The Saudi Hollywood Makeover

The tense relationship between Pakistan and the United States has often been described as a bad marriage. Like a couple teetering on divorce but frozen in mutually dependent inertia, the U.S. wants one thing while Pakistan wants another, at least most of the time. This love-hate relationship long precedes the September 11th attacks. The last ten years just shed light on the ugly side of this relationship. But a relationship that is just as important in the War on Terror, but far less public, is the one the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia. If Pakistan thinks the U.S. has double standards when it comes to what they allow allies to get away with in exchange for cooperation in the WOT, that perception wouldn't be entirely off-base.

It's an open secret that hundreds of Saudi families and nationals were flown out of the States during the days after the attacks. The exodus was organized by Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sulan bin Abdul Aziz, also known as "Bandar Bush" due to his closeness to the Bush family. The ambassador expedited the departures of two families: The Saudi royals and the bin Ladens. But not even the notoriously charming prince could adequately explain why or how 15 out of the 19 hijackers came from a country the U.S. had always claimed as a close ally.

It should, then, be safe to call the Saudi-U.S. relationship a "secret" marriage. Not many Americans know how strong or weak this marriage is, mostly because the Saudis spent billions -- and more billions -- to spruce up their image or stay hidden from the general public.

The Saudis' initial attempts at post-9/11 damage control backfired -- badly. Exhibit A: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's public show of contributing $10 million to New York for disaster relief. Unfortunately for the Kingdom, the prince had the poor judgment to use the opportunity to lecture the U.S. about its foreign policy at the same time. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made it clear that New York had no need for his money.

Realizing that their image needed bolstering, the Saudis did what troubled totalitarian regimes the world over do: They hired a PR firm and a gang of high-powered Washington lobbyists. The PR blitz was a flop.

But this did not stop the Saudis, and now, in an ironic twist, the prince is the second-largest shareholder in Rupert Murdoch's News Corps, the parent company of Fox News Channel, a notorious source of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The Kingdom's ongoing image woes have long been exacerbated by reports of a barbaric judicial system, beheadings, the second class citizen status of women and the complete absence of human rights and religious freedom. The flow of Saudi petrodollars into the coffers of terrorist groups around the world has been reported on, analyzed and criticized for years, to little effect.

It is no secret either that Saudis have also been instrumental in bankrolling and backing discrimination and violence against the Shias, as described by Khaled Ahmed in his book Sectarian War: Pakistan's Sunni-Shia Violence and Its Links to the Middle East:

According to Barnett Rubin, in 1989, the Afghan mujahideen government-in-exile came into being in Peshawar after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. At the behest of Saudi Arabia, the exiled Shia mujahideen of Iran were not included in this government. The Saudis paid over $26 million a week to the 519-member session of the mujahideen shura (council) as a bribe for it. Each member of the shura received $25,000 for the deal which was facilitated, according to Rubin, by the ISI Chief Hamid Gul.

But as the world is watching the developments in the war on terror, the Saudis are out to burnish their image as humanitarians. They know that the someone somewhere might mention the fact that Afghanistan was the training ground and Pakistan was the facilitator, but the majority of the hijackers were the nationals of the Kingdom. Over the last ten years, the situation is Pakistan and Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse, while a major player of this 'great game' has kept itself at a distance with its petrodollars.

Given the Saudis' penchant for funding and exporting extremism and meddling throughout the Muslim world, how would you react if you heard a Saudi prince had bankrolled an expensive research project to create a genetically modified strain of corn that could eliminate world hunger?

The prince does this not for financial gain, but as a gesture of goodwill. The prince also speaks perfect English, appreciates female arm candy and is a target for Islamic extremists at home.

Apparently, the Saudis have found a way to uplift their image.

This prince is a hero, not in a real life of course -- but in a Hollywood movie, Unknown. As America prepares to mark the ten year anniversary of 9/11, this pop culture moment is nothing short of extraordinary. The Saudis have achieved a PR coup: Positive product placement. The Kingdom is re-branding.

There's nothing particularly original about the plot, which consists of a series of predictable spy scenarios -- a foreign city, inclement weather, amnesia, car chases, the Cold War, evil multinationals. It's been done a million times.

But what is totally unexpected is the depiction of a Saudi royal as a generous benefactor, a plot point that is so rare it captures the attention. Even more remarkable is that there have been no debates, no protests, no boycotts, no outrage. The movie came and went without a peep.

Even more intriguing: The film Unknown is based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier van Cauwelaert. There is no benevolent Saudi prince in the original version of the story. So how did this plot twist come about?

Since no one in the press or the world of politics seems to care, it may be a while before we find out.