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.
Gallagher Group's Jamie Gallagher, a former congressional staffer who served as a lobbyist for the kingdom for 11 years, said this is the first time he has not been paid for a whole year. He is owed more than $100,000. "There are people who are owed more than I am. I haven't been able to figure it out," he said.
The cutoff of funds appears to be one manifestation of a royal rift over, among other things, the way to handle the rising influence of Iran in the Middle East.
In his secret visits, Bandar increasingly pressed the Bush administration not to deal with Iran -- and, instead, to organize joint efforts to counter Iran's growing influence in the Middle East, such as in Lebanon, said sources close to the royal family. The new model would be based roughly on the kind of joint U.S.-Saudi cooperation that assisted anti-Soviet forces during Moscow's 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan, the sources said.
Washington and Riyadh are already planning a major aid and military training package for the beleaguered Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose government is besieged by thousands of supporters of Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
The Sunni kingdom sees Iran as a threat because of Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program. The kingdom also fears the shifting balance of power -- under Iran's tutelage -- between minority Shiites and majority Sunnis, who have dominated Middle East politics for almost 14 centuries. The monarchy faces its own restive Shiite minority in the main oil-producing province.
The kingdom grew particularly alarmed as the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group began to leak out last month, with recommendations that the administration talk to both Iran and Syria, say U.S. officials and sources close to the royal family. Even before the report was released, Abdullah summoned Cheney to again warn about Iran and the regional implications of its growing influence -- and offer Saudi assistance and discuss joint U.S.-Saudi efforts.
The al-Faisal brothers, in contrast, have consistently urged dialogue with Tehran and are wary of joint U.S.-Saudi efforts against Iran and its surrogates. Turki often urged the United States to deal with its enemies. In one of his final public speeches, at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council last month, Turki said: "We speak directly with Iran on all issues. We find that talking with them is better than not talking with them."
Turki's frequent public events -- in which he was frank about America's poor image abroad and urged progress on the deadlocked Arab-Israeli peace process as the key to defusing broader regional tensions -- generated an unusual amount of attention in the Saudi media and made him a popular figure back home.
Saudi experts say differences within the royal family, like virtually everything having to do with the House of Saud, are heavily nuanced. "On Iran policy, they all make the same diagnosis but have a different prescription for what to do about it," said David E. Long, a former U.S. diplomat and the author of five books on Saudi Arabia.
After a year of internal tensions and failure to pay bills, Turki was not invited to Riyadh for Cheney's visit, Saudi sources confirmed. And Bandar returned to Washington again right after the meeting to discuss the specifics of the joint efforts. Two weeks later, Turki quit.