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McKinsey consultancy under fire at 2nd Circuit from persecuted Saudi dissident

A close friend of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi says a McKinsey report highlighting his criticism of the Saudi government caused his family to endure torture.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The Second Circuit dug in Thursday to a lawsuit that says the Saudi Arabian government apprehended and tortured a man's family based on a report from the consulting giant McKinsey & Co. that flagged his online activity. 

McKinsey & Company prepared the December 2016 report to measure public response after Saudi Arabia announced budget cuts and new taxes to tackle falling oil prices. It listed three Twitter users as “key people who lead online conversations in their field." Among them was Omar Abdulaziz, a close friend and political ally of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in 2018 for speaking out against the Saudi government. 

Abdulaziz fears his fate will be the same. By the time of the report — which Abdulaziz says McKinsey either prepared directly for the country's Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman or negligently furnished for the prince or his agents — Abdulaziz had already gained asylum in Canada. With Abdulaziz out of the reach, however, the kingdom instead targeted his family, using “torture by proxy,” including removing his younger brother’s teeth and holding many family members and friends in prison. 

Profiled in the award-winning documentary "The Dissident," Abdulaziz is seeking a reversal after a judge in the Southern District of New York dismissed his negligence claims against McKinsey and refused to let him amend the complaint. 

His brief to the Second Circuit says that even in Canada Abdulaziz has been "forced into hiding and had to move from hotel to hotel for four months to avoid being kidnapped or harmed."

John Olsen, an attorney for Abdulaziz based in Montclair, N.J., likened McKinsey to a gun shop owner at oral arguments Thursday. It would be as if the individual who massacred shoppers at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., last month that he had scoped out the store and said, “all I need from you is a gun and some ammo.” 

“All the gun shop owner had to do was say no,” and call the police, Olsen said. “He didn’t have a duty to control that shooter; he had a duty to control his own actions in his own shop.” 

Olsen included McKinsey's report featuring Abdulaziz as Exhibit A to their lawsuit last year. The nine-page slide deck details an analysis of Twitter feeds, mentions and impressions, among other metrics to describe how Saudi Arabia was being portrayed online. The report notes as an example that the second most-tweeted hashtag was #HighwayFeesIssuance. “Most negative mentions are complaining about current street quality and traffic, therefore highway maintenance should precede the fees issued,” the report states. 

There is no dispute that the Twitter posts were public, Olsen notes, but he says McKinsey should have known that narrowing Abdulaziz from one of thousands of critics to one of the three most influential would put a target on his back. 

McKinsey says the report was prepared for internal use by one of its analysts in Saudi Arabia, and wasn’t commissioned by government authorities. 

The consulting firm's attorney Joseph Palmore told the Second Circuit on Thursday that McKinsey had no duty of liability under state law, and Abdulaziz failed to show the proximate cause of the report as to the torture and harassment that followed. The firm merely distilled what was already “very public information.” 

“It did add something to the mix, though,” U.S. Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston, a George W. Bush appointee, replied. “It’s certainly foreseeable, if those allegations are shown at trial, that harm would result, right?” 

Palmore, who is with the firm Morrison & Foerster, said liability would only be based on certain relationships, if McKinsey had some sort of legal authority. “Everyone knows that McKinsey didn’t control the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Palmore continued.  

U.S. Circuit Judge José A. Cabranes meanwhile inquired as to why the report existed in the first place. 

“The suggestion here is that it was a list for hit jobs, in effect. What was the purpose of this identification of major influencers?” the Clinton appointee asked. “They have a fascination with the political science of Saudi Arabia?” 

Palmore replied that he didn’t have any information about the reasons behind the report, other than that McKinsey has an office in the country and retains it as a client, so it “wouldn't be surprising” for the firm to create such an internal report. 

Abdulaziz criticized the way the country was run, foreign policy, human rights violations and the royal family itself — the kind of language he fears could end his life. 

Turkish investigators, the CIA and a United Nations investigative team concluded that Khashoggi’s assassination was likely ordered by the Saudi crown prince and deputy prime minister. 

Of the other two influencers McKinsey identified, three people were driving the conversation on Twitter, the firm found: the writer Khalid al-Alkami; Abdulaziz, and an anonymous user who went by “Ahmad.” Al-Alkami was imprisoned and Ahmad has apparently disappeared from the internet. 

The third judge on the panel was Michael H. Park, a Trump appointee. 

Olsen is setting his sights ahead, he told Courthouse News via email. "We are hoping for the chance to present Omar’s case to a jury." 

McKinsey did not return a request for comment.

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