London has become a hub for global Saudi public relations and media influence campaigns, with British firms earning millions of pounds from efforts to improve the image of the kingdom and its regional allies in recent years, a Guardian investigation has found.
The reputation of Saudi Arabia, always controversial due to its record on human rights and involvement in the ongoing Yemeni war, has taken a battering in the past fortnight following the apparent murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The investigation into how London has become a focus of lobbying efforts in recent years to burnish the country’s image reveals:
Major PR agency Freud’s, which has worked with Saudi Arabia, is now distancing itself from the kingdom.
There are fresh concerns over the Independent’s decision to establish a partnership with a Saudi publisher with close links to the Saudi government.
The London office of online publisher Vice has been working on a series of films to promote Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi publishing company that is signing partnerships with western media firms has donated to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in return for his advice to the country.
A company largely staffed by former employees of the collapsed PR firm Bell Pottinger has advised the Saudi state on communications strategy.
Although some media companies have longstanding relationships with the country, many advertising and PR groups rushed into the kingdom during the rise to power of Mohammed bin Salman, who became crown prince in June 2017. His recent attempts to improve the country’s overseas image have been undermined by Khashoggi’s disappearance.
They include London PR company Consulum, largely staffed by former employees of Bell Pottinger, which has worked on communications programmes with the Saudi Arabian government. Partners at the firm include Ryan Coetzee, a former Nick Clegg adviser who was chief strategist for the remain campaign in the EU referendum. A spokesperson for the company said they were unable to comment on the current status of the work.
Freud’s, the company founded by Matthew Freud, provided PR support for the kingdom’s Vision 2030 relaunch under Bin Salman during 2016. A spokesman said this week it was not currently working for the government of Saudi Arabia.
According to sources, CT Group, a company founded by Conservative election strategist Lynton Crosby, has promoted articles by Qatari opposition leader Khalid Al-Hail to British publications.
Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism and being too close to Riyadh’s arch rival, Iran – charges Doha denies.
CT Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether it worked for Hail and whether it had any contracts with Saudi Arabia or its regional allies.