It’s funny how interesting this seems two years on…..
Saudis spin like a well-oiled machine
By Roger Franklin
June 23 2002
Even among his rivals in the PR business Washington spinmeister Michael Petruzzello incites mixed emotions. For some, those whose outfits foundered in the wake of the dot-com bomb and September 11th, it’s a simple case of jealousy: while their receipts nose-dived, the president of Qorvis Communications’ job as official US spokesman for the House of Saud has kept him rolling in dough.
And then there are the others. The flaks who insist, with varying degrees of sincerity, that Qorvis is welcome to its deep-pockets client. “Ask me if I want to represent Hitler or Saudi Arabia and I’ll learn to speak German,” joked one of Petruzzello’s competitors. “What in God’s name could I ever find to say that’s nice about the Saudis? Vacations in leper colonies are an easier sell.”
Cleaning up Saudi Arabia’s image is a dirty job, but somebody has to get rich doing it. Consider what Petruzzello and his team are up against: of the 19 mass murderers who claimed about 3000 lives on September 11, all but a handful entered the US on Saudi passports. In the earlier attack on the World Trade Centre, the plotters who detonated their truck bomb in the underground parking lot were fired up with fanatic zeal at a New Jersey mosque financed by Saudi dollars.
When the FBI asks for help to investigate terrorists, the Saudis pay lip service without actually giving too much away. Even today, as George Bush and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld vow to root out evil-doers wherever they might be, the Saudis restrict intelligence about the hijackers’ backgrounds, associates and financial supporters.
They don’t, however, put a crimp on the cash intended to wash the kingdom’s image and buy favour in Washington. Soon after September 11, for example, the Saudis’ Washington embassy approved a $10 million TV-ad campaign in an attempt to colour public opinion. As their veteran ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, explained just two days after the attack, airing those ads was a matter of urgency. The news that most of the hijackers hailed from his homeland left him feeling as if “the Twin Towers had just fallen on my head”.
It was an unfortunate turn of phrase, but that’s why Petruzzello and his team earn their big bucks.
“He’s got two things going for him,” explained a PR rival. “The first is the Bush Administration, which has placed the Saudis off limits from criticism. And the second is Bandar, the un-Saudi Saudi.”
The full extent of the Bush team’s determination to protect Saudi Arabia became clear two weeks ago when the State Department demanded that visa applicants from countries associated with terrorism agree to be fingerprinted. The one exception: Saudi Arabia – even though it is the homeland of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the September 11 hijackers.
For that dispensation, the House of Saud has Bandar to thank. Not only is he the longest-serving ambassador in Washington, he’s a man who is owed a lot of favours. When Oliver North needed quick cash to support the Contras’ sly war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime, Bandar produced an immediate $20 million. And when Libya baulked at handing over the two suspects accused of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103, Bandar quietly changed Gadaffi’s mind.
Then there are the close relationships the former fighter pilot has enjoyed with every president since arriving in Washington in 1981. Cultured, cosmopolitan, thoroughly at ease with the ways of the decadent West, members of the Bush clan are regular guests at his Thanksgiving dinners. His relationship with Bill Clinton was so close that the priapic president’s handlers reportedly insisted that the ambassador not be allowed into the White House with more than one female companion at a time, lest the pair of infamous ladies’ men indulge their mutual interest.
These days, Bandar’s influence in the White House is more proper but no less pronounced, something that became abundantly clear when an American mother called Monica Stowers recently testified on Capitol Hill about her fruitless attempts to recover her two children, who were spirited away to the kingdom in 1985 by her estranged Saudi husband.
In 1990, during the reign of Bush the Elder, she managed to get her son and daughter to the US embassy in Riyadh, where she assumed they could expect sanctuary. Instead, a US official not only had her thrown out on the street, he also ordered a guard to drive the kids home to their father. “It’s like a horror picture,” she sobbed. “This is the kind of help the US embassy is going to give me?”
Another mother, Pat Roush, told how her two children were snatched from their Chicago home and flown to Saudi Arabia, where the youngest was recently forced into an arranged marriage. Like Stowers, she complained that US officials were more interested in making excuses for Saudi despotism than in arranging the return of her children. “All I ever hear from the State Department,” she said, “is `let’s look at this from a Saudi’s point of view’.”
Roush later told a radio interviewer that she blamed the Bush clan, which she accused of selective blindness toward a regime that supplied so much of the world’s oil.
And maybe she’s right, for Bush the Younger has demonstrated a distressing willingness of late to put expedience above principle. He is, after all, the free-trader who champions steel tariffs, the man who opposes farm subsidies yet pumps $18 billion into the pockets of American agribusiness.
So why abandon hypocrisy when it comes to Saudi Arabia? Sure, the kingdom treats women as property, harbours kidnappers, and doesn’t care too much if the religious maniacs it funds are used to advocate terrorism. But why should Bush worry – at least not while the oil is flowing and Petruzzello’s glad-handers are hard at work depicting tyrants as a bunch of really swell guys?
== The Age, Melbourne