Social media users have been posting photos of London streets adorned with photos of Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. From electronic advertising screens, to bus stops, to the side of taxis, Muhammad bin Salman’s image seems to be everywhere, including the following electronic signs located in front of the London office of Qatar Airways.
Many have assumed that the media blitz has been part of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to promote new investment into non-energy centric industries, as Riyadh looks to re-brand itself inline with its large scale Vision 2030 modernisation initiative, whose most notable megaproject includes a new city to be called NEOM, on the Gulf of Aqaba.
While Saudi Arabia wants to present Muhammad bin Salman’s young face as the image of a more investment friendly, tourist friendly and more culturally relaxed version of the Wahhabi Kingdom, the real motivation for the large scale public relations campaign on the streets of the UK capital is because while Saudi Arabia looks to build a new metropolis, Qatar already has one and it’s called London.
Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, known as the Qatar Investment Authority is the majority owner of a company called Canary Wharf Group Investment Holdings. This company owns more property in London than any other individual or company. What’s more is that the Qatari sovereign wealth fund owns some of the most prestigious addresses in London even beyond those owned by Canary Wharf Group Investment Holdings. The Qatari state owns some of London’s most prestigious hotels, blocks of flats, shopping centres and office towers. This includes the Harrods department store, the Savoy Hotel and Claridges Hotel.
While Saudi Arabia has plenty of assets throughout the world, including in London, when it comes to the UK capital, it is Qatar that reigns supreme. In this sense, by posting pictures around Qatari owned properties in London and in hiring trucks to drive the streets bearing giant photos of Muhammad bin Salman, Riyadh is essentially attempting to rub its presence in Qatar’s face in the way that it could not do in Qatar’s actual capital of Doha.
Far from being a campaign to take Saudi Arabia to the streets of a major European city, the official Twitter page for “Welcome Crown Prince” has only 931 followers, as of the 7th of March, 2018. To put this in perspective, Donald Trump has 48.7 million followers, while an official Twitter of Vladimir Putin (which is in effect just a place to distribute news updates and official press statements, as opposed to Trump’s very personal account), has 859,000 followers.
Thus, one can see that far from a populist movement, Muhammad bin Salman is attempting to promote his country in a city whose political leaders are incredibly friendly with Saudi Arabia, but whose streets are largely owned by the House of Saud’s regional rival, the Qatari House of Thani.
In this sense, a slick, modern marketing campaign is actually something very old fashioned. It is a royal mud slinging contest and due to the vast sums that Riyadh spent to paint Qatar’s “other capital” in its colours, it would seem that the House of Saud have won this opening round in a PR battle designed less to seduce the public than to irritate the Qataris.