America's relationship with Saudi Arabia is among the most crucial and most unintelligible in a post-September-11 world.Saudi Arabia is the birthplace, ironically, of both Osama bin Laden and Islam itself. It remains, for now, the world's largest producer of oil, while America remains the world's largest consumer of it. Fifteen of the 19 September 11 hijackers were born there, and it was one of only three countries to formally recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.
For decades, it has called itself an ally of the US, yet scores of its government-sponsored schools give lessons in anti-Americanism.
There are, you might say, "trust issues
between the two countries.
For example, is Saudi Arabia really our ally in this new war? Is its government making honest attempts to arrest terrorists within its borders, or is it doing just enough to pacify America? Will it stand in the way of possible US action against Iraq, perhaps by cutting back on oil production (prices have already spiked since President Bush's "axis of evil
And what's behind Crown Prince Abdullah's sudden offer to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Arab world?
The questions go on and on, fueled by a number of curious actions on both sides. This is why a small army of public affairs soldiers is currently scurrying about Washington, DC on Saudi Arabia's behalf, trying to convince politicians and the media that the Saudis are on our side.
That small army, assembled over the past six months, looks like this:
Burson-Marsteller was hired two days after the attacks on New York and Washington, DC to run a small ad campaign ensuring America of Saudi Arabia's support. (Sources inside the agency say the account is now largely inactive.)
Government-relations powerhouse Patton Boggs - specifically renowned lobbyists Ed Newberry and Jack Deschauer - was hired in October to "clear up misconceptions
on Capitol Hill.
Jamie Gallagher of The Gallagher Group was brought on a month later, in November, to assist that effort.
And leading the charge is Qorvis Communications, partially owned by Patton Boggs. Principals Michael Petruzzello and Judy Smith have been working the media since October, and forging relationships between top officials of the US government and the Saudi royal family (which is synonymous with that country's government). The two are in constant transit between Washington, DC and the Middle East.
The cultural divide
The challenge they face isn't an enviable one. The mistrust between the two countries only rivals their dependence on one another. But why, and what is being done on the PR front to change that?
According to Petruzzello, it all comes down to understanding the "cultural differences."
"The Saudis were slow to communicate post-September 11,
"It's a different culture. They don't like to be very visible and vocal. After September 11, it was really more than a month before anyone stepped up and started to communicate. You know how things work in the US. That's a lifetime."
It was during that period that questions and suspicions began to surface - suspicions that continue to haunt relations between the two countries.
The Saudis refused to allow American warplanes to use the Kingdom as a base for attacks on Afghanistan. They were slow to concede that so many of the September 11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. And just a few weeks earlier, Abdullah had written a strong letter to President Bush warning him that Saudi-US relations were wavering on America's efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
But the most pressing question may be, if the Saudis are our allies, why aren't they being more vocal about their support?
If you ask any member of the public affairs team, he or she will tell you the answer is culture, end of story. Saudis do not believe in doing anything too publicly, the explanation goes, hence their relative silence in the aftermath of the attacks. As an example, Petruzzello holds up Abdullah's recent interview with Barbara Walters on ABC, in which he appeared on screen only in still photos. "He didn't want to go on camera. These are cultural things,
Politicians and the media, however, have come up with their own explanations.
"To listen to Saudi officials,
wrote Thomas Friedman in The New York Times just days after the attacks, "you would never know that most of the hijackers were young Saudis, or that the main financing for Osama bin Laden - born in Saudi Arabia - has been coming from other wealthy Saudis, or that Saudi Arabia's government was the main funder of the Taliban."
"The Saudi regime is now in a trap,
explained Brian Whitaker in UK newspaper The Guardian on October 23. "It can't please the Americans, on whom its security ultimately depends. Nor, faced with conflicting internal demands from modernizers, traditionalists, and religious militants, can it please its own people."
Serving two masters
In other words, the Saudi royal family's silence stems from its inability to please two worlds. America wants the royal family to shout its support for the war on terrorism from the minarets, so to speak - a move the US believes will sway Muslim sentiment America's way. But the royal family knows that the moment it does so, it will lose credibility with those same conservative Saudis America is hoping to influence. Hence the silence.
A member of the lobbying team echoes these sentiments. "The Saudis are doing the best they can. Their relationship with the US has traditionally been very quiet and behind the scenes. They take a lot of heat for being America's 'closest ally' in the region."
But Petruzzello insists otherwise. "Saudi Arabians love the US
"I've spent the better part of the past three months there. I feel safer walking the streets of Riyadh than I do in Washington, DC."
So what is the PR team doing to clear up those "misconceptions?
Again, it all comes down to culture.
"One of the things we're working on is rapid response - being able to respond to an issue in a single news cycle,
"Saudis recognize that their world and the world they live in has changed, and they are changing many things, including the ways in which they communicate with the West. That was one of the reasons we were hired."