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Saudi Arabia Strategy to Influence Public Opinion: How U.S. PR agencies funded for Saudi image building after 9/11.

Byline: Muhammad Akmal Soomro and Umbreen Javaid


America's relationship with Saudi Arabia begins during World War I, oil was a strategically commodity to establish "Special Relations" between two countries. As the World War II was coming to an end U.S. President F.D. Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz al Saud on 14th February, 1945 on American warship in Egypt. Prior to this meeting, Roosevelt had a top-secret meeting with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill in Crimea. The Roosevelt and King Saud meeting had lasting symbolic and practical importance to build a 'New World Order'. Since then political relations between two countries shared a common interest in terms of security and oil.1

Theoretical Framework

Grunig(1983) proposed public relation models, one of the PR models, Press Agentry or Publicity model indicates one way communication, where sender only transmits messages for receivers. Through this model, PR experts enhance the reputation among the target audiences. PR firms hired by organizations and they are supposed to create positive image in targeted population through arguments and reasoning. PR firms impose selective thoughts through expertsand influential people.2

Hiring of PR Firms for Saudis Image Building

This special relationship needs special attention to develop public opinion about both countries. Governments usually don't reveal their PR firms working for them, and government never want the firms concerned to brag about it. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is one of the powerful policy lobbying group in America, AIPAC has huge budget of about $65 million. By comparison with AIPAC, the Saudi lobby in new, this is receiving funding from Saudi government. As per Foreign agents Registration act report more than 45 contracts awarded to U.S. lobbyist firms by Saudi government. 3

The Saudi government is serious to improve its image in America; therefore government has invested heavily since 9/11. Saudi government has been hiring public relation firms and lobbyist groups to engage both Democrats and Republicans and Saudi Arabia seeking out influential Congress men and people who worked for important congressional committees. After 9/11 attacks in 2001, there was so much anger directed against Saudi government. The Saudi Ambassador to U.S. Bandar Bin Sultan at the time shelled out $3.2 million to public relations firm Qorvis for image building. 4

Since 2001 PR giant Qorvis is representing Saudi Arabia, which helped to stop 9/11 victim families suing Saudi government with the help of Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).This PR firm Qorvis helped to publicize the those parts of 9/11 Commission report which showed that there were no evidence the Saudi Arabia directly funded terrorist group Al Qaeda. Similarly, Qorvis also helped to whitewash the report's conclusion that Saudis has been a challenging ally in combating extremism. 5This was the beginning of Saudi image building in United States through PR agency, the same Qorvis worked for Saudi government in Yemen War to whitewash the devastating impact of the Saudi bombing and Saudi embassy paid $7 million to Qorvis in 2015 when Yemen war started.6

PR firms wipeout their clients' images, provide political support, smear dissidents and opponents, hide abuses, and lobby for lucrative investment. And public usually does not know how they are operating and being paid.7Saudi led forces attacked in Yemen created a resistance around the world especially in U.S. In 2015, the Saudi government hired eight U.S. based firms that performed duty of public relations, legal work and lobbying for Saudis through various techniques. After Qorvis, Saudi government paid Podesta Group $1.68 million and $140,000 a month in 2016. This PR firm established by Tony Podesta who was top fundraiser for Hilary Clinton during presidential campaigns in 2016.8

Saudi government paid $60, 000 a month to Former Republican Senator Norm Coleman's firm Hogan Lovells to set up meetings with high officials of Congress. Through this contract Norm Coleman became a foreign agent for the Saudi Arabia. This firm also helped Saudis to provide legal assistance to justify War on Yemen. It is pertinent to mention here that, in 2005, Senator Coleman signed a congressional letter against Saudi government for spreading extremist ideology around the world.9Coleman stance changed about Saudi Kingdom when he started to receive funds for his firm.

Another firm DLA Piper was paid $50,000 a month by the government for Saudi image building. DLA Piper's is running by George Mitchell who worked as U.S. Special Middle East Envoy and Senate majority leader. Saudi government hired Public relation firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, this firm received $15,000 per month for Saudis image building. Pillsbury is highly important firm for Saudi government because it employs many ex-officials of U.S. government who has been working for Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, including retired Senator Saxby Chambliss.10 During 2015, this firm received $135,000 for providing public policy and legal advice to Saudi Embassy in Washington. From 2011 to 2014 this law firm earned $2.64 million for providing legal assistance to King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, including to advice on the development of nuclear energy program for commercial purposes.11

U.S. based law firm Squire Patton Boggs is working for Saudi kingdom as a registered foreign agent. The Saudis also hired Edelman, this public relations firm represents various affiliates of the Saudi officials. This largest privately owned public relations firm paid $239,000 to work for Saudis. In 2015, this firm provided services for the SAGIA (Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority) to promote Saudi Kingdom as an attractive destination for investment. This task earned in fee $16,500.This included$190,000 to design brochures, tagline, logo, and promotional videos for Saudi Mission to United Nations. The eighth firm is called BGR Government Affairs, which was founded by Haley Barbour. He is former Republican National Committee chair and this firm was hired in 2015 to "provide media management services and public relations". Saudi government paid them $500,000.12

These U.S. based firms' meets with U.S. officials, places articles and op-eds in global newspapers, arranges air time on talk shows to propagate pro Saudi stance and ensures that Saudi companies get favorable treatment in United States. Some firms helps to create social media contents, event create the content for Embassy's official accounts. For good measure, Saudi Aramco contributes to several influential U.S. political groups, including the American Petroleum Institute. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute can run campaign ads and get directly involved in elections. So the Saudis can now legally interfere in the U.S. electoral process.

In March 2016, the Saudis announced the launch of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, the "first Saudi public affairs organization in America." Its aim is to educate the U.S. public about the "special US-Saudi relationship," and seems to be modeled on the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

Saudi Arabia is consistently one of the bigger players when it comes to foreign influence in Washington. "That spans both what you'd call the inside game, which is lobbying and government relations, and the outside game, which is PR and other things that tend to reach a broader audience than just lobbying.13

Saudi Funding for U.S. Think Tanks

Since 9/11 attacks, the Saudi government is deeply working for its image building through various strategies. Saudis also donates American universities, non-profits organizations, think tanks; like Arab Gulf States Institute, Middle East Policy Council, Atlantic Council and Smithsonian Freer Museum of Art. Saudi Arabian Embassy and Aramco have been providing huge amounts to Middle East Institute in Washington, since 2005. The Brookings Institute has received support from Aramco Services Company, the U.S.-based subsidiary of the state owned Oil Company of Saudi Arabia, with donations between $25,000 and $49,999 since 2007. Aramco Services Company has also been a "premium corporate member" of the Council on Foreign Relations from 2002 to 2014, meaning that they contributed between $30,000 and $60,000 annually.14

Similarly, Saudi government funded $25 million to the Clinton Foundation which is administrated by Bill Clinton the Former U.S. President. Even Saudi Embassy provides funds to Carter Center which has a program to empower Women, whereas Saudis don't believe women empowerment in their own kingdom. This center is running by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal donated $20 million to Georgetown University and Harvard University to publish materials, organizing conferences for advance Islamic studies and soft image for Muslim World. Yale University and Yale Law School received $10 million to establish a Center of Islamic Law and Civilization. Saudis also funded a center at the University of California, Berkeley.15

PR Firm to Promote Saudi - led Islamic Military Alliance

Saudi Arabia established a Islamic Military Alliance to fight against terrorism.

Burson - Marsteller was hired to provide PR services to the Saudis to promote this alliance as "Islamic NATO". Saudi Deputy Crown Prince awarded contract to this firm to provide media coverage of alliance actions. This firm also aims to enhance collaboration between alliance members countries and non-members countries to develop new edges to combat terrorism. Burson - Mars teller was supposed to enhance relationship with non -Islamic countries to fight against terrorism.16

Islamic Military Alliance is chairing Gen. Raheel Sharif ex-Army Chief of Pakistan. This alliance has been condemned due to its domination by countries with Sunni Muslims. Military alliance is playing significant role in Saudi led war and air strikes in Yemen since 2015. Critics fear that this alliance and the public relations around it will be used as a front for involving other Muslim countries in sectarian conflicts in the Middle East.

Burson spokesperson says, Islamic Military alliance is ready to fight against terrorism with the support of world organizations, to unite political and military efforts while continuing to support global efforts to combat terrorism.17

Saudi Arabia came under intense criticism after it was concluded by the CIA that Saudi Crown Prince ordered the murder of Khashoggi in Turkey on 2nd October, 2018, whereas this claim denied by Prince Muhammad. After this incident, U.S. lawmakers shunned on Muhammad Bin Salman role and called on President Trump to review its relationship with Saudi Arabia.18

Crown Prince has already hired an entire army of PR firms in March 2018 when he visited U.S. Saudi government asked these PR firms to praise Saudi reforms, and disassociated the Saudis name from terrorism. For this purpose, National Enquirer of the U.S. media Inc. printed hundred pages of content promoting modernization agendas. Saudi government also hired PR firms for image building in Europe.19

Saudi Arabia's $200 billion public investment fund has signed a contract with American firm KARV Communications in February, 2019. The Saudi public investment fund was launched in 1971. KARV Communications is providing strategic communications and enhancing the Saudi reputation and image of the fund and its senior executives "while underscoring the business-only purpose and focus" of fund; to build "trust and improve relations with key international stakeholders" such as "current and potential investors and portfolio companies," business leaders and media; and to ensure the fund "is well prepared for any potential negative developments and future external scrutiny that it may encounter Saudi investment fund hires US PR firm to create distance from crown prince.20

A Saudi Public investment fund is overseeing various ranges of projects from the construction of megacity with the investment of $500 billion. Saudi Crown Prince is committed to transform kingdom economy, for this purpose he PIF shifted to new created Council of Economic and Development Affairs in March 2015. The crown prince is president of the council and chairman of the PIF and the fund's executive committee.21

Lavishing money on American firms has praised for Saudi reforms and its stabilizing influence in the region. On the other hand, Washington's is committed to defend and advocate for the Saudi Kingdom, a country whose government is monarchy, ultra conservative values for their own citizens. With Saudi money pouring in, people who expressed pro-Saudi views were granted larger platforms, fatter salaries, more job security, and wider opportunities. Over time, D.C. firms made millions spinning Saudi policies and keeping tight relations with U.S. policymakers, they did not succeed in pulling the wool over the eyes of the American public. Despite all the lobbying, most Americans still have a dim view of Saudi Arabia. A 2014 Pew Research survey shows that 72 percent of Americans have a negative view of how the kingdom treats its citizens.22

The same is true for the Saudis' views on U.S. policies. It's difficult to get accurate data in a country that is so secretive and intolerant of dissenting opinions, but a rare poll taken in September 2015 showed that 81 percent of Saudi citizens had a negative view of U.S. policies.23


Saudi government has serious concern to invest on its public image across United States and in Europe, for this purpose they are heavily investing on lobbying firms. According to the report of Foreign Agents Registration Report (FARA) Saudi Arabia spent $27.3 million on lobbyist firms in 2017 which is nearly tripled of previous year spending of $10 million. Similarly, U.S. elite Universities, think tanks like Center for Strategic and International Studies, Middle East Institute and Arab Gulf States Institute received millions dollars to work for Saudi government. Saudi Embassy launched online hub for news "Arabia Now" with the help of lobbyist firms and PR agencies to promote country's soft image. Arabia Now then purchased promoted tweets in Washington D.C. area.

According to the FARA report of 2017, Saudi government inked 45 contracts and more than hundred individuals who are registered as Saudi foreign agents in America including ex officials, congressmen and former US Senators. Foreign Agent is a synonym for lobbyists which are paid by Saudi kingdom. The Primary concerns of American firms are working to shape perceptions of Saudi Arabia, its domestic and foreign policy, its royals in the U.S through leading newspapers like Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and to even make multiple documentaries about the Saudi Kingdom.

Notes and References

1 John S. Keating, Commander Destroyer Squadron Seventeen, to FDR. Top Secret report on Mission to Mecca: Ibn Saud's visit with FDR, February 20, 1945, Chronological Number 194, Accession Number 122, William M Rigdon inventory, 1945, Rigdon papers, GSUL.

2 Grunig, J. E. (1983) Organizations, Environments, and Models of Public Relations.


4 Lee Fang. "The Saudi Lobbying Complex Adds a New Member: GOP Super PAC Chair Norm Coleman." The Nation.18 September 2014.

5 "Wash, DC PR Firm Accused of Whitewashing Work for Saudis." Truth Revolt.21 March 2016.

6 Lee Fang. "Saudi Arabia Continues Hiring Spree of Lobbyists, Retains Former 'Washington Post'Reporter." The Intercept.21 March 2016.

7 Saudi Arabia, the PR client no one wants to talk about.

8 Megan Wilson. "Saudis Have Lobbying Muscle for 9/11 Fight." The Hill.18 April 2016.

9 Fang. "The Saudi Lobbying Complex Adds a New Member: GOP Super PAC Chair Norm Coleman."

10 Catherine Ho. "Saudi Government Has Vast Network of PR, Lobby Firms in the U.S." The Washington Post.20 April 2016.

11 Saudi government has vast network of PR, lobby firms in U.S.

12 Saudi government has vast network of PR, lobby firms in U.S. di-government-has-vast-network-of-pr-lobby-firms-in-u-s/?utm_term=.981616114f23

13 Catherine Ho. "Saudi Government Has Vast Network of PR, Lobby Firms in the U.S." The Washington Post.20 April 2016.

14 Max Fisher. "How Saudi Arabia Captured Washington." Vox.21 March 2016.

15 Richard Wike. "The World Gives Saudi Arabia Poor Marks on Freedoms." Pew ResearchCenter.28 March 2014.

16 Burson-Marsteller Engaged For Controversial 'Islamic NATO' Assignment.'islamic-nato'-assingment

17 Ibid.

18 Why Karv Communications Won't be the Last PR Firm Saudi has Hired?

19 Why Karv Communications Won't be the Last PR Firm Saudi has Hired?

20 Julian Pecquet; Saudi investment fund hires US PR firm to create distance from crown prince.

21 Saudi Arabia fund hires PR firm in the wake of Khashoggi murder.

22 Richard Wike. "The World Gives Saudi Arabia Poor Marks on Freedoms." Pew ResearchCenter.28 March 2014.

23 David Pollock. "New Saudi Poll Shows Iran, Russia, United States, and ISIS Are All Unpopular; Mixed Views on Others." The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.22 October 2015.
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Publication:Journal of Pakistan Vision
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Jun 20, 2019
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