A UK diplomat is working for the firm behind a multimillion pound Saudi PR drive while still employed by the Foreign Office, it has been revealed. It comes as Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince prepares for his trip to Britain.
Jolyon Welsh, whose Foreign Office roles have included deputy head of Middle East, was given special unpaid leave in 2014 to become a senior director of Consulum, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The communications firm was founded by former executives from Bell Pottinger, the agency that collapsed last year after a scandal over a campaign for South Africa’s Gupta family.
Consulum’s client list includes Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, widely known as MBS. He is Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, whose state visit to the UK starts this Wednesday amid controversy over his country’s military campaign in Yemen. Saudi-led coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians and, at one point, sealed off the state to humanitarian access.
Sealing off the borders and ports prevented aid access to the poverty-stricken nation, exacerbating the cholera crisis that has so far affected 31,421 of Yemenis. According to the UN more than 9,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Yemen. More than 52,000 have also been injured in the fighting since the war began in March 2015.
The Bureau reports that Welsh has at least some involvement with the Saudi account. The fact he is involved at all underscores the close ties between London and Riyadh, as permission to work for a private firm is only given if “directly and closely related to a specific FCO area of interest [and] in line with our strategic priorities.”
Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, a member of the Commons committee on Arms Export Controls, told the Bureau: “It’s one thing for the Foreign Office to provide political cover for the Saudis’ assault on Yemen, which defies all notions of proportionality and which I believe in several cases constitutes war crimes. It’s quite another for the FCO to have lent its staff to a company working for the Saudis’ PR operation.”
The Foreign Office told the Bureau that there are now 34 officials such as Welsh, working in the private sector while maintaining their Foreign Office status.
I just arrived in London and was greeted by these billboards plastered with the image of the Saudi Crown Prince. Seriously? pic.twitter.com/ZjE74ea1eG
— Bambang Kajairi (@BambangKajairi) March 7, 2018
Mass protests against the Crown Prince’s visit are expected to take place at Downing Street on Wednesday. But to counter the bad publicity, ads in newspapers were posted, billboards were put up and trucks with positive messages about the Saudi leader were driven around London.
The trucks showed his image and promoted the hashtag #WelcomeSaudiCrownPrince, while digital billboards on the M4 from Heathrow bore the message – “He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia.”
In an ironic twist, an advert with the message “He is empowering Saudi Arabian women,” appeared on The Guardian’s website next to shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry’s article on his visit. She wrote that the three-day visit showed the Government “doesn’t care a jot about human rights.”
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