Giuliani’s Arab Problem
Giuliani isn’t in Alwaleed Bin Talal’s league
With a personal worth of $20.3 billion, Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud is, according to Forbes, the 13th wealthiest man in the world. He’s one of the teeming nephews of Saudi King Abdullah, but an unusual one in the sense that he’s also the most successful private investor in the royal family. He has a master’s of science from Syracuse University . He owns big chunks of Citigroup, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Euro Disney, and, with Bill Gates, the Four Seasons Hotels chain. He’s also a big giver. He donated $20 million to Harvard and $20 million to Georgetown to further Islamic studies. He donated $10 million to Cornell to further biomedicine. He donated $10 million to finance American studies at the American University in Cairo .
When people need help, Alwaleed helps. When Israel maliciously bombed two power plants serving Beirut on June 24, 1999 , Alwaleed pledged to foot the $30 million rebuilding bill within the week. He likes women’s rights. The first accredited female Saudi pilot to fly planes in Saudi Arabia,
Hanadi Zakariya Hindi, has him to thank, not only for hiring her on a
10-year contract with his private fleet at Kingdom Holding Company
(KHC), but for granting SR3,000 per month as scholarship for her studies
at the Amman-based Mideast Aviation Academy until she graduated in
2005 to be Saudi Arabia's first woman pilot. Plus, he has a sense of humor—and the kind of ethics that seem to be dwindling on Wall Street. When the Economist wrote somewhat of a hackish profile in 1999, hinting that Alwaleed’s investments hadn’t paid off as handsomely as assumed or that Alwaleed wasn’t entirely a self-made man, he wrote the magazine:
The truth is more prosaic. My fortune is due to my belief in God and, quite simply, to my advisers who “work smart, not hard,” as I like to put it. And, finally, I believe I am bringing new standards of transparency to doing business in the Middle East—a part of the world that is in desperate need of more openness. Mysteriously, you choose to ignore this.
Westerners make a specialty of misunderstanding Alwaleed, sometimes willfully, because they refuse to treat him as they would, say, your average Wall Street mogul, preferring instead to assume him suspect until proven otherwise. Reactionaries like Rudy Giuliani make matters worse.
Case in point: shortly after 9/11, Alwaleed wrote a $10 million check for the 9/11 families fund. Giuliani’s administration cashed it. Then returned it. Alwaleed had visited “Ground Zero” with Giuliani in September. In his letter accompanying the check, the prince had offered his condolences for “the loss of life that the city of New York has suffered” and said: “I would also like to condemn all forms of terrorism, and in doing so I am reiterating Saudi Arabia's strong stance against these tragic and horrendous acts.”
But Giuliani didn’t like what Alwaleed said in a news release that was attached to the letter. Giuliani hadn’t minded at first, mind you: he was advised, later on, to react to the news release. This is what the release said: “However, at times like this one, we must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack. I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance towards the Palestinian cause.”
If the United States was a normal country (if it was pre-1980 United States, for starters), and if Rudy Giuliani wasn’t a craven politicians looking out for his national prospects even as he occasionally marched through the dust of “Ground Zero,” Alwaleed’s statement would have been taken for what it was: an obvious plea for the United States to awaken from its obviously dangerous slumber, or perhaps willful ignorance, about ameliorating matters in the Middle East. As long as the United States continues to traet Israel like a 51 st state and Palestinian like third-class citizens (Israel, at least, treats them only like second-class citizens) American fortunes in the Middle East will not improve. The prince was suggesting that maybe this was an opportunity to broaden American understanding and resume living up to American principles, of seeing both sides of a catastrophe.
It’s very telling that Giuliani told the prince to shove it. Telling for several reasons: This incident illustrates Giuliani’s autocratic side, his purposefully narrow world view, his parochialism. Sounds familiar? You might as well be describing George W. Bush. Those are three characteristics the nation can no longer afford in a chief executive. But Giuliani is also the mayor who, in 1995, made a point of throwing out Yaser Arafat from Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center . Arafat was attending a New York Philharmonic concert commemorating the 50 th anniversary of the United Nations. Giuliani, grandstanding about his past as a federal prosecutor who’d seen his share of terrorism cases in which the PLO was implicated, said, “I would not invite Yasir Arafat to anything, anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I don’t forget.” Forget what? “He has never been held to answer for the murders that he was implicated in. The U.N. is one thing, the peace process is another thing. When we're having a party and a celebration, I would rather not have someone who has been implicated in the murders of Americans there, if I have the discretion not to have him there.”
Would Giuliani say the same thing about Bush? Or maybe about himself? Isn’t Giuliani’s refusal to act on an early 1990s report about outdated emergency communications system responsible for the death of hundreds of New York City firemen—the firemen who never heard the evacuation call when they were in the second tower, after the first one feel, because their equipment couldn’t catch the signal?
Giuliani’s run-in with Alwaleed speaks for itself. But when Giuliani can count on the New York Times to back up his bigotry and stereotypes, there’s been more than a political shift in the country. It’s a cultural shift that endorses a form of subtle racism, paired with that guilty-until-proven-innocent skepticism, that media project (blatantly on Fox, subtly in the New York Times).
In a tendentious piece snidely titled “Big Imam on Campus,” the Times’ Deborah Solomon interviewed Alwaleed in 2006. She started with the $20 million gifts to Harvard and Georgetown . Keep in mind that big donors often earmark their donation for specific projects or schools—a school of law, a school of business, a school of arts. Alwaleed earmarked his donation for Islamic studies. Solomon was offended. “ Since you're said to be worth more than $20 billion, with major holdings in Four Seasons Hotels, Saks Fifth Avenue and Murdoch's News Corporation, why not give an unrestricted gift instead of such a narrowly focused one?” she asked. “It is unrestricted!” he replied. “No, it's not. It has to be spent on Islamic studies.”
“Well, sure!” he replied, “The studies that concern me and fit my overall global vision - they're Islamic studies. As you know, ever since 9/11, we have been trying to bridge the gap between West and East.”
Solomon’s retort? “ Which has backfired at least once.” Backfired? What’s that loaded term being used for? To refer to the $10 million donation Giuliani rejected. See how the press manipulates an event, how Solomon turns what should have been a backfiring incident involving Giuliani on one that involves Alwaleed? See how the New York Times circles the wagons around one of its own?
“You became notorious in New York ,” Solomon went on, using that other loaded term so favored by cheap-shot reporters, notorious , “when Mayor Giuliani declined to accept a $10 million donation from you to victims’ families after you suggested that the U.S. was too friendly with Israel .”
Alwaleed: “By the way, my check was taken to the bank and cashed. The problem was with my statement. I accepted that. Subject closed.”
“Subject reopened. The money was returned to you. Have you told Harvard, as you told the City of New York , that the U.S. needs to ‘adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause’?” The more relevant question is: why is Deborah Solomon implying that a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause is an offense? Why isn’t she asking every American foreign policy official she interviews why a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause isn’t automatic American policy? Since when is a balanced stance toward any cause an object of vilification, in American policy or not?
OK, enough childishness. Solomon’s interview was downright offensive in tone and substance. But like Giuliani’s attitude, it speaks loads about the American establishment’s posture towards Arabs, powerful, wealthy, American-polished Arabs especially.