A range of public figures—former ambassadors, university professors, think tank experts – routinely opine in America about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia while quietly taking Saudi funds. They learnedly discuss Arabian affairs on television, radio, in public lectures, and university classrooms. Having no visible connection to Saudi money, they speak with the authority of disinterested U.S. experts, enjoying more credibility than, say, another billionaire prince from the royal family.
Saudi funding for opinion makers has been known but not its exact specifics. I can for the first time expose how the Saudis manage their covert publicity campaign in America thanks to a Saudi-employed public relations firm having incautiously contacted a senior professor at a major research institution. Although the professor did not accept the offer of the speakers, he showed enough interest to document the proposed transaction and then made the details available to me.
An employee at a leading public relations firm in Washington offered the professor Saudi-funded speakers for the lecture program he runs, doing so as part of a program to provide ongoing education to communities around the country about "the importance and value of strong U.S.-Saudi relations. … One of our campaign components is to implement a speaker's bureau program on behalf of the Kingdom that reaches into target markets across the nation. I think there is a wonderful opportunity," she gushed, "to develop a very stimulating event with [your speakers' series]."
The letter invites further inquiries, with the p.r. employee adding eagerly that she is "available to come speak with you in person if possible." The letter then lists five lecturers ready to speak on the Saudi tab. They make for an interesting group.
Walter L. Cutler and Richard W. Murphy – two former U.S. ambassadors to Saudi Arabia. Like too many others who served in Riyadh, Cutler and Murphy have translated their government service into apologizing for the Saudis. Their actions are all too typical of Americans who deal with Riyadh in their high-level official capacity and then take Saudi funds to promote Saudi interests.
Sandra Mackey – a free lance writer who makes statements to the media like, "The only thing that is holding Saudi Arabia together today is the House of Saud with its strength and its shortcomings. The worst thing the United States could do is go after the House of Saud."
Mary E. Morris – a staffer at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council who praises the kingdom as "one of the U.S.'s staunchest allies and oldest friends in the Middle East" and ascribes anti-American public opinion in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East to American actions alone – "the U.S. invasion of Iraq without international validation and the lack of a strong U.S. support of an unbiased settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Samer Shehata – an assistant professor of politics at Georgetown University who unabashedly lauds Riyadh in the media: "the Saudis have been staunch allies. And it's absurd really to characterize them in any other way," he said on MSNBC in April 2002. "I don't think that the Saudis are trying to hide anything," he added on MSNBC in July 2003. "Saudi Arabia is our ally. … I think that the Saudi regime, certainly the royal family is the ally of the United States, and they have been the ally of the United States for quite some time. … since 9/11 the Saudis have really done a huge amount in terms of getting on top of charities, limiting money flows, arresting people."
Because the professor can pay only modest honoraria, he inquired about funding these speakers and was assured that the university need not pay any of their honoraria or expenses. The Saudis would, via the p.r. firm, handle these pesky matters.
The Saudis are engaging in an underhanded propaganda campaign that subverts the U.S. debate concerning Arabian issues. It is vital to prevent such corruption, especially on the delicate issue of Riyadh's self-proclaimed role as America's "friend" in the war against Islamist terrorism. To do so, editors, journalists, radio and television producers, think tank directors, and speaker-series hosts need to ascertain that whoever deals with Saudi issues is not on that country's dole. A simple question, "Are you receiving funds from Saudi Arabia," should do the trick.
Aug. 13, 2004 update: For the Saudi response to this article, revelation of the professor's identity (Charles Lipson of the University of Chicago), his reply, and my analysis of these latter developments, see "Does the Saudi Government Subsidize Speakers on American Campuses?"
Aug. 18, 2004 update: The New York Sun editorializes about this flap at "'Numerous Spokespersons'."