The Canadian who until recently headed the global consulting giant McKinsey & Company says he is angered by suggestions that a report from his firm could have been used by the Saudi government to target dissidents.
“Let’s use our brains on that stuff,” said Dominic Barton at a speaking event in Toronto on Thursday. He argued that McKinsey is in Saudi Arabia to consult on issues related to finance, health care and education – and not to help any state track down opponents on social media.
Mr. Barton spent nearly a decade running McKinsey before retiring from that role in July. He still serves in an emeritus position at the firm and is also an economic adviser to the federal government.
Last month, in the aftermath of the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by Saudi government agents, The New York Times published an exposé about the Saudi government’s use of technology to stifle dissent.
The article reported that Riyadh has created vast armies of paid commentators to amplify government messaging on social media. It also mentioned an alleged attempt by the Saudi government to glean information about its dissidents from a citizen who was then working for Twitter.
It was in this context that The Times also mentioned the Saudis could have had access to a nine-page McKinsey document from 2015 that mentioned three prominent Twitter critics of the Saudi government’s economic policies. Each would later be targeted in crackdowns, according to The New York Times.
News of this prompted immediate condemnation, including from prominent politicians such as U.S. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren. “I am concerned that McKinsey’s report on public perception may have been weaponized by the Saudi government to crush criticism of the kingdom’s policies, regardless of McKinsey’s intended purpose for the information,” she wrote in a public letter to the company.
But the consulting company immediately released its own statement saying that while it is now investigating matters, it felt its 2015 report was being mischaracterized.
“McKinsey has not and never would engage in any work that seeks to target individuals based on their views,” the company said. “The document in question was a brief overview of publicly available information looking at social-media usage. It was not prepared for any government entity. Its intended primary audience was internal."
The statement from McKinsey added that it was “horrified by the possibility, however remote” that the Saudis could have misused the report to try to target dissidents.
Mr. Barton made similar points in stronger language on Thursday, as he responded to a question from a Globe and Mail reporter. He was at the University of Toronto to promote his new book, Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First.
“You have to ask yourself the question: Do you think the Saudi government, or any national government, would look to McKinsey to come up with ideas [about who is using social media]?” he said.
Scoffing at the notion that any foreign state needs U.S.-based consultants to find dissidents publicly posting messages on social media, he said his company was never hired to do that sort of job.
“Do you know the work we do in Saudi ? A lot of it is on education. It’s on health care. We’re not involved in the mechanics of what people do or where they are,” Mr. Barton said.
It’s no secret that McKinsey has done extensive consultation with the Saudi government in recent years. Some past accounts have said this work was so extensive and wide-ranging that the Saudi Ministry of Planning has been sardonically referred to in that country as the “McKinsey Ministry.”
Mr. Barton, who presided over the firm when it expanded its Saudi activities, argued that the consultancy has actually been working to try to liberalize the Gulf Kingdom.
“Our interest is that there was a reform underway which we liked – which, by the way, the population likes, which the youth like, which the women like,” said Mr. Barton.
One of the three Twitter activists allegedly named in the McKinsey report is Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi now living outside of Montreal.
Last month, an investigative report from U of T’s Citizen Lab found that Mr. Abdulaziz’s phone had likely been hacked by Saudi government agents this summer. He has since said he was in frequent conversation with Mr. Khashoggi during the time his communications were compromised.
Mr. Abdulaziz, who complains his family members have been recently arrested in Saudi Arabia, was angered to hear news of a McKinsey report that named him.
“I’m suing you,” he tweeted at the company on Oct. 22.