The Magazine

A Medal for Brass

A brazen publicity stunt from the House of Saud.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By NINA SHEA
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Already dogged by a reputation for promoting religious extremism abroad and repression at home, the government of Saudi Arabia now faces growing resentment at the soaring price of oil. As is their custom, Saudi rulers have responded with a public relations campaign. It's a campaign built on deception.

On May 8, Saudi royals placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Times of London, and other papers proclaiming that a charity founded by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al Saud, a nephew of King Abdullah and the world's 13th-richest person, had been honored by the pope. Directly under a Koranic passage on tolerance, the headline declared: "Alwaleed bin Talal Humanitarian Foundation, representing Kingdom Foundation, awarded the Pontifical Medal by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican."

At the center of the page was depicted a medallion bearing the image of Pope Benedict XVI, which the ad labeled "The Pontifical Medal." The Holy See's coat of arms was displayed bottom center, implying that the ad carried the imprimatur of the pope.

All of this seemed unlikely on its face. Take that coat of arms. The ad labels it "The Vatican," a term never used by the Holy See to identify itself. More fundamentally, no church has yet been permitted in Saudi Arabia, a point the pope pressed with King Abdullah at a first-of-its-kind meeting last November. Nor does any great service to the Church figure among the benefactions for which Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal is best known--the check to New York City famously refused by Mayor Giuliani after 9/11; the gifts to the Carter Center and the presidential library of George H.W. Bush; the donations to universities like Harvard and Georgetown which now boast "Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centers" for Islamic studies.

But then, what was going on? Neither the American mainstream press nor the Catholic press had reported any papal decoration of a Saudi prince. A search of the Holy See's website turned up nothing. Most Google hits for "Pontifical Medal" were Arabic papers' echoes of the very PR material presented in the ad. And official listings of the honors awarded by the Vatican--knighthoods in the Orders of St. Gregory the Great and the Holy Sepulcher, for example--made no mention of the medal shown.

Besides, why would the Vatican confer a high honor on this Saudi prince? A Catholic knighthood normally requires a recommendation from the local bishop, and Saudi Arabia tolerates no "local" bishops or Christian clergy of any kind. Repeated calls to the Vatican embassy and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington and to the Holy See's press office in Rome brought no clarification.

In the end, it was consultations with an independent expert on the Vatican and interviews with several recipients that solved the mystery: The medal shown in the ad is a common souvenir.

It is minted each year by the thousand and handed out as a memento to those granted an audience with the pope. All the staffers at the American embassy to the Holy See, for instance, have received it. It was given to White House officials when Pope Benedict met with Bush. It is for sale at the Vatican bookstore. It confers no honor at all.

Perhaps Prince Talal came by the medallion through his aunt, the vice president of his Beirut-based foundation, which has been generous to Lebanese Catholics. On March 12, she met the pope in Rome, and a photograph of their encounter appears in the ad. Although the caption claims the picture shows Pope Benedict "awarding the Pontifical Medal" to the prince's aunt "in recognition of her distinguished social and humanitarian work," an uncropped version of the same picture found online makes clear the two are merely shaking hands. This is a bit like portraying an Oval Office photo op as the awarding of a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

What can have prompted such reckless misrepresentation? A fair surmise is that the answer lies partly in the royal family's eagerness to deflect criticism from Saudi philanthropy in the West.

Thus, in 2005, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal gave $20 million to Georgetown University for a center within its Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. The ad specifically mentions Georgetown's now-renamed Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, as if it were somehow covered by the pope's purported commendation. The center is controversial.

Last December, the Washington Times published an article under the headline "Saudis buy a campus presence; Georgetown shares in largesse to fund Islamic studies programs." Noting that Harvard, Duke, and Berkeley were also beneficiaries of Saudi donations, the piece raised concerns that these gifts were "creating bastions of noncritical pro-Islamic scholarship within academia."

Some on Capitol Hill agreed. Representative Frank Wolf, ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the State Department, home of the Foreign Service, took up the issue with Georgetown president John DeGioia. In a February 14 letter, Wolf asked whether the center could maintain "the impartiality and integrity of scholarship that befits so distinguished a university as Georgetown and that is required by the exigencies of national security for training American officials." Meanwhile, Saudi subsidizing of Western universities proceeds apace. Only this month, Cambridge University and the University of Edinburgh each announced the creation of an Islamic studies center funded by and named after Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

But if the ad's immediate purpose may have been to cast the appearance of a papal blessing over the growing Saudi presence on Western campuses, it also served a larger Saudi aim. The Saudi monarchy has begun using the model of the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church to position itself as the authoritative voice of Islam worldwide. This is new. In the history of Sunni Islam, theological authority has been located in various centers, but never in the House of Saud.

In 2006, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, in a letter to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, quoted the king as referring to his government as the "Vatican of Islam." The implication is that Saudi Arabia is not only hallowed ground as host of the two holiest Muslim sites, but also the arbiter of Islamic orthodoxy.

The recent ad directly supports this power play. It sets up visual parallels between the pope and the king, the Vatican and Mecca. A slogan at the bottom reads, "Two great faiths, Sharing one cause: humanity." Using its control of the hajj and the vast wealth it pours into foreign evangelism, funding mosques, schools, libraries, and academic centers worldwide, the House of Saud is patiently pursuing its quest to make the Saudi variant of Islam--Wahhabism, with its warrant for the murder of heretics, apostates, and infidels--the Muslim norm. This is the ad's chilling subtext.

The latest Saudi publicity stunt should not be dismissed as merely a boorish hoax. It offers a useful glimpse of the ambitions and methods of the Saudi state, which deserve to be taken seriously.

Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.