Royal Intrigue, Unpaid Bills Preceded Saudi Ambassador's Exit

Prince Turki al-Faisal, left, and his brother Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, favor talks with Iran.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, left, and his brother Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, favor talks with Iran. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006

For more than a year, Saudi Arabia's ambassador journeyed to college campuses, chambers of commerce, town halls and world affairs councils across the United States in an ambitious campaign to improve his country's image.

But Prince Turki al-Faisal's goodwill tour, instead, produced millions of dollars in unpaid bills -- and a tale of murky intrigue in the enigmatic desert kingdom.

The debts by one of the world's wealthiest countries -- owed to the very lobbyists, advisers and event organizers hired to promote the kingdom -- have left a trail that weaves together bitter princely rivalries, diplomatic subterfuge and a policy clash over one of the thorniest issues of the day: what to do about Iran.

The Saudi Embassy would not comment on the kingdom's payments, personnel or internal policymaking.

But the woes within the royal family reflect a tug of war over how to handle foreign policy. Eighteen months ago, Prince Bandar bin Sultan ended a legendary 22-year career as the face of Saudi Arabia in the United States. Word at the time was that he was bored, preferring his palatial Aspen, Colo., lodge to Washington. As it turns out, however, Bandar has secretly visited Washington almost monthly over the past year -- and is at least as pivotal today in influencing U.S. policy as he was in his years as ambassador.

Last week, his successor, Turki, abruptly resigned from the post -- partly, sources close to the royal family said, because of Bandar's back-channel trips to meet with top U.S. officials, including Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

Turki was kept so out of the loop that Bandar often did not inform him he was in town, much less tell him what he was doing, the sources said. Twice, the Saudi Embassy was told by an outsider that Bandar had arrived -- and the embassy sent someone to the airport to look for his private plane to confirm it, according to the source who provided the tip.

The rise of Bandar, who is now Saudi national security adviser, may reflect the waning influence of the sons of the late King Faisal, who dominated the diplomatic and intelligence services for decades, say sources close to the family. Turki, who was intelligence chief before becoming ambassador to Britain and then the United States, has poor chemistry with King Abdullah, they note. His brother Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has been foreign minister since Henry A. Kissinger's era, is ill.

As relations among the royals frayed over the past year, Turki was increasingly squeezed financially. The kingdom did not provide the millions needed to pay Saudi bills, according to contractors and sources close to the royal family. A single contractor -- Qorvis Communications LLC, which oversees Saudi image-building -- has not been paid more than $10 million this year, its entire annual contract, confirms Qorvis partner Michael Petruzzello. Because Qorvis subcontracts to smaller firms, the unpaid bill has left the most high-profile American lobbyists for the kingdom unpaid all year. Others have also not been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to contractors.

Petruzzello said late payment is normal for the Saudis. "I don't find this new, unusual or in any way alarming. It's the way it's gone not just with the Saudis but with other governments," said Petruzzello, although he acknowledged that he had brought up the payment issue several times with Turki.

But subcontractors with Qorvis said they had never been forced to wait more than a few months. Meredith Iler, who is an event organizer, is owed almost $300,000 this year, according to a source familiar with her contract. Her arrangement with Qorvis stipulates that she will be paid monthly even if Qorvis has not received payment, yet she has not been reimbursed for expenses incurred in travels to organize events for Turki, the source said.

Les Jenka, a former Reagan administration official who has served on the Council for American-Saudi Dialogue, also confirmed that he has not been paid.

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