Saudis’ Multi-Million Dollar PR Agenda

By Erick Stakelbeck
CBN News Terrorism Analyst
March 11, 2008 – If you want to influence habits, experts will tell you to target young people. Current polls show that many Americans have a negative view of Muslims, especially since the 9/11 attacks. Now the Saudi royal family is trying to change that. They are going to visit some of America’s top universities to get their message out.

President Bush was all smiles during a traditional “sword dance” with members of the Saudi royal family in January. But the Bush administration has crossed swords with the Saudis in recent years over their support of radical Islam worldwide. The Saudis’ image worldwide took a major beating when it was revealed that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers hailed from the royal kingdom.

Click the player to watch CBN News Terrorism Analyst Erick Stakelbeck’s report and Pat Robertson’s comments on Wahhabi Islam.

“Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of suicide bombers and terrorists in the history of humankind,” said The Institute for Gulf Affairs’ Ali Al-Ahmed.

That is a reputation Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal is trying to erase. Time Magazine calls him “the Arabian Warren Buffet.” Forbes estimates his wealth at almost $30 billion.

PR Problem

Prince Alwaleed spends a chunk of that fortune trying to improve the image of Saudi Arabia and Islam in the West. In 2005, he donated $20 million to both Harvard and Georgetown, a pair of America’s most prestigious universities. The prince says this will promote peace and help bridge the gap between East and West.

Others aren’t so sure.

“What this is saying to all Middle East researchers, instructors and center directors is, if you behave, if you say the right things, if you say the things the Saudis like, then you too could get a windfall like this,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.

Pipes directs the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. He says donations like this help promote a Saudi point of view and shuts down any criticism of Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi donations to American universities should be seen in a much larger picture of Saudi promotion of a Saudi point of view,” Pipes explained.  “Whether it be Islamic or political, the Saudis have a point of view. And they have been very clever and very generous over the decades to promote that point of view.  It’s hard to find academics at American universities in the general area of Middle East studies who will say things that are anathema to the Saudis.”

Reinventing the Saudi Image

Prince Alwaleed’s millions have helped revamp Georgetown’s Islamic Studies Center. It has been renamed the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The prince’s donation has also paved the way for several new programs and faculty. But what effect will this Saudi money have on the Center’s agenda? Will the Saudis face less scrutiny? And what about Islam itself?

John Esposito, the center’s director declined CBN News’ request for an on-camera interview. However, in an e-mail he wrote, “the Alwaleed endowment has assured the continued and permanent existence of the center, support for our faculty, staff and programs, and the enhancement of the think tank dimension of our work.”

Esposito is widely acknowledged as a leading authority on Islam. But not everyone is impressed with his work.

“John Esposito, going back to the 1990s, was writing that Islamism was not a threat and in fact was the path to democracy, a different path to democracy,” said Winfield Myers, the director of Campus Watch.

Campus Watch is a group that monitors Middle East studies programs at American universities. Myers says Esposito’s position wasn’t the only thing that made Georgetown an attractive choice for Prince Alwaleed’s money.

“Georgetown is close to where the embassies are located,” Myers explained. “It is the center of power in America. It’s where all of the lobbyists have to congregate because of the sheer size of the government. So people must go there and try to feed from the troff.”

As for Harvard, it wasn’t location, but reputation that made the difference.

“He’s not going to put it someplace where it’s not going to have a real chance to influence the image of the Saudi kingdom in American eyes,” Myers said.

Myers says that many Middle East studies programs already have questionable agendas even before they’re showered with Saudi dollars.

“You’ll find very few studies coming out about terrorism, even in the wake of 9/11,” he said.  “Logically, you might have concluded or might have assumed that we would see dozens of studies on the causes of terrorism, and the effects of terrorism and how to prevent terrorism.  That didn’t happen.  In fact, what you see is the opposite,” he continued.  “There were no small number of studies produced that attacked the West, that blamed the West for being attacked itself.  And of course, the principal enemies are always America and Israel.”

The director of Harvard’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic studies program did not respond to CBN News interview requests. However, we were able to speak with a former state department official who also worked in Georgetown’s Arab studies department.

“No university will accept money with strings on it,” said the Middle East Institute’s David Long. “Period.  Academic freedom in our country is a cornerstone of academic discourse, and that will not be breached by any university that I know of. ”

According to Long, there’s no grand Saudi strategy to influence America’s view of Islam.

“Yes, they want to help Islam, just like we have foreign missionaries,” Long explained. “But I think there’s a lot of fear about abilities that I don’t really think they have.”

Money and Influence

Georgetown and Harvard aren’t the only major U.S. universities to receive Saudi funds. Duke, Howard, Cal-Berkeley, Syracuse and Johns Hopkins have also received substantial donations from the Saudi royal family. The Saudi government spends an estimated $5 billion each year on schools, mosques and Islamic centers around the globe. These institutions often promote the Saudi government’s brand of Wahhabi Islam.

Long says the threat posed to the West by Saudi Wahhabism has been exaggerated.  “Do they finance this stuff?  They finance a lot of Islamic institutions,” he said.  “Are there people in these institutions that do do this stuff?  Yes there are. And it’s a problem. But to lump it all together into one great, big lump I think, is overdoing it.”

But Pipes says Saudi influence on college campuses is very real — and affects professors treatment of of concepts like Jihad or Islamic holy war.

“Some would say it’s only a defensive war,” Pipes said. “Some would say it’s not even warfare at all. One of the more amusing comments–explanations–of jihad was it’s becoming a better colleague, it’s fighting against apartheid, it’s working for women’s rights,” he continued. “Utter nonsense. Utter disinformation.  I can’t attribute this specifically to the Saudis, but the Saudis have created since the early 70’s an atmosphere at American universities that’s conducive to this.”

Alwaleed could not be reached for comment. Long, who worked as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, says Saudi donations to American universities are no reason for concern.

“The Saudi Royal family and the Aaudi royal people actually have a great deal of regard for us,” Long said.

But one Saudi dissident CBN News spoke to sees a double standard when it comes to cultural exchanges between America and Saudi Arabia–an Islamic state where Christianity is illegal.

Al-Ahmed noted, “They should allow American organizations and American funding of, let’s say, the Martin Luther King Center or the Abraham Lincoln Center or a Susan B Anthony Center, or allowing Freedom House or Human Rights Watch or even CBN to have offices in Saudi Arabia.”


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