Getting a Facelift: Saudi Arabia's PR Campaign

Article excerpt

Following the September 11,2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, several media organizations and politicians began to look with increased scrutiny at the possible role that Saudi Arabia may have played in the attacks as well as at potential connections with the terrorist group Al Qaeda. Despite its status as a US ally, many found it upsetting that 15 of the 19 hijackers of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudi citizens.

In an investigative report published in its December 2, 2002 issue, Newsweek followed the "Saudi money trail" directly from the hijackers to a member of the Saudi Royal family. Since then, a flurry of attention has focused on the links between Saudi Arabia and the September 11 attacks. In his books, Intelligence Matters, former Florida Senator Robert Graham highlighted connections between a Saudi government spy and the planners of the terrorist attacks and criticized the deletion of 28 pages from the 9/11 Commission Report that dealt with Saudi Arabia. Questions about Saudi involvement continued even after the final version of the report established no connections to the terrorist attacks.

In response to such questions, the Saudi government launched a massive lobbying and public relations campaign in the United States around the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Though Saudi Arabia has historically remained indifferent to US public opinion, the recent surge in negative feelings toward the country spilled into the political realm as many legislators, including former US Senator Bob Graham, called for deeper investigations into the country's activities regarding terrorism. Saudi Arabia hoped to prevent any detrimental political action and threats to its status with the United States by reforming its image with a public ad campaign.

The most unusual part of the Saudi campaign has been its focus on broadcasting a message directly to US citizens. Beginning in 2002, ads appeared on US television networks, radio stations, in major newspapers and magazines, and throughout the Internet. Though they differed slightly in content, all the ads featured the slogan, "The People of Saudi Arabia: Allies Against Terrorism." More recently in August 2004, following the final release of the 9/11 Commission Report, the Saudi government paid for a series of radio ads emphasizing that no link had been established between Saudi Arabia and the September 11 attacks in the report.

According to US Justice Department records, Saudi Arabia has spent over US$20 million on advertising, lobbying, and public relations. The government employed a number of public relations firms to handle its image, most notably Qorvis Communications, which crafted the country's short and long term media strategies. Qorvis received approximately US$200,000 per month for its services, totaling over US$4. …