Saudi Arabia’s influential public relations machine has come under further scrutiny following the announcement by Britain’s Labour Party that “duped” Paul Williams will be contesting the crucial upcoming by-election in Hartlepool. Williams made glowing remarks about the Kingdom just months before the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, and just after returning from an £8,700 ($12,000) junket that was paid for and organised by the autocratic regime.
After arriving back in Britain from the stage-managed trip to the oil-rich monarchy in April 2018, Williams tweeted: “Asked by Yousef, from the Saudi Embassy in the UK, whether my perceptions of Saudi Arabia have changed after this trip, I said that my previous notions have been blown out of the water. I’ve seen a modern, progressive Saudi Arabia that has totally changed my view of this country.”
Parliament’s register of interests shows Williams as having accepted the trip as an £8,762 donation from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its Shura (Consultative) Council, the country’s parliament that is appointed entirely by the king.
Williams was the MP for Stockton South from 2017 until he lost the seat in 2019 to the Conservative Party’s Matt Vickers. He will contest the Hartlepool by-election, which was sparked by the resignation of Mike Hill, who quit amid allegations of sexual harassment.
“We’d urge Dr Williams and others accepting the hospitality of the Saudi Arabian authorities to be aware that Riyadh operates a well-honed PR machine, involving everything from expenses-paid political visits to multimillion-pound sportswashing ventures,” said Allan Hogarth, head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International UK, in an interview with the Independent. “It’s vital that those who travel to Saudi Arabia aren’t duped by the PR. They need to remember that under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on human rights has been ferocious and is still ongoing, while the Saudi air force’s indiscriminate bombing of Yemeni homes and hospitals has been an obvious scandal for the past five years.”
Following the murder of Khashoggi, Williams defended his trip to the Kingdom. “The whole Khashoggi incident is appalling. It appears the Saudi security services have done a disgraceful thing and they should be held to account. Doesn’t change the fact that I met progressive people working to improve their country when I visited though. I did see progressive things and meet progressive people on a trip to Saudi. That doesn’t make me a supporter of their government and it appears that atrocious things have been done by the Saudi government. I’m independent-minded enough to criticise where it’s due.”