The Saudis Take a Stroll on J Street

Talk about a tough sale. Imagine being Saudi Arabia’s public relations firm in the United States in the months after the 9/11 attacks, which were perpetrated by 19 terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals. Shilling for a tarnished Saudi Arabia was the daunting task that faced Qorvis, a Washington-based PR company. The $14 million contract surely compensated.

In their 2002 contract, Qorvis promised to “draft and/or distribute talking points, press releases, fact sheets, and op-ed pieces in order to promote the [Saudi] Kingdom, its commitment to the war against terrorism, peace in the Middle East, and other issues pertinent to the Kingdom.”

Soon thereafter, a new organization appeared on the American scene, the “Alliance of Peace and Justice in the Middle East.” In April 2002, the organization ran radio spots on dozens of stations across the U.S. extolling the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by then-Crown Prince Abdullah and attacking Israel’s settlements.

According to one ad: “The [Saudis’] fair plan [would] end the senseless violence in the Mideast." The plan involved Israel’s "withdrawal from the Palestinian land it has unjustly occupied for years. ... There will be no more midnight raids and random searches, no more violence." "Start the peace -- end the occupation" is the phrase that ends the ads. It is followed by the words "paid for by the Alliance of Peace and Justice."

Who was behind the alliance? One American Jewish activist tracked them back to a Virginia address, which just happened to be the offices of Qorvis.

Eight months later, in documents submitted to the U.S. Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Office (FARA), Qorvis began to fess up. They listed receipt of $679,000 from the Alliance of Peace and Justice for “payment for radio, television, and print ads.”

In a tiny footnote, Qorvis added this classic piece of obfuscation:

Registrant [Qorvis] assisted in the preparation and placement of certain advertisements to promote the Saudi Middle East peace plan that were prepared by the Alliance for Peace and Justice, an American organization concerned about the Middle East peace process. The Alliance paid Qorvis for work on the advertisements. At the time of these payments, the Alliance was funded by a bridge loan from the Embassy of Saudi Arabia. The Alliance received its permanent funding from the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, through its Committee for the Development of International Trade and the Alliance repaid the loan to the Embassy. The Council, including the Committee, is based in Saudi Arabia, with its principal offices in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The advertisements prepared by the Alliance for the Council were filed with the Department of Justice on April 29, 2002.

When he was confronted by reporters in 2002, Qorvis CEO Michael Petruzzello told them that the financial backers of the “alliance” included the Arab American Institute (AAI), the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

In December 2004, the other shoe dropped when the FBI raided several Qorvis offices as part of FARA compliance investigations. A grand jury was convened, but details of their findings were never made public.

As of November 2009, no FARA registration was ever made by the Alliance of Peace and Justice despite Qorvis’ claim that Saudi institutions paid the alliance, and despite Qorvis’ portrayal of the alliance as a separate American organization. Nor are there FARA filings for one of the organizations named by Petruzzello, the Arab American Institute, despite their receipt of $300,000 from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in that very busy year of 2002.

The Arab American Institute was founded by Arab-American and Democratic Party activist James Zogby, an early supporter of Barack Obama. (Zogby was rewarded for his support in July when he was asked to deliver the keynote address at the Justice Department’s 45th anniversary commemoration of the Civil Rights Act.)

Another AAI leader is Wisconsin businessman Richard Abdoo, a member of the organization’s board of governors.