By Ian Cobain
Consulum, which acts on behalf of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, says document was only a ‘first draft’. A senior British diplomat became involved in a plan to improve the image of Khalifa Haftar after the eastern Libyan commander was accused of committing war crimes.
Jolyon Welsh worked on the proposal after joining controversial public relations company Consulum while on unpaid leave from the UK Foreign Office. Previously, Welsh served as the Foreign Office’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Consulum says it began work to devise a draft communications strategy on behalf of Haftar after being approached in early May 2019 by an intermediary for the commander, whom it declines to name.
The aim of the plan would have been to position Haftar as a credible leader of Libya as a whole, according to a Consulum document seen by MEE which the company describes as a “draft”.
The company says the proposal was abandoned after Welsh conducted a “due diligence” exercise to examine whether Haftar should be accepted as a client. The process appears to have taken the best part of a week during May 2019, despite the widespread international concern that Haftar was responsible for war crimes.
The previous month, UN officials had publicly warned Haftar that he could be committing war crimes by shelling civilians in Tripoli. Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, also said that she was considering issuing arrest warrants.
At the time, two ICC warrants were outstanding for the arrest of Mahmoud al-Werfalli, one of Haftar’s senior commanders. Al-Werfalli is still wanted for murder as a war crime.
During June and July this year, following the collapse of Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, the bodies of men, women and children were found in mass graves and hospital morgues across territory that his forces previously controlled. More than 100 bodies recovered from a hospital morgue were said to bear signs of torture.
At the same time that Welsh was conducting his “due diligence” checks on Haftar, Consulum drew up the communications strategy document which – if the plan had not been abandoned – would have intended to help position Haftar as a future leader of the country by influencing first UK political and media opinion, then the wider western world.
Asked about the document, Consulum’s lawyers disputed that the document indicated Consulum planned to pitch to work for Haftar, and threatened to sue for libel.
In a series of subsequent letters to MEE, Consulum’s lawyers later conceded that the document was a “first draft” which could, after “many stages”, be developed into a more detailed proposal. It added that it had been drawn up by a junior employee and had never been used outside Consulum’s offices.
Consulum also worked to generate favourable media coverage for its long-standing client, Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Khashoggi is widely believed to have been killed on the orders of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Consulum refuses to say whether or not Welsh was involved in its PR work for the kingdom.
In June, Consulum faced fierce criticism from the chair of the UK parliament’s foreign affairs committee for the public relations work it has agreed with the government of Hong Kong, after China imposed a new security law on the region.
This work was not only contrary to the interests of the British government, according to Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, but “against the interests of the British people, against the interests of democracy [and] against the interests of the rule of law”.
Shortly afterwards, the UK Foreign Office announced that Welsh was no longer a serving diplomat, but will not tell MEE when he left its service. Nor will the Foreign Office say whether it was aware that Welsh was working on the project.
Welsh is understood to have joined Consulum in 2014, on a full-time basis. It is believed that at that time he was on unpaid leave, and remained a serving diplomat for several years.
Consulum has also declined to say when Welsh left the Foreign Office, telling MEE that it believes the question to be of “no relevance”.
However, the latest online version of Who’s Who, the volume of biographical data, says that Welsh remained a member of the UK Diplomatic Service when it was published in December 2019. Each entry in Who’s Who is written by the subject, on the basis of a questionnaire provided by the publisher.
By using a sophisticated communications strategy, lobbying government ministers, parliamentarians and journalists, and through the use of social media, Consulum’s document said it would have aimed to “position Field Marshal Haftar as essential to Libya’s future and the best chance for a stable, peaceful and united Libya aligned with the West’s interests”.
The ultimate objective according to the document would have been to present Haftar as “the only credible solution to Libya’s civil war”, and as a “pro-Western bulwark against terrorism” who could become the country’s “transitional leader” leader while it pursued a democratic future.
The document suggested that Consulum could write a number of opinion pieces and place them in Western media, under Haftar’s byline; train his spokespeople; and make use of Google, Wikipedia and social media to boost Haftar’s online reputation.
As part of the draft strategy to position Haftar more favourably within the West, Consulum identified 22 UK government ministers, officials, parliamentarians and journalists which it described as “stakeholders”.
They included the then foreign and defence secretaries, Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt respectively; Lt Gen John Lorimer, the UK’s senior defence advisor on the Middle East; eight named journalists at six media organisations, including the BBC, The Times and The Economist; and four named MPs, including Tugendhat.
The document does not explain how Consulum proposed to persuade these individuals to support Haftar, but it does suggest that influencing UK opinion should be just the start of a strategy for the field marshal to gain “broad support across the Western political establishment”.
The document indicates that Consulum’s priority would have been to influence opinion in the UK and improve Haftar’s standing there.
It says: “This is because the UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council; the UK remains an active player in the ongoing struggle in Libya; with the positions of other major Western countries, in particular the US and France, in flux, UK support for Field Marshall [sic] Haftar could have a decisive impact in consolidating Western backing.”
Consulum proposed to do this by using a network of contacts in the international media, to bring about a global change in its perception of Haftar, according to the document.
The proposed strategy would have been implemented in conjunction with Haftar and his staff.
Consulum’s proposed retainer for the work would have been between $200,000 and $250,000 a month.
Consulum declined to answer a number of questions about the document, including who issued the instruction for the “junior employee” to create it; why Welsh’s “due diligence” checks appear to have taken so long; and whether the UK Foreign Office or any other government was consulted as part of these checks.
A spokesman for Consulum said: “Consulum has never acted for or agreed to act for Khalifa Haftar. In response to an unsolicited enquiry, having completed detailed due diligence, Consulum concluded that any engagement would be inappropriate.
“Jolyon Welsh Has been a full-time employee of Consulum since 2014. His employment was entirely transparent and in full accordance with all relevant FCO rules and procedures and remains so.
“Consulum is proud of its work, developing programmes that help countries and governments improve delivery, build capacity, promote economic outcomes and manage change. The company operates to the highest standard.”
Shortly after the Consulum document was created, a Texan lobbying company, Linden Government Solutions, announced that it had won a $2m contract to promote Haftar’s image.
Linden told the US Justice Department, in filings required under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), that it was providing “strategic consulting services, advice, planning … public relations services” and arranging meetings with business leaders and government officials.
Linden and Haftar did not renew the contract when it expired in June 2020. Linden did not respond to MEE requests for comment.
In July, British parliamentarians, including a government minister, Grant Shapps, suggested that new legislation should be brought forward to create a UK version of FARA, after a parliamentary report concluded that UK ministers and intelligence agencies had failed to look into any Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The UK Home Office says it is considering the idea.
Consulum was founded in 2012 by Tim Ryan and Matthew Gunther-Bushell, two former executives of the communications company Bell Pottinger.
In 2011, undercover reporters filmed other Bell Pottinger executives talking about their use of “dark arts”, and the work they had done for countries with questionable human rights records, such as Sri Lanka and Belarus. It is not suggested that Ryan or Gunther-Bushell were involved in these matters.
In 2017, Bell Pottinger went into administration after it was found to have been stirring up racial tensions in South Africa to further the business interests of one of the country’s most powerful families. Again, it is not suggested that either Ryan or Gunther-Bushell had anything to do with these matters.
Consulum has offices in London and across the Gulf. It has worked closely with the Saudi government over the years to consider ways of generating more favourable media coverage.
MEE has also seen a Consulum document which suggests a media strategy that could be deployed following the murder of Khashoggi.
This has included identifying the media organisations and individual journalists and commentators who are most favourable, and most hostile to the Saudi government.
This work is said to have included an audit of an “outlet and journalist database” and a “commentator and influencer database”, and included a series of recommendations for Saudi government ministries and the royal court.
Ian Cobain is a senior reporter at Middle East Eye. He is an award-winning journalist and the author of Cruel Britannia and also The History Thieves.