Until recently, Saudi Arabia did little to promote its public image in the west. Now, its crown prince is pictured tieless, chatting with Mark Zuckerbergby Jane Kinninmont / October 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement that women would finally be issued with driving licences was the single biggest thing the country could do to improve its global image. It was not just a PR stunt in that it reflects social change and economic necessity; women are increasingly educated and working, and there is almost no public transport. But changing the rules on women driving has helped to shift the international media spotlight away from austerity, autocracy, arrests, the war in Yemen and the row with Qatar, and onto Saudi Arabia’s social and economic liberalisation.
For years, the driving ban has been the best-known fact about Saudi Arabia internationally, seen as a symbol of a country that was repressive, extremist, or just weird. Saudi diplomats, whose own daughters often drove in their overseas postings, spent days of their life trying to defend the policy, saying it was required by the conservative public. But now, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (nicknamed “MBS”) is using the driving change to bolster his credentials as a moderniser, both at home and abroad. He emphasises social liberalisation and economic development—not the political reform that Arab crown princes used to promise in the 1990s and 2000s.
The 32-year-old prince has also focused much more on public opinion than his predecessors—commissioning opinion surveys and social media analyses, and adopting a new, informal style of communicating with Saudi youth. Internationally, too, MBS has taken a new approach to the press. After his father’s accession in 2015, suddenly journalists were being invited in to a country where media visas had been like gold dust. Cleverly, the royal court invited journalists from critical newspapers, who would be more credible than those already seen as sympathetic. The country’s image was so bad that giving access could hardly make it worse.
And indeed, a five-hour interview with the Economist’s first female editor helped shift the coverage of Saudi Arabia away from executions and onto what it called the country’s “Thatcher revolution.” An audience with MBS in Riyadh changed Thomas Friedman’s line on the country from “Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia” (in September 2015) to “Signals of Change in Saudi Arabia” two months later. Visiting the United States last year, the usual photo-ops of stiff handshakes with senior politicians were replaced by a more striking image: MBS, with a shirt but no tie, chatting with Mark Zuckerberg.
This active media engagement is something new for Saudi Arabia. For years, it didn’t bother much with public relations. The smaller Gulf states, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, spent billions on western PR firms to develop their “country brands”; to market themselves as destinations and to try to explain away human rights violations.
Until recently, Saudi Arabia did little to promote its public image in the west. But in the years since 9/11, criticism of Saudi Arabia has no longer been limited to its internal policies. Writers and analysts have begun to link these directly to American national security, saying that repression inside Saudi Arabia bred extremism directed towards the US. Now, criticisms of the war in Yemen have raised questions about arms sales to the country. In the UK, Labour has called for an embargo and campaigners have tried to challenge the sales in the high court.
There are two other reasons why international PR matters more than ever to Saudi Arabia. One is that the country, accustomed to exporting capital around the world, now needs to attract it. Given the squeeze on oil revenues, the government has increased its international borrowing, and is seeking investment into a few priority sectors.
Another is that Saudi youth are more globally connected than ever. Over 100,000 study abroad every year. Everyone is online. Saudis are often bothered by their poor international image. News that Mohammed bin Salman had purchased a yacht worth $500m—just as the Saudi government was cutting public-sector pay—went viral inside Saudi Arabia. Bad press around the world is also now read at home. With the lifting of the ban on women drivers, MBS will be counting on positive press around the word being read at home too.