A political disease usually found in countries ruled by insecure megalomaniacs hit London this week: hello, personality cult. In the Middle East, the disease associated with regions in which stunted political growth is the norm, has a distinct characteristic. Large portraits of the ruler and members of his family adorn street furniture, buildings and office walls. Depicted in their national dress and military uniforms with blemish free, beaming smiles, the aim is to develop affection for the head of the “national family”. It’s all very benign; a kind of soft power tactic intended to legitimise autocratic rule.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman may have wished for a similar effect after blitzing Londoners with a PR campaign that must have made British politicians blush; even HM Queen Elizabeth must have had a chuckle or two, having ruled for decades without the need for such a tacky display. Posters of Bin Salman’s face beamed at Londoners while promising “a new Saudi Arabia”; they may have been designed to soften his image to the British public, but it would take more than a charm offensive to win over the hearts and minds of Brits who are overwhelming opposed to the state visit of a de facto ruler accused of war crimes and gross human rights violations.
The advertising takeover of the capital covered premium outdoor locations, including a series of images on the main motorway from Heathrow Airport to central London. His face has been splashed on bus stops, the sides of taxis and vans, and, bizarrely, on an electronic sign located in front of the London office of Qatar Airways. In addition to the billboards and hashtags, Bin Salman’s bearded smile also adorned British newspapers.
Unsurprisingly, the PR campaign has been met with derision. “So, he’s paying for his own welcoming campaign, isn’t that a bit weird?” mocked one journalist. Others were more colourful in expressing their feelings on Twitter: “If you have to resort to an ad spend to generate a crowd, maybe you’re a bit of a sh*t,” said a Londoner who also complained that the capital had been turned into Riyadh.
The Financial Times pointed out sarcastically that when a foreign leader comes to visit Britain, it is usually the host nation that spruces up the streets to create a good impression. Saudi Arabia’s supporters, though, seem to have taken matters into their own hands.
Exactly why a supposedly progressive young prince representing the future of Saudi Arabia would commission a media blitz is a mystery. Anyone remotely familiar with the British psyche and, indeed, the mindset of mature democracies generally, would know that this kind of PR campaign is bound to be met with a healthy dose of cynicism and contempt.
Unaccustomed to the personality cult that is crafted carefully by authoritarian regimes, Brits naturally asked who the ads were meant for: “Ads praising MBS all along the M4 [a major motorway] this morning. Are they targeted at Brits, or at the Crown Prince’s motorcade?” One Twitter user was left confused, as he pointed to the obvious similarity between vans splashed with Bin Salman’s face and the hashtag “Welcome Saudi Crown Prince”, and the “sleazy gentlemen’s club” that is advertised in a similar fashion on London streets.
Perhaps the leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas MP, captured the mood better than most in her tweet: “Can’t get over how bizarre it is to have these trucks driving around London welcoming a leader of a regime which tortures its own citizens and commits war crimes. Shame on the companies running these adverts – you should never have accepted them.”
Within Parliament, the debate took on a more serious tone as politicians directed their irritation towards Theresa May. Leaders of various parties took turns to denounce Bin Salman’s visit while also accusing the British Prime Minister of fuelling the crises in Yemen through the lucrative arms trade with Riyadh. According to the Labour leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, Mrs May was, “Colluding in what the UN says is evidence of war crimes.” Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, echoed Corbyn by saying that the government had given the “red carpet equivalent of a state visit” to “the dictatorial head of a medieval, theocratic regime.” Bin Salman, remember, is still only Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, not the King.
The frenzied debate continued in the media. Supporters of the visit were predictable. Crispin Blunt MP, the former Conservative Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, tried to deflect the most serious criticism when he defended the Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen. “We ought to be grateful that they [the Saudis] are taking their responsibility for delivering security and stability,” he told BBC Radio 4 listeners. Asked if it was right for Britain to “roll out the red carpet” while knowing that the coalition’s intervention in Yemen had led to a humanitarian crisis — 11 million people are facing starvation — Blunt remarked pithily, “My answer is, undoubtedly, yes.”
Blunt’s effusive support for the Saudi monarchy and its campaign in Yemen was unpopular, to say the least. “The overwhelming majority of people in the UK,” argued Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade, “do not share Theresa May’s political and military support for the Saudi regime.” The voices of apologist like May and Blunt were drowned out by gales of protest.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry denounced the visit. Writing in the Guardian before Bin Salman’s arrival, Thornberry described the red carpet treatment as “shameless.” Accusing the Conservative government of putting arms sales above the suffering of civilians in Yemen’s civil war she added, “The architect of that Saudi intervention in Yemen will visit Britain, and will receive the red carpet treatment from the Tory government, as if he were Nelson Mandela.”
Thornberry even added another item on the long list of British double standards: “If it was his [Bin Salman’s] regional rival, the supreme leader of Iran, visiting our capital, with his similar record of domestic human rights abuses, regional intervention and alleged support for terror organisations, the UK government would not dream of rolling out the red carpet.”
A shared sentiment amongst opposition groups was that Britain needed to adopt a “more ethical foreign policy”. Labour MP Chris Williamson pointed this out during a press conference organised by campaign groups protesting against the Saudi visit. A similar request was made in a letter to the British Prime Minister from a British Muslim organisation, which appealed to May not to put trade ahead of “essential values”.
Tellingly, an article portraying Bin Salman as “the most dangerous man in the world” attracted the most attention. The piece describing the Crown Prince as “aggressive and ambitious” was shared on social media more than 55,000 times; that’s 54,000 more than the number of people following the #Welcome Saudi Crown Prince Twitter page. With only 960 followers this morning, it would appear that the multi-million pound charm offensive designed to boost Bin Salman’s image has been a huge waste of time and money.