Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, I received a call from a major defense contractor asking for a favor. I was serving as president of the Boston chapter of the World Affairs Council, a national organization that debates foreign policy, and the defense contractor was one of the Council's principal sponsors.
The Saudi Arabian government was sponsoring a national public relations campaign to cultivate American public opinion, and was sending Saudi emissaries around the country to make the case that Saudi Arabia was a tolerant, moderate nation worthy of American support. Would the Council organize a forum of Boston's community leaders sothat the Saudis could make their case?While this was patently no more than a Saudi lobbying effort, we organized the forum, and it was well-attended by precisely the slice of Boston's political and corporate elite that the Saudis and their defense contractor benefactor had hoped for. The Saudis maintained that their Kingdom should be regarded as a promoter of Middle East peace, and that the abundant evidence that Saudi Arabia was in fact promoting a virulent brand of extremist Islam should be discounted.
Saudi Arabia paid for the trip of its emissaries to Boston, for the Washington, D.C.-based public relations and lobbying company which organized the trip, and for the Boston public relations and lobbying company that handled the Boston part of the visit. And it drew upon the resources and relationships of the defense contractor, which sells hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, to support and orchestrate its public relations effort.
The billions in petrodollars Arab states spend in the U.S. for defense, construction, engineering and consulting contracts position them nicely to win friends in high places, and friends are what they have. That is true all over the world, is true in this country, and has been true for quite some time. As U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull noted 60 years ago, "The oil of Saudi Arabia constitutes one of the world's great prizes." His successor, Edward Stettinius, opposed the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East, stating "It would seriously prejudice our ability to afford protection to American interests, economic and commercial . . . throughout the area."The Saudis and their allies have not been shy about supplementing their considerable leverage in the U.S. by targeting expenditures to affect the debate over Middle East policy by funding think tanks, Middle East studies programs, advocacy groups, community centers and other institutions.
To take one obvious example, just last year Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal donated $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown Universities for programs in Islamic studies. Prince Alwaleed, chairman of a Riyadh-based conglomerate, is the fellow whose $10 million donation to the Twin Towers Fund following the Sept. 11 attacks was rejected by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after the Saudi Prince suggested that the U.S. "re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinians."Georgetown and Harvard had no apparent qualms about accepting Prince Alwaleed's money. The director of Georgetown's newly-renamed Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center rejected any suggestion that the Saudi magnate was attempting to use Saudi oil wealth to influence American policy in the Middle East. "There is nothing wrong with [Prince Alwaleed] expressing his opinion on American foreign policy," he said. "Clearly, it was done in a constructive way."
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