Business & trade, Human rights, Image makeovers, Middle East, Top Stories

Saudi megacity strikes $1.7 million PR deal amid bad press over forced displacements

Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion futuristic mega-city has hired one of the world’s biggest public relations firms to help improve an image tarnished by forced displacements and the killing of a protester.

The Neom Company signed a $1.7 million contract with Ruder Finn on June 10 to promote its corporate social responsibility efforts amid a recent slew of international negative press coverage, according to a newly disclosed lobbying filing. The planned 10,000-square-mile city in Saudi Arabia’s northwest is the jewel of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman‘s vision to wean the kingdom off of oil exports and reinvent it as a high-tech tourism destination. Neom is controlled and funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

Underscoring the importance of the project, Ruder Finn CEO Kathy Bloomgarden personally signed the contract with Neom CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr and is one of three registered foreign agents on the account, along with Group Vice President Brianna Rabe and Senior Vice President Brian Laird. The woman-led firm has dual headquarters in New York and Beijing and is among the world’s largest privately owned communications companies.

According to the filing, Ruder Finn expects to locate two or three employees in Saudi Arabia for the project, “supported by teams” from its US and Asia offices. Its work will include developing a web site and a social media strategy for Neom, including assisting with social media campaigns “related to the promotion of Neom as a city of the future.” The work may also include attempts to “influence members of the US public and/or US government officials with respect to the Neom City project, which is in the political or public interest of the Saudi government.”

“Neom is a bold and audacious dream,” Ruder Finn writes in its filing. “It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it comes at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions.”

For some members of the Huwaitat tribe that has occupied the future site of Neom for centuries, it’s been more of a nightmare.

Local residents have been clamoring for fair compensation for their forced displacement for months, drawing international media scrutiny that the kingdom fears could spook the foreign investors it needs to turn its bold economic vision into reality. The bad press spiked in April when Saudi special forces killed activist Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti, whom the government quickly branded a terrorist.

“Rather than consult with the local community and seek to integrate them in the region’s ambitious plans, the government has treated its citizens like disposable objects to be replaced by shiny, new cosmopolitan settlers,” former Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson and Saudi legal scholar Abdullah Alaoudh wrote in Foreign Policy later that month. “This is what happens when a thuggish ruler declares that he, and only he, will decide the future of his country.”

Neom in turn has taken steps to highlight programs it says will benefit local populations.

A corporate social responsibility section on Neom’s website promises seven areas of focus “identified for Neom to be socially responsible and deliver an impactful, sustainable and committed initiatives.” Only the employment program for locals is currently up and running on the site, however.

Ruder Finn will “tell the story of [Neom’s corporate social responsibility] and its impact on the beneficiaries and the local community.”

Ruder Finn FARA filing

Last week, Neom announced the launch of a community-based initiative to teach the English language. The initiative is part of a program to train 1,000 students in tourism, hospitality and cybersecurity this year at the Neom Academy, which opened in January. And just this week, the kingdom said citizens who are eligible for compensation will receive free plots of land in the future city.

Ruder Finn is expected to help promote corporate social responsibility efforts notably through online posts and a detailed menu of video services including:

  • 1 video monthly (2-to-4 minutes long) to promote Neom’s CSR initiatives and to enhance engagement with the local community;
  • 4 videos (5-to-7 minutes long) to tell the story of CSR and its impact on the beneficiaries and the local community, including the students the company is sponsoring in universities inside and outside the Kingdom and students of the Academy;
  • 2 short films (1-2 minutes) to present to the board of directors the developments of Neom’s CSR programs, that might include graphics, motion graphics and numbers; and
  • 3 videos per year for national occasions (national day, Ramadan, Eids).

For Alaoudh, such PR efforts are cosmetic in nature and don’t address the underlying issue: The lack of a fair and transparent compensation system for people displaced by Neom. He said tribal members tried many times to meet with the governor of Tabuk, the region where Neom is being built, only to be told that the project is a national priority that would move forward with or without them.

“Because of the negative coverage outside, they want to do PR, and for the PR to work they will do some superficial changes here and there to make it look like it’s real,” Alaoudh told Foreign Lobby Report. “The major issue is the displacement, and it’s still there. When we talk about fair compensation, we mean in the first place a clear and transparent legal mechanism that can compensate the tribe and other people and treat people fairly. It’s not about one project. It’s about the legal mechanism that is lacking here.”

In addition to push-back from displaced residents, Neom has also had to deal with questions about the project’s viability. Last year Neom hired New York CEO advisory firm Teneo for $2.1 million to create a “strategic positioning plan” for Neom CEO Nasr and handle crisis management and communications. Among Teneo’s duties: developing “materials and engagement opportunities for effective communications that will build awareness and confidence in Neom.”