Saudi Arabia is planning to set up public relations hubs in Europe and Asia as part of a new offensive to counter negative media coverage of the kingdom.
The move comes as Riyadh leads an extraordinary regional embargo of Qatar. It has also faced criticism over its role in a devastating war in Yemen, where it has been accused of bombing civilian targets.
The Saudi information ministry could set up “hubs” in London, Berlin, Paris and Moscow as early as this month, according to a document seen by the Financial Times.
The goal is “to promote the changing face of KSA to the rest of the world and to improve international perception of the kingdom”, the document says.
The initiative could be expanded to Beijing, Tokyo, Mumbai and other big cities from next year, the document says, although people familiar with the plan say it is in its early stages.
The conservative kingdom has for years struggled to improve its image in the west. It has been accused of promoting an extreme form of Islam and been criticised for its treatment of women, who are banned from driving, and alleged human rights abuses.
A more interventionist foreign policy, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has put Saudi Arabia under greater scrutiny.
Riyadh is leading a coalition of Sunni states fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen in a conflict that is entering its third year and has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with millions of people facing food shortages and at risk of cholera.
Saudi Arabia is also one of four Arab states that have imposed an embargo on Qatar, triggering the Gulf’s worst diplomatic crisis in decades.
The dispute has worried western diplomats who see their allies pitted against each other and are concerned about what they view as the overly aggressive action taken against Doha.
Qatar, which is the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas and one of the richest nations, has been spending millions of dollars on lobbyists to counter its neighbours’ allegations that it sponsors terrorism.
Some analysts say Qatar is winning the war of words.
“While Riyadh has done a very negative PR offensive in Washington and London against Qatar, Doha has avoided the temptation to go low and has tried to take the moral high ground,” said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank. “As a result, Qatar so far is winning the war for western hearts and minds much to the chagrin of the quartet [imposing the embargo].”
A pollster says private surveys in Europe indicate that Saudi Arabia’s image has been tarnished by its perceived bullying of Qatar and its military intervention in Yemen.
The bid to improve the kingdom’s standing is part of Prince Mohammed’s ambitious reform agenda that is intended to modernise the economy, attract foreign investment and reduce its dependence on oil. Saudi Arabia is redrafting the centrepiece of its reform agenda, the National Transformation Plan, in a move that suggests Riyadh may have decided some of the objectives were overly ambitious.
The global hubs would produce press releases, publish content on social media and invite “social influencers” to visit Saudi Arabia. The ministry wants to use public relations firms to set up operations to “distribute the Saudi perspective on global developments in response to negative/inaccurate publications about the kingdom”, the document says.
The hubs would also promote Saudi culture through art exhibitions and religious discussions.
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