ANALYSIS: Saudis rethink PR as $3m 15-month campaign stalls

As US skepticism persists - despite a long and expensive PR initiative - the Saudis are determined to show Americans they are an ally that can be trusted.

As US skepticism persists - despite a long and expensive PR initiative - the Saudis are determined to show Americans they are an ally that can be trusted.

Michael Petruzzello looks like he's ready to go home. He's sitting at a long wooden table in one of the Capitol's majestic hearing rooms. In front of him is a row of cameras. On either side are parents, mostly mothers, sobbing. They are offering testimony about their children, trapped inside Saudi Arabia, abducted by fathers looking to hide behind the "No Girls Allowed" Saudi legal system. They want their kids back, and they blame the Saudi government for dragging its feet. Petruzzello, himself father to a young boy, is well-known to everyone in the room as president of the Saudis' PR firm, Qorvis Communications. And he's taking a lot of heat for it. Representative Dan Burton (R-IN): I know you're getting $200,000 a month...but these women have not - she hasn't seen her children for two years, and the court gave her custody. This lady next to her, Ms. McClain, has not seen her child - how long has it been? Margaret McClain: [Inaudible sobbing]. Burton: How long has it been since she's been gone? McClain: Five years! Burton: Five years (to Michael Rives). How long has your son been gone? Rives: A year-and-a-half. Maureen Dabagh (volunteering): 17 years! Burton (loudly): This is the government you're representing! It's a dramatic moment that C-SPAN will replay often. The congressman, determined to reunite these parents with their children, isn't about to let anyone help the Saudis spin their way out of accountability. By any measure, it's great drama. But there's an irony to this situation that informs all current Saudi-US relations. Burton, who should be credited with vigorously lighting a fire under this issue in past months, nonetheless stands accused of pursuing his anti-Saudi crusade largely to score some PR points. There are thousands of missing children in the world, critics note, and a relatively small percentage of those are in Saudi Arabia. If the congressman's real concern is getting American kids back home, why not go after the big offenders, like Germany or Sweden? Uneasy allies Regardless of the answer, the fact remains that US politicians have a lot to gain in the image department these days by "standing up" to Saudi Arabia, and the reverse holds true in that country. Want to win support from the Arab Street? Publicly accuse the US media of manufacturing the September 11 attacks in order to spark a war against Islam, just as Saudi Prince Naif Ibn Abdul Aziz did earlier this month. Is this any way for allies to treat each other? "We're getting into a spiral of misunderstanding where each side raises the ante," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "And these [accusations] have a very strong impact on public perception." The Saudi Royal Family (indistinguishable from that country's government) hired Qorvis and lobbying firm Patton Boggs shortly after September 11, 2001 to reinforce connections in DC and reassure Americans at large that they were their ally. The $200,000-a-month fee Qorvis gets for this has quickly taken its place among DC's most famous numbers. But what have the Saudis gotten for their money? Fifteen months and $3 million in PR fees later, Americans still don't believe the Saudis are on their side. If anything, trust between the countries seems to be faltering, and there is evidence that Americans are losing patience with Saudi ambiguity. Are they or are they not funding terrorists? Why do they continue to teach anti-Americanism in their schools and mosques? And will they let US troops use their country as a base of operations should we go to war with Iraq? New allegations that a Saudi princess funneled money, accidentally or not, to a September 11 hijacker elicited angry responses from both sides this month. Americans, particularly politicians and pundits, were indignant over new evidence that our closest Arab ally wasn't being honest with the US. The Saudis were equally angry over our lack of faith in their friendship. By way of response, the Saudis apologized for not communicating well with the American people over the past 15 months. They promised to do better. Americans, particularly PR pros, could be excused for asking how one spends $3 million in PR fees without communicating. Or how such a campaign would look after being ramped up. Says Petruzzello, "It's not that they haven't been communicating. They have. Since the start of the year, they've done hundreds of interviews with both the media and Congress. When they talk about not communicating, they are specifically referring to what they have done in terms of anti-terrorist activities. They feel that they have done a great deal, but I would agree they haven't talked about it much." (Now officially part of the story, Petruzzello himself stands accused of dodging subpoenas from Burton to hand over documents relating to the custody hearings - a charge he vehemently denies. He also lost three of his five founding partners this month, partly because they had grown weary of the all-encompassing Saudi work.) Saudis prepare to open up more But the communications plan is indeed changing. The events of the past month - and the expectation of events to come in 2003 - have helped the Saudis see the light, sources say, and the future of Saudi PR in the US may look different from Saudi PR so far. "Put it in political terms," Petruzzello says, "it will be like reintroducing a candidate." Expect new Saudi ads, already in testing, to usurp preconceived notions of the country where Islam was born by showing unexpectedly Western images. "Research shows that when most Americans think of Saudi Arabia, they think of dirt streets and people shooting AK-47s up in the air. They'll be surprised to see how modern and Western it looks." This part of the plan doesn't stop with images, however. The Saudi Royals will be more accessible in the future, coming to Washington not just to meet with government officials and leave, as they often do, but to avail themselves more to the press. They are reportedly eager to talk to Americans about our shared ideals - a move that would represent a major shift for the usually camera-shy royals. Islam itself will get a new introduction in the coming months. The Saudis plan to talk more about their religion as a moderate, peace-loving faith that encourages tolerance and charitable giving (as in the type that may have led to Saudi Royal money ending up in the hands of September 11 hijackers). In this matter, the Saudis have already taken a major step. A little-noticed press release issued on December 7 decreed that Saudi Ammams, or priests, were heretofore forbidden from using mosques for political speech-making or rallying. And to show this is not some toothless decree, the Saudis promise that those violating the command will be removed from the priesthood. But perhaps the most striking change to come of the recent turmoil - and the one most likely to grab the world's attention - is the kingdom's decision on whether to let US forces use Saudi land as a base to attack Iraq, should the need arise. Naturally, it's a decision spurred by more than PR factors. But as anyone in the business knows, the most effective PR moves always are. Those in the know are understandably tight-lipped about the policy decision, but according to one source with intimate knowledge of recent Saudi-Pentagon discussions, "The Saudis will not let America down." At least not militarily.

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