By Ali Ahmed
Last week, a prominent Saudi-funded organization in Washington, Arabia Foundation, shuttered its doors after merely two years. The sudden end of a well-funded public relations operation with some success in echoing Saudi officialdom in American media speaks volumes regarding the disarray encompassing the Saudi PR machine, long seen as one the monarchy’s most effective tools for projecting its influence in the U.S. and the rest of the world.
The monarchy has made public relations and its image in the media a cornerstone of its policy. In the 1960s, Saudi ads were published in The New York Times, hailing the massive transformation the Kingdom was going through. The premier PR firm Hill and Knowlton was a favorite choice for the Saudi government to promote their policies.
Since the 1980s, the Saudi government turned to many PR and lobbying firms in Washington, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. The killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last October by the Saudi government drove an increase in its PR spending to record levels to manage the fallout of the murder, including being dropped by several PR firms.
The Arabia Foundation was part of a new trend in Saudi PR strategy that included building its wholly-owned conglomerate representing Saudi interests and speaking in its voice, organizations that were under its absolute control. This was part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s influence, who emphasized the Saudi-first approach. That’s how Arabia Foundation was born.
With millions of dollars in its annual budget —approximately $5 million according to my sources— and some strong talent attracted by above-the-market salaries, Arabia Foundation quickly made its impact. Although Arabia Foundation founder Ali Shihabi lost his shirt as a Dubai banker, he, with the Saudi checkbook, was able to take center stage in a world in which many say he had no academic qualifications to do so. But money changes everything. He even got Jamal Khashoggi to attend his events that featured New Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Senator Chris Murphy, and moderated by CNN reporter Elise Labott.
Things, however, changed quickly in the past month after the arrival of new Saudi Ambassador Reema al-Saud, the daughter of the world famous and former Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, and the increasing chatter about Ali Shihabi and his brash behavior. Reports of his treatment of staff were circulating even before a lawsuit by a former aid was filed days before the foundation closed its doors. The suit alleged sexual harassment and abusive treatment.
Reema came to Washington with her father’s legacy in mind and brought his favorite advisor, Rehab Masoud, who was in charge of Bandar’s liaison with Congress. Masoud brought Bandar most of his influence that at times surpassed senior American officials. It was Masoud who made it possible for Saudi planes to fly out members of the Osama bin Laden family from the United States following the September 11 attacks, when even senior American officials, senators and members of congress were not able to fly.
In any event, the demise of the Arabia Foundation in just two years does reflect the weakening of Saudi influence in the United States, due mostly to Saudi regime focus on creating a false image instead of improving reality.
If the Saudi government had spent the hundreds of millions of dollars it wasted on PR around the world on actually improving conditions in the country, that would have been the best, long-lasting public relations money can buy.
(Ali Al Ahmed is the founder and president of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.)