Saudi Arabia commercial banned by UK TV body for promoting reform agenda

When Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the U.K. for three days in March, the Saudi government ran a 1-minute commercial on British cable TV promoting the kingdom's reform agenda, "Vision 2030." Large press adverts stated: "He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia."

But now the TV ad, which ran 56 times on Sky, has effectively been banned by Ofcom, the U.K.'s media regulator, for breaking the country's strict ban on political advertising on TV and radio.

Ofcom ruled that the ad "was intended to influence public opinion on a matter of public controversy in the U.K.," namely Saudi Arabia's approach to free speech, human rights and the treatment of women, as well as "the sale of U.K. weapons to the kingdom and the kingdom's involvement in the Yemeni civil war."

But the Saudi government said it was run solely to promote trade between the two nations, in its submission to Ofcom provided by agency Beaux Media.

The commercial showed a montage of images of Saudi Arabia, including women driving and cultural events, with a voiceover that stated: "Things are undoubtedly changing in Saudi Arabia… Saudi women have been allowed to drive… The entertainment sector is bracing itself for a new era… The kingdom is reducing its reliance on oil… Key world partnerships are at the heart of this shift, mainly with the United Kingdom. Our longstanding relationship brings increased prosperity and security for both countries."

Ofcom ruled that the ad was intended to influence public opinion in the U.K. on matters of public controversy and therefore broke the political advertising rule. "The statements included in the advertisement appeared designed to promote positively the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and to persuade U.K. viewers of the benefits of the U.K. maintaining a relationship with it, at a time when such a relationship was a matter of contention," it said in an online statement.

The commercial was placed by the Saudi Center for International Communication (CIC) on behalf of the kingdom's Ministry for Culture and Information and was approved by screening service Clearcast before broadcast. Clearcast said it approved the ad on the basis of the trade relationship between the two countries.

No fines or other sanctions were given, but Saudi Arabia may not be able to run similar TV ads in future. There are no similar restrictions on political advertising on the internet or in print in the U.K.

Bin Salman visited the U.K. from March 6 to 8, meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the British royal family, as well as Prime Minister Theresa May and the then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.