I documented in my article three days ago, "The Saudis' Covert P.R. Campaign," that "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."
In response, the embassy in Washington issued a press release today, "Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia Responds to New York Sun Article," denying my report above: "Neither the government of Saudi Arabia nor any public relations firm compensates these individuals for their activities. These esteemed experts on Middle East issues speak their own minds and on their own behalf."
To which Charles Lipson of the University of Chicago, the source of my information in the original article (where he was referred to only as "a senior professor at a major research institution"), has published a statement detailing his dealings with Sarah Burleson of Adelstein & Associates in Chicago and showing how he came to the conclusion that the speakers in question are ultimately paid by the Saudi government:
The Saudi press release also states that "Neither the government of Saudi Arabia nor any public relations firm compensates these individuals for their activities." It does not say whether other Saudi-related entities make payments or say whether these individuals have other financial dealings with the Kingdom.
Taking the Saudi government press release at face value, these speakers are actually turning down a normal academic honoraria in order to speak for free on behalf of the Saudi P.R. firm. Apparently, these senior figures spend days flying around the country, speaking on behalf of a major Saudi P.R. initiative, while turning down compensation from the venues that host them, from the Saudis themselves, and from the Saudi P.R. firms.
One obvious question is whether they are compensated by any other Saudi-based or Saudi-funded institutions "for these activities." The press release mentions only the government and the P.R. firms. Another question is whether these speakers have other financial ties to the Saudi government, Saudi businesses, or Saudi-funded philanthropies that pay them for other activities closely tied to their seemingly unpaid speeches, such as "consulting."
That is, these "free" speeches might be compensated indirectly through payments for other Saudi-related activities. I am not stating that these speakers are receiving such payments. I simply do not know. I am raising questions since it would appear that the speakers are actually turning down normal honoraria in order to speak for free and since the Saudi press release does not clarify these matters.
In short, those three innocent-looking words in the Saudi press release, "for their activities," permit the embassy its denial. But this is a word game; the press release implies that the kingdom pays the speakers, only not specifically for the talks. (Aug. 13, 2004)
Aug. 18, 2004 update: The New York Sun has an editorial today, "Numerous Spokespersons," that takes this story to the next level, contacting all five of the speakers promoted by the Saudis' p.r. agency and drawing some conclusions.
Dec. 10, 2004 update: He does not mention Saudi Arabia, but Michael Schroeder writes in the Wall Street Journal today, "Some Professors Take Payments To Express Views Some Professors Take Payments To Express Views" (also available in the San Francisco Chronicle) about the general problem of profs shilling for pay, and it does not make a pretty picture.
Dec. 21, 2004 update: For the inside story of Qorvis' other surreptitious activities, the funding of something called the "Alliance for Peace and Justice," see Josh Gerstein's "Saudi Account Caused a Row at Patton, Boggs."