Saudi Arabia has roped in one of the biggest US public relations firms in yet another attempt to change its ‘pariah’ image after unleashing horror on the voices of dissent in the country and spearheading a brutal war in neighboring Yemen.
In a previously unreported 109-slide proposal filed — per law — with the US Justice Department (DOJ) in June, the Chicago based Edelman PR company proposed to the Saudi regime what it dubbed a five-year-long “Search Beyond” campaign to help the kingdom market itself as “a new, modern-minded tourism and culture destination,” the US-based Politico news outlet reported Sunday.
The proposal, which was made in Arabic and professionally translated for the news company, illustrates the extent to which the Saudi rulers have been willing to go to cast off their internationally recognized “pariah” status gained over the recent years, particularly after the 2018 killing and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who at the time lived in the US and worked for Washington Post newspaper.
Top US intelligence agency issued a report in 2021 confirming that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder.
Former US president Donald Trump, however, refused to condemn the state-sponsored atrocity. Despite initial condemnation of the Khashoggi’s killing and Saudi’s war crimes in Yemen, the incumbent US President Joe Biden also changed course and visited Saudi Arabia last week.
“[Mohammed bin Salman] tried to launder his reputation, whitewash it through bringing in celebrities to hold concerts, to sportswash it by buying soccer clubs, and anyway he can sort of try to rehabilitate his reputation and his image,” said Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy as quoted in the report. “I think to my mind, President Biden’s trip is that sort of final complete rehabilitation.”
“But the current contract could be one of the most lucrative among its partnerships with the kingdom in recent years,” the report added, citing Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings.
Edelman — an agency under Daniel J. Edelman Holdings known as United Entertainment Group — broke down the costs for the contract into four categories: research, planning and strategy; media relations and strategic partnerships; social media plan development and outreach; and client management and reporting.
Within those categories, according to the report, Edelman pledged to — among other things — “monitor online conversations and media coverage to identify ‘friends’ and detractors,” “Commence a relationship building program of US based media contacts,” and host “Monthly Client Meetings.”
Edelman’s proposed “Search Beyond” campaign, the report insists, “provides a window into how mega PR firms believe controversial clients can ingratiate themselves with modern media consumers.”
It further notes that the contract Edelman signed with the Saudi regime underscores the changing attitudes of US companies towards the oil-rich Persian Gulf state, adding: “In Washington, some who once balked at working with the kingdom have steadily dropped their objections.”
In addition to targeting a US audience, the Saudi PR and lobbying campaign would also target markets in the Middle East, Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere, according to the report, pointing out that “influencers and the use of social media — be it Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms — appear to be a key part of the effort.”
Reiterating that the Saudi Kingdom has long thrown copious amounts of money in improving its tarnished image internationally, it goes on to add that among the expenditures includes a new professional LIV Golf Series tournament, which will host events at clubs owned by, among others, Trump.
“The tour was derided as “sportswashing,” or the use of athletics to mend reputation, and raised eyebrows for enticing [famous golf players] Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and others to participate with its sizable prizes. The Saudi-sovereign Public Investment Fund, with others, also purchased the United Kingdom-based soccer team Newcastle United last year, over objections.”
Edelman, the report also points out, has a history of work in and with Saudi Arabia, including a campaign to promote the professional networking company LinkedIn as a “platform that amplified the voices of Saudi career women.”
“It’s the next step in their reputational laundering campaign, and whether it’s through sports or whether it’s through Hollywood connection — you name it — this is something they’ve been trying to do for years,” said Ben Freeman, a research fellow at the Washington-based liberal think tank, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
“I think that this lobbying campaign … is a big part of the reason why Biden was able to do this trip, why this was at all possible. It’s because of places like Edelman and the other folks working for the Saudis,” Freeman underlined.
“In 2020, Edelman registered with the DOJ to represent the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, a company producing chemicals and other materials that is majority owned by the Saudi government, in a deal that was worth roughly $6.7 million,” according to the report.
“You can’t ignore the money,” said former communications director for Trump’s transition team, Bryan Lanza, as quoted in the report. “Celebrities will make more money pitching a foreign government than making a film these days.”