The government-funded group behind Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion gamble to sprout a futuristic megacity in the desert has hired the world’s third-largest public relations firm to try to convince skeptics that it’s not a mirage.
The Neom Company hired BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) for just under $1.1 million on April 29 to design and institute an international media strategy, according to a new foreign agent registration with the Department of Justice. The multinational public relations firm headquartered in New York has teams in Dubai, Washington and Saudi Arabia working on the campaign.
The contract is between Neom CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr and Asdaa BCW in Dubai. According to the filing, the firm is to be paid $391,000 for pre-launch work between April 29 and June 10, and another $716,000 launch for the 14 weeks from June 10 to Sept. 16. BCW declined to comment and said the filing speaks for itself.
BCW’s tasks include the “facilitation of a virtual press conference” with Saudi TV channel Al Arabiya “or another 3rd party provider” and the “facilitation of media interviews with key spokespeople during the launch and for the 90 days that follow.” BCW will also target distribution of media materials “by sector and country” and translate them into up to seven languages in addition to English and Arabic.
The US components of the campaign, which required BCW to register as a foreign agent, are listed as:
- Tailoring of international press releases for the US market;
- Distribution of press releases and related materials to designated recipients in the US;
- Invitation of US news media to a virtual press conference; and
- Daily reporting to client on news media coverage.
The public relations push comes as Neom faces sharp questions about its human costs and financial sense.
Human-rights advocates have accused Saudi Arabia of forcefully displacing local tribes to make room for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s dream city. Meanwhile investor support has been tepid, with the COVID-19 crisis dealing another blow to Saudi Arabia’s grandiose plans to move beyond its oil-dominated economy.
BCW is the third firm to register as a foreign agent for Neom in recent months.
Last year, Neom hired New York CEO advisory firm Teneo for $2.1 million to create a “strategic positioning plan” for Neom’s 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.”
And just last month, Neom signed a $1.7 million contract with Ruder Finn to promote its corporate social responsibility efforts, as Foreign Lobby Report first reported on June 24.
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Meanwhile the project’s defenders insist that much of the criticism is unwarranted.
Ali Shihabi, the former head of the now defunct Arabia Foundation think-tank in Washington and a member of Neom’s advisory board, took to Twitter last month in response to the Ruder Finn story to push back against allegations that Neom’s focus on artificial intelligence is little more than an effort to deflect from criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record domestically and in places such as Yemen. In reality, he wrote, the project has already made progress on “advanced desalination, innovative desert agriculture and more using solar and wind energy, etc that are very relevant to the country and the region’s urgent needs.”
Conclusion that Saudi Govt. is hiding behind “mega shiny projects to improve PR” is silly since “mega and shiny” don’t improve PR anyway. NEOM needs marketing work+ material for investors+ partners that need a specialist firm to prepare and this has little to do with govt. PR.— Ali Shihabi (@aliShihabi) June 24, 2020
BCW has registered seven people under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Others, including a three-person handling public relations inside the kingdom, have not.
Four of the registered agents work for Asdaa BCW in Dubai: Executive Vice-President Margaret Flanigan, Senior Vice-President Nathaniel Wilson, Associate Director Rania Moussly and Associate Account Director Nora Feidi. Account director Mohammed Emad al-Maskati is working on the account in Riyadh, while two other people round out the team in Washington: Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Crisis Communications Shaila Manyam and Senior Vice-President Stephanie Nye.