Seeing through the Saudi PR effort

Posted: Sep 02, 2002 12:00 AM
You've got to hand it to the Saudis; they've one-upped the Soviets. Back in the day, the Reds had to rely on fellow-travelling intellectuals or secretly funded fringe left-wing groups like the American Communist Party to make their case in the mainstream press. The Saudis get to hire big-league lobbying firms like Patton Boggs and super-lawyer law firms like Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer &Feld. Of course, there's nothing unconstitutional, illegal or even unethical about lobbyists, PR gurus and lawyers taking money from tyrannically theocratic monarchies that bankroll terrorism and fanaticism around the globe. But, call me crazy, there is something vaguely tacky about it. According to The New York Times, the Saudis have already spent millions on radio and TV commercials in every major-media market in the country. They've also bought ads in publications as diverse as Stars and Stripes and People magazine. Fortunately, the public relations blitz hasn't been working too well. This may have something to do with the fact that 80 percent of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabians, as is the head of al-Qaida, which may constitute something of an uphill PR battle. As a matter of fact, the blitz has backfired. In May, 50 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of Saudi Arabia. A new poll by Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates finds that 63 percent now have a negative opinion of the oppressive regime. One explanation for the ever-decaying esteem we hold for the Saudis is a funny tic about the American people. We're really good at ignoring nasty regimes for long periods of time, often out of necessity. But once we recognize what they are, we have a hard time pretending otherwise. That was the case with South Africa until the 1980s and the Soviet Union until the end of World War II. And it has been the case with the Saudis for some 70 years. But no longer. Saudi-Arabia-paid defenders claim Saudi Arabia is an ally and friend of the United States. That may or may not have been true once, but it doesn't matter now. The Soviets were our ally against the Nazis, and the South Africans were our ally against the Soviets. But in the war on terror, the Saudis can't be our ally any more than the Soviets could help us fight communism or the South Africans help us combat racism. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has a lot in common with South Africa and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was an expansionist, ideologically animated foe bent on converting the world to its way of seeing things. It spent vast sums on propaganda and on subverting governments and institutions it considered inimical to its interests. That's a pretty good description of the Saudis, too. Admittedly, Soviet expansionism was easier to spot because they were as willing to use tanks as they were to use propaganda. But the Saudis use violence and indoctrination in much the same way. Saudis fund groups like al-Qaida as well as countless mujahedeen forces around the globe. Their proxies don't have the Saudi equivalent of Soviet insignia on their tanks and planes; most don't even have tanks and planes (though they're not above hijacking ours), but they are still the avant-garde of the Saudi monarchy's global ambitions and they still kill people. Saudis practice an extremely uptight version of Islam called Wahhabism, although they hate the term because it implies that there's any other kind of Islam. Saudi-funded Wahhabi schools and mosques advance a Saudi ideology that masquerades as the "true Islam" and that seeks to erase political borders under the banner of a single religious authority in much the same way Marxism-Leninism wanted the world to unite under the banner of proletarian brotherhood. Last year, a popular Saudi cleric pronounced that a good Muslim must "harbor enmity and hatred for the infidels and refrain from taking them as friends." And while Wahhabi Islam is aggressive abroad, it is repressive at home. Saudi Arabia is one of the most brutal regimes in the world. In many respects, women in Saudi Arabia have a lower status than blacks did under South African apartheid. Women may not walk or eat in public without a male relative as chaperone. They cannot own property, and male relatives can force them to have surgery against their will. Religious police can beat them in public if their veils slip or if their ankles are showing. And speaking of the religious police, religious dissent is entirely forbidden. And since the distinction between religion and politics is so blurred, political dissent is largely forbidden, too. Americans pick this stuff up. And once they hear it, all the commercials on late-night cable TV won't matter one whit.