By Annie Slemrod, IRIN Middle East Editor and Ben Parker, Senior Editor.
Saudi Arabia has recruited an array of foreign consultants and public relations firms to draw up and promote its new multi-billion dollar aid plan for Yemen, one that could reduce imports of vital goods into a key rebel-held port, an IRIN investigation reveals.
Critics say the extent of the PR campaign betrays the kingdom’s determination to win the propaganda battle after nearly three years of conflict marked by high civilian casualties, widespread food and fuel shortages, a record cholera epidemic, and fear of famine.
Late last month, Saudi Arabia and its allies announced a new operation that commits billions of dollars “to relieve suffering” in Yemen, which is in the midst of what is often termed the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
The plan, known as Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations, or YCHO for short, promises $1.5 billion in “new humanitarian funding for distribution across U.N. agencies and international relief organisations,” plus the setting up of “safe passage corridors” to deliver relief, improved capacity at coalition-controlled ports, and regular flights of humanitarian aid to coalition-controlled Marib. It also includes the $2 billion Saudi Arabia recently said it would deposit in Yemen’s Central Bank to shore up a flagging currency.
But the plan rejects calls by the U.N. to lift an on-off blockade of Hodeidah port, a vital lifeline for civilians in the rebel-held north: it proposes reducing the overall flow of cargo into the city and stepping up imports into coalition-controlled areas.
Exact details of how (and if) the plan is intended to help hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Yemeni civilians – especially in rebel-controlled areas – are not yet clear. However, IRIN can reveal the lengths Riyadh has gone to in preparing and promoting it.
The press release journalists received announcing the plan came neither from the coalition itself nor from Saudi aid officials. It came, along with an invitation to visit Yemen, straight from a British PR agency.
U.K.- and U.S.-based consultants and PR firms, including U.S. defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, were also involved in helping to write and promote YCHO, which is tagged as “counter-terrorism” on a website funded by the kingdom’s U.S. embassy.
All of this has fed suspicions that rather than a genuine attempt to help the people of Yemen, the plan is really intended more to gloss over the Hodeidah issue and improve Saudi Arabia’s battered image, or at least a bit of both.
From PowerPoint to press release
Two high-placed sources in the U.N. told IRIN they first learned the particulars of YCHO in a PowerPoint presentation – at the time a “work in progress,” according to one of the sources.
A PDF of the presentation, obtained exclusively by IRIN and marked “confidential for discussion,” lists one “Nahas, Nicholas [USA]” as the author.
Nahas appears to be an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, which has 35 job listings in Riyadh on its website, including “military planner”, a role that requires the applicant to: “Provide military and planning advice and expertise to support the coordination of Joint counter threat operations executed by coalition member nations and facilitate resourcing to enable operations.”
IRIN tried emailing and calling Nahas, as well as several Booz Allen Hamilton spokespeople, but none replied. A switchboard operator at the company’s Abu Dhabi office said Nahas was not currently in.
Following the initial PowerPoint presentation (and, IRIN understands, high-level discussions with U.N. representatives, donors, and diplomats), press releases – including detailed maps and infographics – were sent to journalists by Pagefield Global Counsel, one of several successors to disgraced U.K. firm Bell Pottinger (Pagefield employs over 20 former Bell Pottinger staff).
IRIN tried to contact the Pagefield associate partner who sent the emails and was involved in arranging a recent press trip to Yemen, but again there was no response.
Metadata in the press release suggests the involvement of another firm as it lists “Madison Clough” as the author. A woman of the same name is a senior account executive at Qorvis MSLGROUP, one of several PR firms and subcontractors retained by Saudi Arabia to represent it in the United States. Clough, again, did not reply to IRIN’s emailed request for comment.
MSLGROUP’s services to Saudi Arabia include web and social media content and over 60 contacts with US-based journalists on Yemen in the six months to 1 October 2017. The firm, a subsidiary of French PR giant Publicis, booked U.S. revenue of more than $6 million from the Saudi Arabian embassy over a 12-month period up to September 2017.
MSLGROUP’s involvement with Saudi Arabia and the new plan is hardly a secret: it is visible on the bottom of YCHO’s website, yemenplan.org, in a text that reads: “This is distributed by Qorvis MSLGROUP on behalf of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.”
The company also runs a website for Saudi Arabia’s embassy in the United States, where a press release on the plan can be seen tagged as “counter-terrorism”.
In addition to the press releases, the PowerPoint presentation, and the website, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia last week delivered a package containing information on the plan to the offices of major INGOs in the U.K. as well as to members of the U.K. parliament.
At the time of publication, YCHO’s Twitter account had about 10,000 followers. But analyst Marc Owen Jones, a lecturer in Gulf history at the University of Exeter who has researched bot-usage, told IRIN the majority are likely to be fake, intended to inflate the credibility and popularity of the account.
“Previous studies have shown the use of Twitter bots and fake followers to be particularly common in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “On certain days, up to 50 percent of the tweets using the hashtag #Saudi have come from fake (bot) accounts.”
According to an IRIN tally, almost half of YCHO’s followers have less than 10 followers themselves, while some 1,000 followers were accounts created on the same day in 2016 – signs that a significant number of bots or fakes are inflating YCHO’s popularity.
The charm offensive organised by Pagefield included a short trip to Yemen for select journalists. A recent CNN report shows boxes of aid being unloaded from a truck. They’re labelled “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and bear the logo of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid & Relief Centre. Similar scenes can be scene on clips on the YCHO website.
“Yemen has always been poor and has long relied on aid from its prosperous northern neighbour,” the accompanying text reads. In a separate short film from Yemen, CNN says the Saudi military flew its team into the country.
True to form
Saudi Arabia has a long history of using foreign PR and consultancy firms to develop economic policy, curry favour in Western capitals and – critics argue – cover up abuses. It is even said to be the fastest growing market for consultants.
Not long after U.K. firm McKinsey & Co authored a December 2015 document about moving Saudi Arabia beyond its dependence on oil, the Saudi cabinet ratified a very similar plan for economic reform called “Vision 2030.”
In 2016, MSLGROUP distributed an article by Saudi foreign minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir justifying the execution of 47 people in one day – including Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr – as “fighting against terrorism.”
McKinsey (which told IRIN it “has not been involved in any work” on YCHO) and MSLGROUP are only two of a constellation of firms contracted by the kingdom. However, spending on lobbying and advisory services beyond the scope of the demanding US transparency rules is not publicly available.
Late last year, the Financial Times reported that Riyadh planned to set up PR “hubs” in Europe and Asia to improve its global image. One human rights analyst on the Gulf told IRIN there are so many PR firms working for Saudi Arabia and its neighbours that keeping track is “like playing whack-a-mole.”
Saudi Arabia and its allies – including forces siding with the internationally recognised (but deposed) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi – have been battling Houthi rebels since March 2015 in a bloody war that has killed nearly 6,000 civilians and left millions close to starvation.
All parties to the war have been accused of causing horrific suffering – with the Houthis blamed for detaining and torturing opponents, using banned landmines, and blocking and confiscating aid, especially in the besieged city of Taiz.
But the Saudi-led coalition has something the Houthis don’t – control of the seas – and it has come under heavy criticism for slowing and sometimes completely blocking both humanitarian and commercial imports. In November, it closed all of Yemen’s major entry points, ostensibly in response to a Houthi rocket shot at Riyadh. Condemnation was quick, with humanitarians warning that famine was imminent.
Even U.S. President Donald Trump – whose administration has so far been a steadfast ally of Saudi Arabia –weighed in (albeit after several weeks of closures), calling on the Saudis to lift the blockade “immediately.”
Entry is now being allowed into all of Yemen’s ports, but only on a temporary basis at Hodeidah, the Red Sea port in Houthi-controlled territory that handles the majority of the country’s imports and that humanitarians insist cannot be substituted.
Since the November closures, leading aid figures have become increasingly outspoken about the responsibility the coalition bears for Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe, with Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, saying in early November that he believed the shuttering of ports was “illegal collective punishment.”
It is against this backdrop that Saudi Arabia introduced the YCHO plan.
Farea al-Muslimi, chairman and co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies think tank, told IRIN it was no surprise Saudi Arabia has pulled in outside help to prepare and promote it.
“They have always relied on these PR companies,” he said. But “no matter how creative they are, no matter how much money they spend [on aid], it is a drop in the sea of a terrible reality… until this war is over, every PR move remains [nothing more than] a costly damage control process.”
What the timing reveals
Saudi Arabia’s use of external advisors for economic and military strategy is well documented, but aid and humanitarian matters are more typically the domain of the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The YCHO plan is not only the product of a commercial engagement but – in retaining control of Yemen’s points of entry – it appears to run against the advice of the U.N. and the ICRC who have both called for unfettered civilian cargo traffic and country-wide humanitarian access.
Saudi Arabia does have a history of “bomb it, fix it” – less than a year into the war, shortly after the launch of a newcentre to coordinate its humanitarian efforts worldwide, the kingdom donated $274 million towards the UN’s appeal for Yemen. Since 2015, it says it has given over $8 billion in various types of support to Yemen. Its humanitarian donations recorded in the UN’s tracking system since 2015 are $865 million, of a total from all donors of $6.28 billion.
Previous large Saudi donations have been met with some consternation, but most aid agencies have ended up accepting the money as long as they are not told where or how to spend it. This may be the case again, but not without a degree of internal grumbling, even if most in the humanitarian community are unready to speak on the record.
One aid worker familiar with the YCHO plan told IRIN they believed the PR onslaught, timed within a few days of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen, was no coincidence.
“There was a lot of pressure on the U.K. and U.S. governments who were in turn putting pressure on [Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners] to say enough is enough,” the source said. “That may have been a driver for this plan.”
The Sana’a Center’s al-Muslimi said the plan was obviously an attempt to garner good press, and one that didn’t “come out of the ether.”
“It comes out of extreme pressure on the Saudis and their allies in Yemen,” he added. “It tells you how much there is to hide: terrible tragedies.”
IRIN submitted written questions to YCHO and Saudi authorities for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.