Booz Allen and competitors McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group have stayed close to the Saudi monarchy after playing critical roles in the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia charmed Goldman Sachs bankers and Silicon Valley executives on a U.S. tour this spring, some of his most trusted lieutenants were taking care of business in Washington.
In a low-key ceremony two blocks from the White House, Saudi officials signed an agreement with Booz Allen Hamilton, a U.S. consulting company, to help train the kingdom’s growing ranks of cyberfighters.
The agreement would “open great horizons” by improving the skills of the kingdom’s cybersecurity experts, Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to the crown prince overseeing the deal, said in Saudi Arabia in a statement to the official press. It did not mention his continuing campaign to silence critics both inside the kingdom and online.
Al-Qahtani was fired last month after Saudi officials linked him to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying he had contributed to an aggressive environment that helped lead to the killing. But while Khashoggi’s death prompted investors from around the globe to distance themselves from the Saudi government, Booz Allen and its competitors McKinsey & Co. and Boston Consulting Group have stayed close after playing critical roles in Crown Prince Mohammed’s drive to consolidate power.
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In addition to standard consulting work like doling out economic advice and helping burnish Crown Prince Mohammed’s image, they have taken on more unconventional assignments. Booz Allen trains the Saudi navy as it runs a blockade in the war in Yemen, a disaster that has threatened millions with starvation. McKinsey produced a report that may have aided al-Qahtani’s crackdown on dissidents. BCG advises Crown Prince Mohammed’s foundation.
The work is lucrative — the three firms have earned hundreds of millions of dollars altogether on projects in Saudi Arabia. McKinsey’s work in the kingdom grew from two Saudi projects in 2010 to almost 50 the following year and kept accelerating, to almost 600 projects from 2011 to 2016.
McKinsey consultants spread across the kingdom in recent years to advise government agencies such as the Planning Ministry, nicknamed the “Ministry of McKinsey” by some Saudis; the royal court; and a coterie of companies in industries such as banking, media, telecommunications, real estate and energy, internal McKinsey documents viewed by The New York Times showed.
Last year, McKinsey bought a politically connected Saudi consultancy, adding that firm’s 140 employees to more than 300 already in the region.
Its report singling out the kingdom’s prominent online critics drew widespread condemnation when The Times revealed it last month. The dissidents — including Khalid al-Alkami, a writer critical of Saudi policies, and Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi now living in Canada — were described in detail, alongside photos of them.
“Omar has a multitude of negative tweets on topics such as austerity and the royal decrees,” the author, who McKinsey says is a researcher based in Saudi Arabia, wrote in bullet points. Al-Alkami “wrote multiple negative tweets regarding austerity.”
Though McKinsey said the report was prepared for an internal audience, al-Alkami was subsequently arrested, and Abdulaziz said two of his brothers were imprisoned. A third, pseudonymous account was shut down, and it remains unclear what happened to the person behind it.
The crackdown was an early sign of the Saudi government’s extreme measures to quash criticism, which culminated in Khashoggi’s murder.
McKinsey said it was “horrified” at the possibility that its information could have been misused. In a note to former employees, McKinsey said the researcher had published the analysis in January 2017 on an internal system and that it was intended only to “showcase techniques to gauge social media usage and reaction.”
Even before Crown Prince Mohammed rose up the royal hierarchy, McKinsey and BCG nurtured ties to him. BCG’s top Middle East executive, Joerg Hildebrandt, cultivated a relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed in recent years, according to two consultants who have worked in the region. Hildebrandt, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
After Crown Prince Mohammed was installed as defense minister in 2015, BCG landed a contract to help overhaul the ministry’s procurement systems and improve its handling of finances and personnel, two people familiar with the contract said.
Press officers for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to emails seeking comment.
In February 2016, consultants for McKinsey and BCG escorted five emissaries from the Saudi royal court to make the rounds of think tanks in Washington. They informed Gulf experts about Mohammed bin Salman’s grand goals to remake Saudi life while the consultants, who outnumbered the Saudis, quietly took notes.
BCG has been deeply enmeshed in laying out the economic blueprint of the country, called Vision 2030, which aims to wean Saudi Arabia from its dependency on oil revenues. A McKinsey report in 2015 laid out the broad strokes of that plan.
Asked by The Economist in 2016 about a $4 trillion estimate of needed investment to transform the kingdom’s economy, the crown prince immediately recognized the figure. “This is a report from McKinsey, not from the Saudi government,” he replied, adding that McKinsey “participates with us in many studies.”
Last month’s Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, a conclave championed by Crown Prince Mohammed, underscored Saudi Arabia’s importance to the consulting firms. While executives, companies and journalists pulled out amid the global furor over Khashoggi’s murder, they stayed on.
McKinsey led panels on money and energy, the event program showed. Boston Consulting Group focused on unspecified “intelligence.”
In a statement, BCG said it focused in Saudi Arabia on work that could “positively contribute to economic and societal transformation” and that the company has turned down work that goes against that principle. The firm declines projects that involve military or intelligence strategy, a spokesman said.
For years, Booz Allen has trained the Saudi navy, part of a U.S. government program to help allied militaries. The company has worked with the navy on operations, intelligence and electronic warfare, as well as logistics and financial management, it said in 2012.
Dozens of U.S. military veterans work for Booz Allen in Saudi Arabia. One retired rear admiral with combat experience in the region advises top Saudi officers on military planning. Others have extensive shipboard experience that could be used to train Saudis on how to carry out blockades and how to operate equipment like electronic warfare gear that can detect and interfere with enemy radars and missiles.
Booz Allen also advises the Saudi army; it won a contract to help with logistics, including maintaining the Saudis’ Abrams tanks.
In a statement, Booz Allen said it had provided no support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and the company coordinates with the U.S. government to ensure that its work “is consistent with U.S. foreign policy and trade regulations.” The firm did not address whether the troops and sailors it trains participate in the Saudi blockade in Yemen.
The U.S. military has provided limited but significant aid to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, including refueling aircraft, sharing intelligence and sending Army commandos to the Saudi-Yemeni border to locate and destroy caches of ballistic missiles that Iran-backed Houthi rebels have used to attack Saudi cities.
Booz Allen did advise the Saudi government on a plan to provide humanitarian aid to Yemen. But the project, the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations, is seen by aid groups as an ineffective effort that undercuts the United Nations’ own program.
“We have had no control over how the plan or portions of it may have been used,” the company said. Booz Allen’s role was first reported by IRIN, a humanitarian news agency.
After signing the agreement in March to help shore up Saudi cybersecurity, Booz Allen began working directly to protect the systems of government ministries, citing “damaging cyberattacks in companies in the kingdom.” It also ran a hack-a-thon — the kind of event the company has done in the United States to teach people how to penetrate computer systems to discover their vulnerabilities.
Booz Allen denied that its work with the Saudis involved hacks “or the use of cyber for offensive purposes.” But cyberexperts say that the same defensive maneuvers used to discover vulnerabilities or otherwise protect computer networks can easily be redirected to target other governments or dissidents as well.
As for McKinsey, its work with Saudi Arabia is controversial even within the firm. Amid the Arab Spring, its consultants in the region argued that the firm should consider curtailing business in Saudi Arabia, said one former McKinsey consultant who worked in the Middle East.
But more senior consultants, including partners, said McKinsey was not in the business of passing judgment on its clients’ cultures and values. The best way to improve the kingdom, they argued, was to modernize the economy and make government and companies work better.
Rather than scaling back in Saudi Arabia, McKinsey doubled down.
Many foreign consultants working in Saudi Arabia fail to understand the local culture or how an authoritarian government could exploit their work, said one consultant who has worked with the higher reaches of the Saudi government. He qualified that by saying that his colleagues take care to try not to cause harm.
In a statement, a McKinsey spokesman said, “We are proud of our record in Saudi Arabia,” citing job creation and improved health outcomes.
Consultants who aim to help authoritarian governments from the inside often give in to a desire to preserve their lucrative assignments, said Calvert W. Jones, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies the role of consultants in the Middle East.
“They soft-pedal,” she said. “Their fear is if they speak truth to power at this state of their interactions, they will be tossed out.”
The surge in business for BCG, McKinsey and Booz Allen also stems from Crown Prince Mohammed’s need for expertise as he pushes his proposals to revamp the country. His dependence on consultants is so great that some of the companies have people embedded at the royal court to respond quickly to requests, according to three consultants who have done work for the kingdom.
Some reported being asked to turn around proposals in 24 hours, much faster than they often work. And the crown prince will sometimes ask different companies for proposals, then have their consultants pitch to each other as he looks on, the consultants said.
“It’s like a beauty pageant,” said one.
Many of the consultants, who spend five days a week in Riyadh before flying elsewhere to see their families on weekends, were annoyed last year when the government kicked them out of their preferred hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, to use it as a temporary lockup for those accused of corruption.
But not long after the government released those held, the consultants moved back in.