The New York-based company, known as one of the world’s most controversial public relations firms, has now become the latest Western PR firm to land on Saudi Arabia’s payroll. They’ve been hired with the specific intent of improving the image of the so-called Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism – an alliance occasionally referred to by the nickname “Muslim NATO,” as it is modeled after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The alliance, founded in late 2015, was created by the Saudis in partnership with 34 Muslim majority nations with the intention of sharing information and training, equipping and providing forces needed to combat Daesh (ISIS) militants who are active in Iraq and Syria, as well as fighting “any terrorist group that appears in front” of the alliance. The move was welcomed by the Obama administration, which had been seeking greater regional involvement in the U.S.-led campaign to fight Daesh.
The praise bestowed upon the alliance by Obama administration officials was unusual, given that the Obama State Department was aware at the time that Saudi Arabia provides “clandestine financial and logistic support” to Daesh and other extremist terrorist groups that are active in Syria and Iraq.
In addition, according to a leaked memo authored by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Saudi Arabia is known to the State Department to be the world’s largest funder of Wahhabi militant groups worldwide, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Other members of the Islamic military alliance – Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – were also listed as countries known to be funding Wahhabi terrorists.
Many of the alliance’s member nations are also known for their sordid human rights records, an inconvenient truth that some have argued is being hidden by the peddling of a “terrorist-fighting” military alliance. As Husain Abdulla, executive director for Americans For Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, told Middle East Eye: “Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and many other members of this coalition are masterful at diverting attention from their systematic human rights abuses. Their participation in the Islamic Military Alliance is a clear example of how they use the fight against terrorism to distract from abuse and repression.”
Notably, the alliance fails to include Muslim-majority nations like Iran and Syria – countries that have a proven track record of fighting the Wahabbist terror groups that the Saudi-led alliance claims to fight but is actually funding. As Middle East Eye noted, the exclusion of Iran and Syria, among others, has prompted concern from Iran that the alliance is a sectarian force with ulterior motives.
While the organization’s official name may paint the alliance as being inclusive of all Muslims and focused on fighting extremism, the Saudis – in addition to being internationally recognized as the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism – are well-known for spreading sectarianism via the exportation of Wahhabist ideology.
As political analyst and writer Catherine Shakdam noted in 2015:
“Wahhabism is merely the misguided expression of one man’s political ambition – Mohammed Abdel-Wahhab, a bigot who was recruited by the British Empire to erode the fabric of Islam and crack the armor of the then-Ottoman Empire by breeding sectarianism and dissent. It is Abdel-Wahhab’s alliance to the House of Saud that ultimately unleashed this now seemingly unstoppable evil we know today under the tag of Islamic radicalism. If not for the Al Saud Royals’ billions and the silence of Western powers, Wahhabism would never have crossed the deserts of Saudi Arabia. If not for the kingdom’s lavish sponsoring of the Wahhabi school of thought, extremism would never have come to be in the first place.”
Thus, the assertion that this alliance represents Islam as a whole is misleading, as a majority of Muslim practitioners are viewed as “unbelievers” and deserving of death through the lens of Wahhabism.
Now, less than two years later, alliance members are suggesting that they will be targeting not Daesh terrorists, but a Yemeni resistance movement led by Houthi rebels who have been actively fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen, as well as fighting the influence of Saudi Arabian colonialism in the country. Last week, Saudi Major General Ahmed Asiri, a major player in the alliance who is currently being investigated by British authorities regarding alleged war crimes, told the Wall Street Journal that the alliance’s scope could be extended to include fighting against the Houthis.
The Houthis have been targeted by the Saudis since early 2015 in a war that has crippled the nation, killing thousands of civilians and provoking a massive humanitarian crisis that is estimated to claim the life of one child every ten minutes. Much of the death and destruction in Yemen owes to the Saudi-led coalition’s repeated bombings of hospitals and civilian infrastructure, leading many in the international community to accuse the Saudis of war crimes.
In addition, Saudi Arabia has weaponized humanitarian aid that is being provided to Yemen by blocking shipments of medical aid and food from humanitarian organizations.
The Saudis, worried about bad PR from their campaign in Yemen right before the alliance’s first major conference, have enlisted the services of the world’s premier PR firm for corporations and authoritarian governments in crisis.
Burson-Marsteller, while offering a range of PR services, is best known for its “crisis capabilities.” In other words, corporations – ranging from ExxonMobil to Blackwater – enlist the firm’s services when they find themselves in hot water and are in desperate need of damage control.
Burson-Marsteller rose to prominence in the 1980s, when it was hired by Johnson & Johnson in the aftermath of the Chicago Tylenol murders. Seven people died after taking Tylenol that had been contaminated with cyanide by an unknown suspect who was never apprehended.
Other notable cases taken by the firm include representing the builders of the Three Mile Island nuclear station following the station’s near-meltdown, as well as Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) after a chemical disaster at one of its plants killed thousands in India and tobacco giant PhillipMorris after the Environmental Protection Agency warned about the dangers of second-hand smoke.
In addition to its work in the corporate world, Burson-Marsteller has also worked on behalf of several governments with questionable human rights records. Among their past clientele include Argentinian dictator Jorge Videla in the late 1970s and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, as well as the governments of Nigeria and Indonesia after those governments were accused of genocide.
The firm has also had several lucrative contracts with the U.S. government, including a $4.6 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security in 2005. The firm’s leadership is also deeply connected to the Clinton family, with former CEO Mark Penn serving as a key “behind-the-scenes” figure in the Clinton White House, as well as chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential campaign. Current CEO Don Baer has also worked for the Clintons, having served as a senior adviser to the Clinton White House, as well as its director of communications and top speechwriter.
Saudi Arabia has employed Burson-Marsteller in the past, most notably just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when it hired the firm for its crisis management expertise. Working in connection with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, the firm launched an advertising campaign in newspapers across the country seeking to distance Saudi Arabia from the attackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals.
Burson-Marsteller is not the only Western PR firm the Saudis have employed in recent years. The Saudis recently came under fire for their use of U.S.-based lobbying firms in order to convince Congress to repeal or rewrite the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, also known by its acronym JASTA, or simply as the “9/11 bill.”
Some of the firms employed for this particular purpose have included Edelman PR, the Podesta Group, DLA Piper, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, Qorvis MSLGROUP and the Capitol Media Group. The latter two are especially controversial for the exploitation of veterans that played a role in their anti-JASTA lobbying efforts.
With Saudi Arabia having recently been appointed to the UN’s women’s rights commission, it seems that the Gulf Kingdom’s use of western PR firms is paying off.
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