Saudis Spend Big on Image Work

Posted October 10, 2003 at 6:14pm

Eager to change its image in the nation’s capital, Saudi Arabia has emerged as one of Washington’s biggest spenders since President Bush launched his war on terrorism.

According to newly released figures compiled by the Justice Department, the government of Saudi Arabia paid about $15 million in the second half of 2002 for an extensive lobbying and public relations campaign designed to persuade the Bush administration, Congress and the American people that the Islamic kingdom is an ally, and not an adversary, in its counterterrorism efforts.

It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia has been flooding K Street with cash to improve its image and strengthen its relationship with the U.S. government. But the new figures show the lengths to which the Saudi government is willing to go in Washington: From July 1 to Dec. 30, only the mighty U.S. Chamber of Commerce — an organization representing more than 3 million U.S. businesses — spent more on lobbying.

Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy, said the kingdom would spend similar amounts this year to combat the impression among many in the United States that it has been too soft on terrorism.

“After 9/11, we have been trying to be more public, we have been trying to be more transparent. But our message has been drowned out,” often by pundits who “don’t have the facts,” Al-Jubeir said.

“But when we show [people] the facts,” he added, “we show them that what is being said on cable television is simply not the case.”

The 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act requires U.S. companies and individuals to file reports with the Justice Department disclosing their financial ties to foreign companies, associations and governments.

An examination of the most recent reports offers insights into how the wealthy Middle Eastern kingdom is spending its money in Washington.

According to the reports, the biggest beneficiary of the Saudi campaign was Qorvis Communications, a Tysons Corner, Va.-based public relations firm that touts its expertise in “crisis” communications.

In the last half of 2002, Qorvis was paid about $14.7 million to be Saudi Arabia’s main communications shop.

Through television, radio and newspaper ads, media outreach efforts and polling research, Al-Jubeir said the money given to Qorvis is yielding positive results for the kingdom’s image.

“I am very happy,” Al-Jubeir said in an interview.

With the help of Qorvis, the kingdom released a comprehensive 370-page report last month detailing the actions Saudi Arabia has taken to fight the war on terrorism.

“We will not allow our terrorists to hijack our national identity, or sabotage our longstanding friendship with the United States,” Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, wrote in the report.

The report, circulated widely inside the Beltway, is a compilation of press releases, public statements and policy directives issued by Saudi Arabia since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that underscore the kingdom’s willingness to fight terrorism.

Al-Jubeir compared the kingdom’s communications effort in the United States to the U.S. government’s Voice of America and Radio Free programs in countries around the world.

The effort is paying off, Al-Jubeir said, citing poll numbers showing that the American public is becoming more trusting of Saudi Arabia.

“In general it has been very positive. We don’t expect to convince you, but we do expect to show you what we’ve done [to fight terrorism],” he said.

Al-Jubeir said the embassy deals exclusively with Qorvis and has little knowledge of the activities of firms that subcontract with Qorvis, other than K Street powerhouse Patton Boggs.

“I wouldn’t know who they use,” he said of Qorvis.

The firm, which was hired by the Saudis last year, farms out a lot of work to other public relations, advertising and lobbying shops.

For instance, Qorvis paid advertising firm Sandler-Innocenzi Inc. $4.7 million to help with the effort.

Sandler-Innocenzi — which has ties to the GOP — analyzed “radio, television, magazine and newspaper data” and made “recommendations on which media time and ads to purchase,” according to filings.

The report shows that the Arlington, Va.-based Gallagher Group received $30,000 from the Saudis.

Previous reports show that the firm reaped $110,000 in Saudi-related government relations activities between January 2002 and March 2003.

But by and large, the reports show that the vast majority of the kingdom’s money went to Qorvis.

For example, on Nov. 21, 2002, Qorvis arranged a gathering of Saudi officials with Jason Buntin, the Energy Department’s director of Western Europe and Middle East affairs and Vicky Baily, Energy’s assistant secretary for policy and international affairs.

The gathering was just one of the many face-to-face meetings that Qorvis — or companies working under Qorvis — helped to arrange between Saudi and U.S. officials.

Not all of the money was spent on meetings with U.S. government officials.

For $11,000, Qorvis helped Saudi Arabia arrange logistics for Katie Couric when NBC’s morning television show “Today” broadcast live from the country in January.

The kingdom also paid $51,200 for ads that were produced by Oliver Productions and appeared during the “McLaughlin Group.”

From Nov. 22, 2002, to March 31, 2003, the Saudis paid an additional $346,000 for television ads.

The reports also show that Saudi Arabia spent $100,000 on polling and research conducted by a long list of organizations, such as Global Marketing Research, CJ Olson Market Research, PWI Research and the Brookings Institute.

Other interesting expenditures include a $3,290 dinner on Dec. 19, 2002, at the ritzy Tower Club in Tysons Corner, and a $642 lunch on Nov. 21, 2002, at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in the District.

On the more traditional legal and lobbying front, Patton Boggs received $455,000 between Nov. 22, 2002, and March 31.

The law firm Loeffler, Jonas and Tuggey received $420,000 between January and March in part for arranging several conversations between partner and former Rep. Tom Loeffler (R-Texas) and high-ranking Capitol Hill Republicans.