From the desk of Frank Kane: Spin doctors, firepower and Blair

Focus: The spin doctors in the Middle East are spinning up once more.

Lord Mandelson helped British contractors get some of their money back after the property bust.Andrew Henderson / The National
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It has been a while since I dipped into the wacky world of Middle East public relations, but some momentous events have taken place in the past six months, and at last the spin doctors are responding.

I don't mean the on-off relationship between the UK's Bell Pottinger and the government of Bahrain. At about the time forces moved into Bahrain, the firm said its activities in the troubled kingdom were being scaled back for the time being.

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Recently, I notice an increase in the number of Bell Pottinger e-mailed statements on behalf of one Bahraini government department or another, so you would have to assume it's all back on for the company, based in London.

What I mean is the exciting news - so far only whispered about in PR circles and the specialist press - that a new force is on the scene in the Middle East. And quite a pedigree it has, too.


The financial crisis didn't seem to put off too many of the big international firms from the region. In fact, I can recall offhand at least three launches that have taken place since the summer of 2008.

But this is the first I know of to have been prompted directly by the historic events of the Arab Spring. Hillingdon Cresswell already has offices in London and Amman, and is looking out for the right premises (and clients, of course) in the UAE.

The duo behind the new company consists of Chris McShane, long-time press adviser to the former British prime minister Tony Blair, and Ghalia Alul, who ran strategic communications for the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and Queen Rania of Jordan.

They have pulled together a team of experienced consultants from the UK and Middle East as the core of the new operation.

A couple of members of the line-up are former Blair advisers, while there is also a gaggle of experienced hands from PR, marketing and communications.


Apart from Mr Blair (whose role as Middle East peace envoy must rule him out of any direct executive role at the firm), there is another eminence grise: Lord [Peter] Mandelson, who as former British business secretary saw quite a lot of action in the Gulf region, mainly in helping British contractors get some of their money back after the property bust.

"Peter has a working relationship with Chris, from his days in government," Ms Alul says. "We value his [Peter's] advice, but it's not official."

That all adds up to quite a lot of political firepower, so it's no surprise that Hillingdon Cresswell's potential clients are governments and government-related enterprises. And not just for a bit of one-off spin doctoring.

"Our motto is 'building capacity, not dependency', so we really want to help governments and others set up their own communications structures," Ms Alul says.

Mr McShane elaborates: "We see ourselves almost as management consultants specialising in communications.

We don't think the best way is to hire an expensive foreign firm and then wait to be told what to do. It's far better if they [the clients] do it themselves, with good advice."

Have they got any clients yet? "We're at the relationship-building stage," Mr McShane says, which I suppose is a new way of saying "no". But he adds: "We've enough funding to see us through," without elaborating on the source of the funding.


I guess the biggest question today for Hillingdon Cresswell is whether the connection with the former British government (the one that took the UK to war with Iraq), and with Mr Blair in particular, will be a help or hindrance in opening doors with governments in the region.

Despite, or maybe because of, his role in the Israel-Palestine peace process, you do not hear Mr Blair's praises being sung widely in the region as elder statesman turned peacemaker.

His old friendship with George W Bush is a big factor in this ambivalence.

It's good to have a new voice on the PR scene.

It will be interesting to see how Hillingdon Cresswell's novel approach goes.