Mr Sneader and his predecessor Dominic Barton have apologised over the firm’s work with a company linked to South Africa’s controversial Gupta family and repaid 1 billion rand ($98.6 million) in fees.

The Saudi ‘Ministry of McKinsey’

McKinsey’s consultants have done extensive work in Saudi Arabia, reportedly carrying out almost 600 projects between 2011 and 2016. The country’s planning ministry is known by some Saudis as the “Ministry of McKinsey”.

In his first public comments on the controversy, Mr Sneader provided a robust defence of the firm’s work within the Kingdom, argued that it was careful about the type of work it accepted and denied that the McKinsey Twitter report would have been used to suppress critics of the Kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the Middle East, by far. And for the world, as we’ve seen, it’s very important that it doesn’t drift off, become disconnected, fail to develop it’s economic infrastructure and [fail to] become a major part of the global economy,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Australian Financial Review.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is under fire over the October murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives. AP

Mr Sneader’s argument, that authoritarian regimes are best changed from within, is the approach the firm has used while working with the Chinese and Russian government, countries that are accused of human rights abuses. A lengthy New York Times article published at the weekend argued McKinsey is helping to “raise the stature of authoritarian and corrupt governments across the globe, sometimes in ways that counter American interests”.

McKinsey rejects security-related ministries

Mr Sneader, who has led the firm since July, told the Financial Review: “I’m actually quite proud of the work we do in Saudi Arabia.”

“We have chosen to work on education, healthcare, and economic development, and we don’t work in other things. And we have an office that’s 30 per cent women; we are the largest employer of professional women,” he said.

“And for us to walk away from Saudi Arabia, I think, would be a big mistake. And a big mistake because I think it would not help that country become part of the global economy, and certainly set back the work that we’ve done which is fundamentally about improving the lot of people in Saudi Arabia.”

Mr Sneader also said the firm had refused work in a number of ministries associated with the Kingdom’s security apparatus.

“We don’t work in defence, we don’t work in justice, we don’t work in interior,” he said.

“We have walked away from lots of opportunities that you could argue, economically, would be in our interest to accept.

“But they’re not in our interests if we think our commitment is to help that country develops its education systems, its healthcare system and its economics, and to create jobs.”

Twitter allegations ‘hard to imagine’

Finally, Mr Sneader dismissed the criticism the firm had received over its role in producing a report which identified three major Twitter-based critics for the Saudi government. The firm has already issued a statement that it was “horrified” that the Saudi Arabia memo may have been misused.

After the document was produced, one of the three critics named in the document was arrested, relatives of a second critic were put in prison, and the Twitter channel of the third anonymous critic was shut down.

“In that context, the tragedy of the whole episode around this nine-page document . . . the Twitter document, was it was not in any way indicative of the kind of work we even do in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“And, secondly, if you just think about that document for a minute, it talked about collectively, I think it was about 800,000 tweets. The idea that that was how any government would find out about the activities of people who happen to express a view contrary [to the government] is hard to imagine.

“So, for me, I think, and I stand by the fact we’re in Saudi because I think we’re a force for good. And I really do believe that in terms of the work that we do. But I also hate the thought that anything we could have done could have been used to target dissidents. But I also struggle with how that’s even possible.”

It’s understood that an internal investigation by McKinsey into the Twitter document found that it was produced by an internal team to demonstrate the firm’s ability to measure online sentiment and was not created at the direction of any client or McKinsey consultant.

Email the reporter at edmundtadros@afr.com.au

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