It was a contemporary Arabian Nights setting, complete with Saudi princes and the air of a fairy tale. Hosting his first major bash as Saudi ambassador at his sprawling residence in McLean, PrinceTurki al-Faisalhonored his visiting brother, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. After an hour-long meet-and-greet reception near the entrance to the house, everyone proceeded out back for the main event.
A large pool house was adorned with ivory voile drapes, lending a soft, dreamy quality to the evening. About 250 guests sat down inside at tables decked with blown-glass vases holding arrangements of peonies and green hydrangeas. Vice President Cheney, Cabinet ministers and diplomats were there, as were a number of the ambassador's mates from his graduating class of '68 at Georgetown University.
After seven months on the job, Prince Turki, who succeeded his brother-in-law Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was setting the tone and style for his ambassadorship on Wednesday. He had already visited 10 states, talked to professional, academic and other select crowds and fielded questions about Osama bin Laden, oil production, Wahabism and religious tolerance.
Having come from his previous posting in London, Turki, 61, has had to adapt to a different pace. "Everybody here is a workaholic. You keep up, or they leave you behind," he said in an interview at his office Monday. "Being ambassador here is a lot busier but less genteel," he added, explaining that this was in reference to what he described as "extremely vociferous, and in some cases, obnoxious" criticism of his country.
"I have a particular mission," he said. "Mostly, I am trying to connect with the American people. The Americans I knew as a student were curious, friendly, hospitable. I am engaging with everyone in the administration, Congress, the media, students, and, I'm being frank -- much of diplomacy is all done by heads of state who talk by telephone or through their emissaries. Ambassadors here really have to justify their big salaries."
Cleanshaven, affable and easygoing, Prince Turki is considered liberal by Saudi standards. His wife, Princess Nouf Bint Fahd, received guests with him on Wednesday night and has accompanied him to black-tie dinners around town. He has attempted to win the favor of Americans, but his mission has been made more difficult by authorities back home who continue to give in to the religious establishment.
On Tuesday, Saudi newspapers reported that King Abdullahhad told Saudi editors to stop publishing pictures of women, lest young men be led "astray."
Turki said Saudi Arabia is set to move forward and points out that he does "not speak with a forked tongue."
During the event at the ambassador's residence, associates spoke about Turki's dedication to changing perceptions about Saudi Arabia.
"He wants people to feel better about his country, and he is a very dignified spokesman," said Edward J. McManimon, a former classmate of Turki's.
Since former president Bill Clinton, another classmate, hosted the 25th class reunion at the White House in 1993, Turki has come to almost every reunion and invited a group of his contemporaries to visit Saudi Arabia.
The prince has reached out to Americans, but to others as well. Ezra Zilkha, an Iraqi-born Jew who grew up in Beirut and Egypt before moving to New York to become a banker, said Turki "is a very reasoned man." The two took a liking to one another after meeting at the home of an Iraqi-American businessman in London, Zilkha said.
Turki, who spent 25 years as Saudi Arabia's intelligence minister, has faced scrutiny himself. He was accused of helping the royal family strike a deal to pay bin Laden protection money so he would not carry out terrorist strikes inside Saudi Arabia or work to bring down the Saudi government. A U.S. judge dismissed the case, saying that the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act generally bars claims against foreign officials and that the plaintiffs could not establish that the case met any of the numerous exceptions that would allow their claims to proceed.
Sitting at one of the tables Wednesday evening was Michael K. Kellogg, a lawyer who represented Turki in the case. Turki thanked Kellogg and other lawyers such as Robert Andrews, another Georgetown buddy, for "getting me off the hook."
Turki has no illusions about the difficulty of dislodging the perceptions about Saudi Arabia forged by "calamitous" events such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi -- regardless of the many gestures he says Saudi Arabia has made since then. He compared the fallout from the attacks to the stigma caused by the massacre of 6,000 to 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica as Western powers delayed acting.
"The scar remains in the mind of Muslims, although America and the West intervened later to rectify it," he said. "And equally, September 11 will always be associated with 15 Saudis being the murderers. The scar will always be with us, even though we are trying our best to rectify that. . . . There is no quid pro quo in these affairs."
He also dismissed the notion of a clash between cultures.
"We all share in civilization, and we build on one another's accomplishments," he said.