Energy, Image makeovers, Middle East, New in Lobbying

Saudis hire world’s largest PR firm for help with megacity project

Saudi Arabia has hired the world’s largest public relations firm by revenue to help spruce up the global image of a $500 billion futuristic megacity project plagued by investor skepticism and bad press over alleged forced displacements.

Chicago-based Edelman is to be paid a maximum of $75,000 per month over the next three months for international work on behalf of the Neom Company, according to a new lobbying filing. The gambit to transform the 10,000-square-mile patch of desert near Jordan, Israel and Egypt is the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and forms a key part of his Vision 2030 effort to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil exports.

In a Nov. 20 email to the Neom Company’s Katherine Raso accompanying the filing, Vice Chairman for Global Public Affairs, Trade and Technology Jere Sullivan spelled out the terms of Edelman’s engagement this way :

“Edelman will provide support to the NEOM Company on various projects to provide communications support in the following areas:

  • Strategic counsel
  • Media relations
  • Stakeholder identification and engagement
  • Content development.”

Raso replied that same day that the proposal “looks good and is confirmed.” Neom did not respond to a request for comment. Edelman declined to comment on client work.

Edelman is the fourth firm to register with the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for the Neom Company, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Last year, Neom hired New York CEO advisory firm Teneo for $2.1 million to create a “strategic positioning plan” for Neom CEO Nadhmi al-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.”

This April, the company hired BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) for just under $1.1 million to design and institute an international media strategy for the project amid tepid investor support marked by continuing fall-out from the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

And in June, Neom signed a $1.7 million contract with Ruder Finn to promote its corporate social responsibility efforts after its image was tarnished by allegations that native residents of the area were being relocated without proper compensation and the killing of a protester.

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Saudi Arabia for its part insists the project is moving full steam ahead.

In July Neom signed a $5 billion agreement with US company Air Products and ACWA Power to build a massive green hydrogen-based ammonia production facility powered by renewable energy.

“This partnership reflects our deep commitment to developing a carbon positive society which will be a beacon for sustainable living and a solution to many of the environmental challenges facing the world,” Nasr said in a press release at the time. “This demonstrates the ability of NEOM to generate significant partnership opportunities for international and national investors.”

The following month, Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud signed a memorandum of understanding with Nasr on energy cooperation.

Neom was again in the news this week amid reports — denied by Saudi Arabia — that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had flown there to meet with Prince Mohammed and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Netanyahu reportedly traveled with Israeli spy chief Yossi Cohen, a key figure in efforts to broker diplomatic relations with Riyadh following similar agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Neom isn’t Edelman’s only Saudi client. The firm signed a year-long, $6 million contract in February for event planning and media relations around the B20, the October global business conference tied to this year’s virtual G-20 summit hosted by Riyadh.

Nor is this the firm’s first experience with Saudi megaprojects. Back in 2014, Edelman briefly worked to promote the King Abdullah Economic City, another planned supercity 600 miles down the Red Sea coast from Neom. Fifteen years after its launch, Emirati magazine Arabian Business reported last year, the city is only about 40 % developed with a population of 10,000 — a far cry from the 2 million originally envisioned.