Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 may have focused feverish attention on the alleged axis of evil between the Bush family and the Saudis, with inferences about their business connections drawn largely from Craig Unger’s book House of Bush, House of Saud .
But coziness with the Saudis is a bipartisan phenomenon. Once it emerged that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, the Middle Eastern country began mounting an increasingly sophisticated charm offensive whose scope goes far beyond Crawford, Tex., and Kennebunkport, Me., landing squarely in other American power bases-including the one in Chappaqua. When it comes to forging ties with Democrats or winning over hawkish types who want the U.S. to stop depending on Saudi oil, the Saudis are more likely to offer a scintillating roundtable conference than a plum business contract. In January, for example, the Saudis funded a lavish three-country junket for Bill Clinton and an entourage of about 40 former Clinton administration officials and Lincoln Bedroom guests. And last month, the Saudi government underwrote a remarkably frank journalists’ roundtable discussion on Saudi Arabia and its discontents with editors of The New Republic , which was published as paid advertising in that magazine’s July 5 and 12 issue.
Held on June 8, the roundtable discussion was moderated by New Republic senior editor Lawrence Kaplan and featured the magazine’s editor in chief, Martin Peretz; New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright; the chief investigative correspondent of U.S. News and World Report , David E. Kaplan; and the Washington bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , David Montgomery, all of whom had either traveled in or reported from Saudi Arabia. Called “Inside the Kingdom: The Views and Perspectives of Journalists in Saudi Arabia,” the edited transcript was printed in the same font as the rest of the magazine, although it was labeled a special advertisement “sponsored by the people of Saudi Arabia, allies against terrorism.” Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic , said he had selected the panelists and agreed to the panel on the grounds that it be “intellectually honest.”
These ambitious but not overbearing P.R. moves are a sign of “a growing sophistication” in the Saudis’ understanding of how to soften relations with Americans critical of the country’s repressive regime, according to Noah Feldman, a professor at New York University Law School and a Middle East expert. Even “sponsoring stuff that’s critical on the whole might turn out to be better” for the Saudis, Mr. Feldman said. None of the critics debating the future of Saudi Arabia on the government’s dime, after all, are Saudi citizens. As the New Republic panelists pointed out, within Saudi Arabia, would-be reformers are deathly afraid to speak their minds.
“Education is the most important part of the program, to send our message to the American people directly and have them decide the facts when presented with them” was how Nail Al-Jubeir, the director of the Information Office at the Saudi embassy in Washington, summed up the Saudi P.R. offensive, which is being coordinated by the Washington firm Qorvis Communications. “Unfortunately we have too many people, so-called pundits and experts, and a majority have never set foot in Saudi Arabia and are speaking nonsense.”
There is also the care and feeding of former office holders-which, of course, sends a message to those currently in office of what awaits once they retire to the lecture circuit. Mr. Al-Jubeir said Mr. Clinton had attended the Jeddah Economic Forum two years in a row. “He was invited to come, and it was an honor,” Mr. Al-Jubeir said. “We extend our friendship to former Presidents …. Our friendship to them extends beyond when they leave office.”
So it was that in January, a plane belonging to Crown Prince Abdullah took off from Newark Airport to shuttle Mr. Clinton and his entourage to the Jeddah Economic Forum-where Mr. Clinton delivered the keynote address. Then, for good measure, the prince’s plane took the whole gang on to the World Economic Conference in Davos and a German media-prize dinner in Baden-Baden.
Beyond a write-up in the New Jersey Jewish News -“First Stop: Saudi Arabia; West Orange Woman Joins Bill Clinton on Whirlwind Overseas Speaking Tour”-the ex-President’s Saudi-funded junket barely got any press attention, certainly not from the likes of Michael Moore, who seems to train his viewfinder only on Republican-Saudi ties, with Democrats conveniently out of range.
Even Mr. Unger said he was “not familiar” with the Jeddah Economic Forum and did not know that Mr. Clinton had brought a group there. “This is news to me, to be honest. I haven’t really investigated it, so I don’t want to comment,” he said.
Indeed, schmoozing with the Saudis is a bipartisan sport. Just ask Sylvia Steiner, the West Orange woman who was with Bill Clinton’s entourage in January. “The Saudis paid for everything. They told Clinton, ‘Bring your friends.'” How did she get invited? “Possibly because we donated to his library. Maybe this was a thank-you,” Ms. Steiner said. Her husband, New Jersey real-estate developer David Steiner, has given more than $1.3 million to Democratic causes.
Although an injury prevented Mr. Steiner from traveling with his wife, Ms. Steiner was in good company. It was a real Clinton crowd-Hollywood meets Park Avenue meets the Beltway. Guests included Chevy Chase and John Cusack, who spoke on an ad hoc media panel; New York financier Alan Patricof; Stanley Shuman, the managing director of Allen & Co.; the chief executive officer of Google, Eric Schmidt, and the company’s youthful founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page; former Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott and his wife, Brooke Shearer, a member of the board of the International Center for Research on Women; Ira Magaziner, who directs AIDS efforts for Mr. Clinton’s foundation; Arthur Schechter, Mr. Clinton’s ambassador to the Bahamas; and Elizabeth Bagley, Mr. Clinton’s ambassador to Portugal, along with her husband, Smith Bagley, an heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune. “He wanted it to be a really interesting bunch,” Ms. Steiner said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Clinton, Tammy Sun, said the President “did not receive payment for his speech.” She did not respond to requests asking her to confirm that the Saudis had funded the entire junket and set the itinerary. “We really weren’t allowed to see very much outside of royal palaces,” said Mr. Schechter. “There was definitely a feeling of isolation of our group, which I’m sure had to do in large part with security.”
By most accounts, the Jeddah Economic Forum is not just a public-relations ploy. It’s seen as a generally legitimate undertaking, a mini-Davos aimed at encouraging Western investment and diversifying the Saudi economy-which some say will lead to greater political reform in the Middle Eastern monarchy. It was founded in 1999 by Amr Dabbagh, a leading Saudi businessman and former head of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, according to John Quelch, a dean of the Harvard Business School who said he knows Mr. Dabbagh and took part in the conference three years out of five. With about 800 people attending, most of them from the Gulf states, the conference is “an important vehicle for women business people in Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Quelch said. Four years ago, women could only attend sitting behind a screen. This year, women and men were separated by a glass partition, and a Saudi businesswoman addressed the audience. “That may not sound like progress, but I think it actually is,” said Mr. Quelch.
“If we’re serious about promoting reform in the Arab world, these are exactly the kinds of conferences we want to be at,” said Rachel Bronson, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who said she didn’t attend the conference. This year, the Council on Foreign Relations sent a delegation of 20 people, said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert who was among them. Other conference attendees included Michael Golden, the publisher of the International Herald Tribune , which published an eight-page advertorial in conjunction with it, and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
But there is also the nagging question of whether bringing important Western political and business leaders to a conference sponsored by a deeply antidemocratic country only serves to legitimize the status quo.
The week after the Saudi businesswoman spoke at the Jeddah Economic Forum–with her face uncovered– the country’s highest religious authority, the grand mufti, railed against the transgressiveness of the conference. “Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe. It is highly punishable,” the mufti reportedly said.
After all, it is still the Middle East. “I think it’s fair to say there’s never been a keynote speaker from Israel, which of course does not appear on many maps of the region which are published in Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Quelch pointed out. Indeed, another speaker at the conference this year was Mahathir Mohamed, the former prime minister of Malaysia, who at a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Malaysia in October had said: “The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” (Mr. Clinton “never saw or appeared with Mr. Mahathir Mohamed, who spoke on a different day of the three-day event,” Ms. Sun said.)
Did any of Mr. Clinton’s guests have reservations about hopping on the crown prince’s plane, paid for by the same money that directly or indirectly funds the spread of Wahhabism? Apparently not. All seemed to view the trip as a way of exploring their own horizons, not as a well-oiled piece of the Saudi P.R. machine. “It didn’t even occur to me. It was a nice opportunity to visit a country I hadn’t been to,” said Mr. Patricof, the New York financier. “It was a lovely trip-all people who are friends of the President.” The Saudis were “very gracious,” Mr. Patricof added. “That’s all I thought about.”
“I had been to Saudi Arabia before, and I had no reservations,” said Mr. Shuman, who served on Mr. Clinton’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. “I think things such as [the Jeddah conference] are very helpful in causing mutual understanding. We had an audience with the crown prince in Riyadh, and I think those things can be nothing but helpful.”
In the meeting with the crown prince, Mr. Clinton “was very clear in telling them we were a group of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and it’s important to emphasize that,” Ms. Steiner said. The crown prince “responded well until Strobe Talbott’s wife, Brooke Shearer-a very bright young woman-asked him some tough questions about how women are treated. Then he said it was 6 o’clock and he had to go pray,” Ms. Steiner said. “We were in his palace. It was just a tremendous experience.” (Neither Mr. Talbott nor Ms. Shearer responded to requests for comment.)
“These homes that the Saudis live in look like Miami Beach hotels. They entertain 700 people at a time!” Ms. Steiner said. The Saudis were “very gracious, and we were always told to mix with them. I got to meet some lovely women who each had a home in California and spend their summers in California. To me, it’s kind of amazing that they come back to Saudi Arabia and can’t drive.”
In his keynote address at the Jeddah conference, Mr. Clinton told the Saudis that “blaming other people for your problems” is “self-defeating” and “disempowering,” according to a speech Mr. Clinton made upon his return that summarized the Jeddah speech, and which his foundation provided to The Observer . He also said that the Saudis needed “to stop judging us through their take on American/Israeli situations …. Our support for Israel and Israel’s security has nothing to do with wanting to deny the Palestinians their legitimate aspirations.
“And I caused a little bit of a stir in the country, ’cause I said, ‘Look, how can you build a modern economy? You ask us to come over here and talk about a modern economy. And how could you build a modern economy, when you won’t even let women drive?'” Mr. Clinton said. “And I said, ‘You know, that Muhammad’s wife, the prophet’s first wife, was a successful businesswoman…if they had had cars 1,400 years ago, she’d have been driving one.'”
During Mr. Clinton’s Jeddah speech, “the woman could see the men, but the men couldn’t see the women,” Ms. Steiner said. “Clinton was really giving them a pep talk about letting women drive. The women applauded wildly; the men didn’t. The newspaper the next day said that the audience was ambivalent!”
At the New Republic panel, Mr. Wright, the author of a recent New Yorker article about his experience training young reporters at the Saudi Gazette , lamented the country’s lack of a free press, and said his trainees had an ingrown “fear of repercussions” that prevented them from investigative reporting. Mr. Montgomery, who said he travels “back and forth” between the United States and Saudi Arabia, called for “a greater American news presence” in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Peretz said he visited Saudi Arabia in the mid-90’s with Michael Kinsley, Fouad Ajami, and New York businessman Thomas Tisch, “under the most favorable circumstances” as a guest of Prince Bandar, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the U.S., whom Barbara Bush dubbed “Bandar Bush.”
The Saudis “did a whole-year ad buy, and it featured three panels which started last fall,” said Stephanie Sandberg, The New Republic ‘s president and publisher. “They’re looking at it again for next year.” She declined to say how much the Saudis had paid, but said that the magazine’s rate for a four-page color advertisement is $9,060.
“I suppose it’s to their credit that they let us stock this panel with people who think the U.S. should be applying much more pressure on Saudi Arabia than going to someone softer,” Mr. Beinart, the New Republic editor, said. “But ultimately the only way they’re going to impress people in Washington is to allow this kind of open critical discussion in Saudi Arabia itself.”