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American firm receiving millions to sanitize Saudi Arabia's image: Report

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden at Al Salman Palace upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15, 2022. (File photo by Reuters)

American public relations firm Edelman has reportedly signed deals worth $9.2 million with the Saudi regime in the past four years to sanitize the image of the kingdom, especially in the United States.

“Since Khashoggi’s murder, the powerful PR firm has received or is contracted to receive $9.6m (£7.9m) in fees from Saudi government agencies and companies controlled by the regime,” The Guardian reported on Thursday, citing the US Department of Justice documents made available by the watchdog group OpenSecrets.

Most of Edelman’s work for the regime has focused on rehabilitating its reputation in the United States, an effort that the kingdom had begun before journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents, added the report.

This comes just some two weeks after a US court dismissed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), over his role in the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, after Washington decided to provide him with immunity in the case.

Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, used to be a vocal critic of the kingdom and its crown prince.

The CIA concluded in 2018 that MBS had ordered the killing of Khashoggi. The prince has denied ordering Khashoggi’s killing but acknowledged later that it took place “under my watch.” Saudi officials later blamed “rogue agents” for the journalist’s murder.

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Edelman’s services to the Saudis come as its CEO Richard Edelman has on several occasions claimed to support human rights and oppose repressive regimes.

Edelman is not the only American firm doing business with the Saudi regime, reads the report, noting, “but Edelman’s work for the regime is particularly notable given Edelman’s reputation for producing the ‘trust barometer’, an annual survey of public trust in government, business, the media and other institutions.”

During this year’s gathering of the World Economic Forum, Edelman published a “special report” of the trust barometer focused on geopolitics. The company said that 59% of survey respondents agreed that “punish[ing] countries that violate human rights and international law” is a “business responsibility”.

The CEO stressed then that 95% of respondents said businesses should “get out” of countries with repressive governments. Edelman has not responded to a question on whether it is ready to stop its lucrative deals with the Saudi government as long as human rights abuses are in place.

Rights groups have long voiced concern over the grim situation in Saudi Arabia as any form of criticism received harsh response.

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The Saudi regime “really restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties and engages in arbitrary imprisonment, torture, [and] execution of perceived opponents”, said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a research and advocacy group. “It’s a pretty grim picture.”

The violations have increased since Mohammed bin Salman took power in the country. Under the crown prince’s rule, “power has become much more concentrated than ever before in the history of Saudi Arabia”, said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn).

“Any criticism of the government, any criticism of Mohammed bin Salman, is met with extreme repression,” she added.

The regime has sentenced rights activists to decades in prison for posting tweets critical of the government.

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