Relationships between some of the most successful and trusted advertising agencies in the world and Saudi Arabia have been condemned, after it emerged that the country has been employing PR advisers to promote the nation's reputation.
Cached documents exclusively revealed by The Independent today detail human rights groups’ fears that the agencies are helping to “whitewash” human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia; a country which has been accused of murder, torture and committing war crimes against its own citizens.
It emerged that Qorvis, a subsidiary of the conglomerate that owns brands such as Saatchi & Saatchi, distributed an article on behalf of the controversial regime which appeared to defend execution of citizens, including juveniles.
The Independent revealed a cached letter from human rights groups to the PR brand expressing concerns about their work for the country which they said had: “effectively served to strengthen the 80-year relationship between the Saudi and American people and governments.”
After international outcry, Qorvis’ section on its website listing the Saudi Arabian government as a client has disappeared. The company has refused to comment on the matter or to detail exactly what form their PR work for the nation has taken.
However, an online magazine run by the Saudi government proves illuminating for what the country considers its PR objects and how it seeks to present itself to the world. Self-described as an “online hub” for Saudi government news and run by the Saudi Embassy in the US, Arabia Now is a verified news source on Twitter. It presents a very different version of events within the country than that which appears in international press.
The magazine’s output reveals a number of insights into how one of the most contested nations wishes to present itself to the rest of the world.
8 March 2016
International News: International Women’s Day, reignites criticism of the country’s treatment of women, including how it does not allow women to drive cars, leave their homes without a male chaperone or open a bank account without their husband’s permission.
Arabia Now: Glosses over human rights claims to praise how Saudi Arabia allows women to do boxing.
2 February 2016
International news: Pressure mounts on the country as it is reported that it has recently committed one of the biggest mass executions in its history. Those killed by the state on “terrorism charges”, allegedly include a number of juveniles under the age of 18.
Arabia Now: Makes no mention of claims that the nation has just beheaded teenagers and instead posts about what a great country they are for young people, by celebrating a youth film festival taking place.
9 December 2015
International news: Blogger Raif Badawi goes on hunger strike to protest being subjected to lashes as punishment for “insulting Islam through electronic channels”.
Arabia Now: The country’s coffee has proudly been awarded the honour of making UNESCO’s cultural list.
11 November 2015
International news: Philip Hammond calls for investigation into whether Saudi Arabia deliberately targeted civilians during its bombing campaign in Yemen.
Arabia Now: Congratulates the country on being environmentally friendly.
20 July 2015
International news: Saudi royal family reportedly order a French public beach to be closed while they holiday by the Riveria, outraging locals.
Arabia Now: A timely reminder of how Saudi Arabia issues many visas and accommodates foreign visits.
In a statement, Qorvis MSLGroup said: "As a matter of policy, MSLGroup does not comment publicly on the specific work we do for our clients. We stand by our ethics and integrity and the work we do with all of our clients."