Buying arms vs. ‘selling’ the strike: Do Gulf states need more PR on Syria?

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Saudi Arabia and Qatar have reportedly plugged billions of dollars in arms over the course of the Syrian conflict, emerging as the main foreign powers bankrolling the revolt.

But amid the West’s hesitation this week over launching a military strike to punish Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, indicators suggest the Gulf states have been shooting blanks.

Analysts now believe a portion of Gulf finances could have been better spent on a global anti-Assad/ pro-intervention public relations (PR) campaign.

Could such a PR drive have led us to see a different result in British parliament last week and more decisive moves on the Syrian conflict from the White House?

“If a Saudi-Qatari PR campaign had been running much earlier, say since six months ago, and had been well-executed, then yes,” Mudassar Ahmed, a political media analyst and chief executive of London-based PR agency Unitas, told Al Arabiya English on Tuesday.

“They could have taken the lead on the communications side of it. The British and American governments had done a poor job on convincing their public on the need to intervene, which was done in a half-hearted and almost apologetic manner.”

Despite the West acknowledging the hostilities of the Syrian conflict, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister put the decision to strike Syria to lawmakers, in what has already led to a dismal outcome for the Gulf states that are heavily pro-intervention.

Last week, the UK parliament voted against going to war and while the U.S. Congress' vote is upcoming, analysts are expecting the result to swing the same way.

“These days the battle for public opinion is as important as the battle on the ground,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed says the Saudi-Qatari arms supply has so far been an unsuccessful form of intervention, adding that it which took a major blow due to Syrian opposition fighters being disorganized and “unable to put together a united military front.”

Earlier this year, sources close to the Qatari government told the Financial Times that the total spending on the Syrian crisis reached $3bn, while the armed opposition and diplomatic sources said the amount of Qatari assistance reached one billion dollars at most.

While many argue the weapons flow to the Free Syrian Army has bolstered their military capability, recent regime gains and mounting civilian death tolls suggest Assad still has the upper hand militarily.


“To a large degree, Gulf states have been successful in persuading the senior level Western political leadership to intervene in Syria, however they have failed in persuading the public,” says Ahmed, referring in particular to efforts by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Bandar was tasked by the kingdom to lead talks on the Syrian conflict and has been drumming up Western support to topple Assad.

“Despite such efforts, the Gulf states have misunderstood the sentiments of the legislature involved with these countries and the public opinion, which is that they generally just don’t want to go to war. This is exactly where the problem lies right now,” says Ahmed.

Could Gulf states have better influenced the West on Syria using public relations instead?

“A lot of Gulf countries don’t invest in public relations, but invest in soft power,” says Haroon Moghul, a fellow at the center on national security at the New York-based Fordham Law School.


In fact, PR campaigns employed by Gulf states in the past have largely failed, says Moghul.

In the past decade, a prominent example of Gulf PR maneuvers in the West has been the Saudi-sponsored “Allies” campaigns, a post September 11, 2001 drive to improve the “Saudi image” in the United States.

A variety of public diplomacy and public relations efforts were employed immediately after the CIA revealed that the mastermind behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden, and that 15 of the hijackers were of Saudi Arabian origin.

The kingdom feared the backlash that could threaten its relationship with, and economic interests in, and so the government immediately hired Burson-Marsteller, a PR agency.

Burson-Marsteller has a reputation of representing companies and individuals in crisis, noted a report on Saudi Arabia’s PR strategy by Exchange Diplomacy.

In 2005, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was quoted as saying on her prime time news analysis show:

“When Blackwater killed those seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, they called Burson-Marsteller.

“When there was a nuclear meltdown at Three-Mile Island, Babcock and Wilcox, who built that plant, called Burson-Marsteller.

“The Bhopal chemical disaster that killed thousands of people in India, Union Carbide called Burson-Marsteller.

“The government of Saudi Arabia, three days after 9/11, they called Burson-Marsteller.”

In the case of Saudi Arabia, however, the “Allies” campaign was directed at a particular audience, notes Moghul.

“There were certainly a lot of people coming out of the Gulf to present a positive view and security interests with the West, which is totally fine. But they appeared to be talking to an audience of U.S. policymakers,” says Moghul.

“Such campaigns have utility, but don’t really matter to the average American. There haven’t been any attempts to share ideas across cultures, there’s no real dialogue. It’s all about trying to buy your way into influence.

“Ask Americans what they know about Saudi Arabia or Qatar, it’s really next to nothing,” he adds.

But when it came to Syria, could the Western public have sat up and paid more attention?

“Saudi Arabia and Qatar should have seen the Western public opinion as an operating theater. It was in their interest to persuade the West to intervene in Syria,” says Ahmed.

“Perhaps the Saudis and the Qataris didn’t do this so as not intervene in th West’s own affairs. But the fact is that they have been allies in their stance on the Syrian conflict,” Ahmed said.

He now argues that it’s “too late” to inflame public opinion, despite the use of chemical weapons last month which resulted in over 1,300 Syrian deaths, according to opposition sources.

Chemical weapons use, a major turning point

“The chemical attack was never a turning point for the Western public opinion, it may have been one for the leaders – but the leaders were so disconnected from the public.”

Ahmed says the chance for the chemical attack to be a turning point for the Western public was missed.

“Not enough effort has been made to persuade individual members of parliament or Congressmen to address the gravity of the conflict,” he adds.

The bloody traits of a conflict can be used as a major PR drive. However, PR best practices should always be taken into consideration, to avoid a scenario like the 1990 Kuwait-Iraq war.

Back then, stories of Kuwaiti babies being killed in their incubators by Iraqi troops, endorsed by PR firm Hill & Knowlton, were used to enrage Western public opinion.

Hill & Knowlton had created a front organization, “Citizens for a Free Kuwait,” almost entirely funded by Kuwaiti money and several public relations and lobbying efforts from the PR firm followed.

In an interview with pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in February 2009, Jim Donaldson, the then Public Relations Managing Director said that the claims were investigated by several U.S. government agencies at the time.

“The result of the investigations cleared Hill & Knowlton from any malicious doings,” Donaldson said, while confirming the PR firm’s participation in the “Free Kuwait” campaign and highlighting former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s atrocities during the war.

Various U.S. media outlets had covered the scandalous news of Iraqi atrocities propagated by the PR firm, prompting an emotional impact on the decision in American politics and among the public, to support the war against Iraq.

While the deadly accounts of the Syrian conflict have been documented by activist reports and human rights condemnations, the controversy over Hill & Knowlton’s PR tricks in the 1990 war show how easily public opinion can be swayed.

Except, many believe the Syrian conflict never need any PR ruses.

The analysts believe an estimated toll of more than 110,000 deaths and refugee numbers surpassing 2 million since the conflict began in March 2011 should have been enough to kick the West into action, much earlier on in the conflict.

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