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Despite PR, Saudi image tarnished

Saudi Arabia has spent millions of dollars to convince the American public that its citizens are not the enemy in the war on terrorism, but public opinion polls consistently indicate an unfavorable perception of the country.

Regardless, Saudi officials claim the media campaign is working.

Television commercials _ the third wave since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks _ will finish their run this week. They have been airing in 14 major U.S. markets, including Washington, Atlanta and Tampa, but not in New York.

One of the commercials emphasizes the "shared values" between Americans and Saudis, while another marvels at the economic progress Saudi Arabia has made over the past 30 years. The commercials depict Saudi children laughing together and Saudis working with technology in laboratories and in outer space.

"In 30 years, Saudi Arabia has changed from a desert kingdom into a modern nation," the ad's narrator says.

Saudi Embassy spokesman Nail Al-Jubeir said the ads are targeting the American public, not U.S. investors or government officials.

"We are trying to counter all the pundits out there," Al-Jubeir said. "This campaign is to inform the American public and counter the media _ the (Bush) administration is fully aware of what we have accomplished."

Gallup poll data indicate that U.S. sentiment toward Saudi Arabia did not rebound from the steep drop in public opinion after Sept. 11, when it was disclosed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

In a Gallup survey of about 1,000 Americans conducted nationwide seven months before the attacks, 46 percent held an "unfavorable" opinion of Saudi Arabia. In a similar Gallup poll five months after the attacks, the unfavorable rating jumped to 64 percent. The figure remained roughly the same, 61 percent, in the most recent poll conducted in February.

Hussein Ibish of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said U.S. attitudes to Saudi Arabia were dealt another blow by the May 12 terrorist bombings in Riyadh that killed 25, including nine Americans.

By that time, the Saudi government had already spent millions of dollars on dozens of public relations firms and lobbyists.

In addition to ad campaigns, Al-Jubeir and Saudi Arabia's U.S. ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, have written op-ed pieces published in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Saudi spokesman Adel Al-Jubeir, Crown Prince Abdullah's foreign policy adviser, has also held news conferences to announce that the Saudis will enhance auditing of firms and monitor funds to Saudi charities to ensure they are not diverted for use by terrorists.