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Friday, June 09, 2006

The free lunch

Wednesday, I attended a luncheon for Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal at the Muhammad Ali Center. Prince Turki is the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the US and this was very much a diplomatic visit. Hostess Lonnie Ali pointed out that she invited Prince Turki to drop by when the two met earlier this year in Davos.

Essentially, the luncheon, which featured brief remarks by Prince Turki followed by a Q&A session, was an overt effort at Saudi public diplomacy. After 9/11, over half of Americans had a negative view of the kingdom. Osama bin Laden is from a very wealthy and well-connected Saudi family, most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, the Wahhabite sect of Islam arguably foments terror, and the country's human rights record is horrific.

In the past few months, Prince Turki has visited 18 US cities in 10 or 12 states, he claimed. Most recently, he gave a speech in Nashville to the Chamber of Congress. Earlier, he was in New York City -- and Manhattan, Kansas. Obviously, Prince Turki is trying to correct whatever his government finds the matter with Kansas.

During the Q&A session, Prince Turki answered 8 handwritten questions from the 200 member-audience. Since he answered mine, I know that these were genuine, even though there were a couple of easy ones tossed his way. Mine concerned Iran: Did he think the ongoing dispute could be resolved diplomatically and did he think Iran would build the bomb? The ambassador basically ducked the latter question and was hopeful about the former.

The world, he said, certainly wants to exhaust all alternatives to war. Saudi Arabia, he claimed, has for 20 years supported a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction. He ticked off a list of states that should not have such programs and this list included Israel. The Bush administration, in its counterproliferation moments, virtually never talks about Israel's programs. I'm not sure if the audience noticed this subtle point.

Some other member of the audience (no question authors were identified) asked about the status of women in Saudia Arabia. Could an American woman visit? His reply said more than he intended about the role of women in the kingdom, I'm sure, as he said that an American woman could most certainly come to Saudi Arabia. In fact, the embassy would be happy to help arrange the trip -- and a possible marriage partner! The audience laughed, but human trafficking to Saudi Arabia is a serious problem according to the Bush administration.

The visit had a secondary purpose as well. Saudi Arabia needs more US cash to pump more oil for the US:
We have over $650 billion worth of investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia over the next 15 years, and American business should take advantage of that. In December we officially joined the World Trade Organization. This is providing us with great opportunities to increase foreign investment...
Michael Klare pointed out in Blood and Oil that the Bush energy strategy for the future not only hinges on significant production increases from oil-rich states, but also depends upon billions and billions of dollars worth of foreign investments in these states to improve technology.

The Prince claimed that US-Saudi relations are not just about "oil for security," but that most certainly is a very large part of the relationship.

I cannot recount all the hypocrisy and irony in the session, but let me note a couple of instances. Not long after explaining that diplomats have to speak carefully, avoiding both "yes" and "no" responses to simple questions, Prince Turki told us that King Abdullah had offered this advise concerning how he should "deal with President Bush and the American people? He turned to me without batting an eye, and he said: 'Just be frank with them.'"


The Ambassador also emphasized elected municipal councils -- in the KINGDOM -- and said that the embassy had invited representatives from Freedom House to have a discussion about the group's finding that Saudi textbooks continue to "promote an ideology of hatred toward people, including Muslims, who do not subscribe to the Wahhabi sect of Islam." The Prince acknowledged that Saudi texts had previously promoted bigotry against non-Muslims, but said that the state had been working on that problem since 2001.

The most humorous line of the entire event came early on in the Prince's introductory remarks. Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, who offered some brief remarks at the event, was a Georgetown Law Center student in 1968 when Prince Turki was also a student there. Neither, however, was the most famous alum. As Prince Turki reminded the audience, the class of 1968 was the one that "didn't inhale."

While many members of the Louisville audience enjoyed the free lunch and seemed to find Prince Turki's apparently open and genial manner intoxicating, I tried to keep my wits.

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