the Public Investment Fund, which Bin Salman supervises.

The Bureau has learned that Welsh has had at least some involvement with the Saudi account. The fact that a diplomat at his level has been allowed to take up such a role underscores the close ties between London and Riyadh, as permission to work for a firm is only given if “directly and closely related to a specific FCO area of interest and is in line with our strategic priorities.”

Jolyon Welsh, senior Foreign Office mandarin, on loan to Consulum Photograph: UKTI

Bin Salman is expected to visit the White House on Tuesday.

"The challenge for the Crown Prince in his visit to the United States, as in his visit to Britain just beforehand, is to reassure international investors that there will be institutional safeguards protecting their investments going forward", said Ulrichsen. He added: “And that the business landscape in Saudi Arabia is not vulnerable to the sudden disruption that we saw last November.”

Header image of (the then Deputy) Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, meeting US President Donald Trump at the White House, in March 2017

Photograph: White House/Alamy