Yemen and the spin doctors

Just over a month ago I noted that the Bell Pottinger, one of Britain's leading public relations firms, had been hired by President Saleh's regime in Yemen and was working for "an unnamed special entity" set up by the government in Sana'a.

Research by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism has now cast some more light on this mysterious affair. It appears that the "unnamed special entity" is the National Awareness Organisation – a body founded and chaired by the president's nephew, Colonel Tareq Saleh, who is also in charge of the presidential guard.

Besides trying to improve the country's image abroad through its website, the National Awareness Organisation has been running a "patriotism" campaign within Yemen. It has been distributing millions of posters, bumper stickers, CDs and other promotional materials with its patriotic message, according to Yemen Today.

"The awareness committee also plans to revise [school] textbooks to reflect love of country and moderation," Yemen Today added. "They have organised an art gallery focused on combating extremism and terrorism. More than 70 artists, representing all of the Yemeni provinces, contributed to the gallery showing their support for national unity."

Bell Pottinger's public relations work for unsavoury regimes (others in the Middle East have included Bahrain and Egypt under Mubarak) is controversial and usually rather secretive. Details emerged in this case because Bell Pottinger sub-contracted the American PR firm, Qorvis, for at least part of its Yemen-related work.

In the US, unlike Britain, lobbying work for foreign governments has to be registered with the Justice Department, and on August 4Qorvis filed the obligatory documents relating to its contract.

Qorvis's sub-contracting role was to carry out "media outreach for print and television media and strategic communications consultancy" in the US for the Yemeni National Awareness Organisation at a rate of $30,000 per month.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism says: "In November 2010 Bell Pottinger also contracted Qorvis to place an opinion article by a Yemeni official in a news outlet, as part of its work for the foreign ministry."

That raises another interesting question: what was the article, and where did it appear?

Searching on Google, I can find only one that fits the time-frame and general description. On November 24, the Huffington Post published this article under the name of Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Yemen's foreign minister. 

After some initial blathering about "the great gains Yemen has made in recent years in the fields of security, tourism and wider economic development", the article continued:

"Those who have been reading the international press in recent weeks, who have not had the good fortune to visit our country and enjoy its rich history and age-old traditions of hospitality, would naturally conclude that there was little to Yemen other than the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is a shame that this false image has become so prevalent because nothing could be further from the truth ...

"I would like to take this opportunity to assure the international community that the Yemeni government remains steadfast in its commitment to root out terrorism. Our security forces will continue their relentless efforts to fight against Al Qaeda. The people of Yemen stand firm behind their government and its fight against radicalisation and terrorism." 

Dr Qirbi (who I met a few years ago) speaks excellent English and I doubt he would have written such drivel without the intervention of Qorvis. Also, as anyone who has offered an article for publication by Huffpo will know, you don't need an expensive PR firm to act as go-between. If I were Saleh's nephew I'd say I had been thoroughly ripped off.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 September 2011