Readers of the Ellsworth American last September might be forgiven for wondering why there was a column by H. Delano Roosevelt, grandson of Eleanor and Franklin, extolling the virtues of Saudi Arabia.
“In 2008 Maine exported about $160 million worth of goods to the Kingdom,” Roosevelt wrote, “yet in 2019 that figure had shrunk to only $2 million. I believe that now more than at any time in recent history Maine can see those numbers rise again as opportunities abound for U.S. companies in the Saudi market.”
The Ellsworth weekly has a robust commentary section, but for more than a year before Roosevelt’s piece was published, no one had taken the opportunity to advocate for trade with a foreign country. Not even with Canada.
Roosevelt, the CEO of the U.S. Saudi Arabian Business Council, went on to suggest the Saudis would gobble up Maine lobster if only given the chance (many op-ed writers – including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and former Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon – have praised Maine lobster in the American over the past year). And, hey, Saudi Arabian students make up 7 percent of the international population at the University of Maine.
Given about 400 international students (graduate and undergrad) that’s about 28 kids. Which does seem like kind of a lot.
But Saudi Arabia? The country in the Middle East accessible via a $2,000 plane flight? The one with all the oil, with a prince implicated by the CIA in the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and fighting a brutal war in Yemen?
They want to buy things from Maine?
Well, in fact, Maine has lately been the subject of a great deal of attention from the kingdom.
Last summer, the Phoenix reported on PR work being performed by Crystal Canney, co-head of the Knight Canney Group, who had been hired by LS2 Group to provide communications support for its work with the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Over the course of the rest of 2020, some under the direction of Canney and some not, the embassy and LS2 reached out to no fewer than 23 people in Maine, via phone and email, and met with at least four of them.
The U.S. exported about $24 billion in goods to Saudi Arabia in 2019. Surely, even Maine’s high point of $160 million in 2008, never approached in any other year, is but a pittance.
So why reach out to frequent political commentator Phil Harriman, or Ray Richardson on WGAN? Dave Sullivan, the head of the Maine Lobster Union, makes some sense, but Thomas Moser? Are the Saudis really in need of Maine-made furniture?
Canney did not want to discuss Saudi motivations. Reached on the phone, she said she was no longer working for LS2 and that she would refer questions about Saudi Arabia to LS2. “I’m really not going to say any more than that,” she said.
According to LS2’s public filings about political activity on behalf of Saudi Arabia, Canney was paid $3,000 in September for her work. LS2 promised a return phone call in response to a reporter’s inquiry, but then did not call back, despite a second and third message.
One meeting Canney did attempt to set up was with lawyer and state Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor.
“I talked with Crystal Canney once,” Baldacci confirmed on the phone. “They wanted to set up a meeting. I told them I was not interested in getting together with them because of their human rights record. … I specifically told them I’m very concerned about their human rights record and I gave her an earful. I haven’t heard from them since.”
Habib Dagher, executive director of the Advanced Structures & Composites Center at UMaine, did have a meeting with Canney, along with Kathie Summers-Grice of Dirigo Partners, on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Like many countries around the globe – including Germany and the U.K. – “they came to us to see if there are opportunities for private business to connect with our research and potentially invest in our research in the state of Maine,” Dagher said. “The idea was there were opportunities for businesses in Saudi Arabia to invest in these companies and create Maine jobs.”
Dagher described it as an introductory meeting, held just a couple of weeks after Roosevelt’s column was published. “It was just kind of a get-to-know-you meeting at this stage,” he said.
He pointed to a long list of work with foreign companies and governments, from the U.K.’s involvement in Maine’s offshore wind research to work with Norway and France. German and Japanese companies recently invested $100 million in the offshore wind program.
“We’re an international research center,” Dagher said. “We have over 500 clients or collaborators across the globe. We know how to work internationally. … We welcome whoever wants to talk to us, as long as there’s a good reason to collaborate. That’s the spirit, if you wish, of that conversation.”
Was Dagher, like Baldacci, concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record?
“We didn’t really get into that,” he said. “This was just an early opportunity. We didn’t get that far into any conversation where we’d even be working together. We’re part of the DNA of the state of Maine and certainly respect all the political views on this political issue and are certainly aware of it and everything we do is colored by the desire of the state of Maine. We don’t move into a relationship with blinders on.”
Articles in papers like USA Today have speculated that the Saudis are trying to curry favor with “middle America” to make sure they continue to be seen as allies, particularly after the Khashoggi murder. Roosevelt’s “peace through commerce” message certainly fits in with that motive. Who doesn’t like a good customer?
That’s the impression Harriman got after his interview with Fahad Nazer, the official spokesperson of the embassy of Saudi Arabia.
“It was cordial, and he touched on a couple of key points, and he touched on them several times,” Harriman said of the interview, which isn’t archived on the WGAN website. “One of them was the relationship with the United States that goes back to President Roosevelt. He wanted it to be known, clearly, that the United States and the Kingdom were shoulder to shoulder in the Gulf War and in ridding ISIS out of Syria, which is on the Saudi border. … It was really about, ‘let me show you how deep and how strong our relationship is between our two nations.’”
But did Nazer seem to actually be appealing to Mainers specifically?
“I didn’t find anything in his comments that would lead me to conclude that he was familiar with our culture or our geography or heritage, any of that,” Harriman said. “It was clearly just an effort to put information out there that would cause people to say, ‘oh, the Saudis are more friend than we realize.’”
Judith Rosenbaum, chair of UMaine’s Department of Communication and Journalism, had a similar experience. She said the Saudi Embassy reached out to her “offering a guest speaker and I determined the nature of the guest speaker was not relevant to my department, so I deleted the emails. I don’t think I ever even responded.”
Rosenbaum said the only other foreign government to reach out in her relatively short tenure (she became the department head last July) was from the Israeli consulate. She said she didn’t reply to that overture either.
Another contact at UMaine, Orlina Boteva, director of international programs, replied through the PR office that the Saudi Arabian embassy had sent her information about an event and she forwarded it to “our students from that country as an information piece. Students then had a choice to participate in the event if of interest.”
Particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, Maine has piqued the attention of any number of people “from away.” It’s no secret that Maine’s pristine waters and untouched woodlands and low population density have attracted many people who no longer are tethered to offices and want to escape city life. Apartments in Portland are now more expensive than London’s; homes for sale get gobbled up in days at well over the asking price.
Is this simply part of the “middle America” campaign designed to make politicians like Maine’s federal foursome more likely to approve continuing arms deals to Saudi Arabia as they wage war in their own backyard, covering their eyes and blocking their ears to complaints about human rights abuses? Or does a country like Saudi Arabia now see potential in Maine, as many others have, and offer a financial pipeline that could further catapult Maine’s engineering research into the international spotlight?
Harold Pachios, a lawyer and board member at the Maine World Affairs Council, scoffs at the latter. “If I were Saudi Arabia,” he said, “I’d have other fish to fry than trying to be a landowner and do business in Maine.”
In fact, Pachios recognized right away what was up when Canney reached out to him on behalf of the Saudi Arabian embassy.
“When I was asked to introduce the ambassador, I said, ‘sure,’ because I know what it’s all about,” he said. “They have a public relations problem. So how do you deal with that? You try to get favorable articles in newspapers, you go around and make speeches to opinion makers, you go on the local radio station. All of this is a typical public diplomacy program. Very typical.”
And Pachios would know.
For both of President Bill Clinton’s terms and the first half of President George W. Bush’s tenure, Pachios served as a member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, including serving as chairman for the last eight years. Through efforts like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, the U.S. has engaged in public diplomacy with great success, especially following World War II.
“The idea was if you can reach the grassroots, you can create conditions that will make the government more responsive to your message,” Pachios said. “If we could reach the people of Yugoslavia through public diplomacy, then the communist government would be more inclined to be receptive to the views of the United States,” because the public and general influencers had already bought in.
“These days,” Pachios lamented, “we do not do it well. And we’ve lost a lot of ability to influence foreign publics. The country that spends the most on this is China, and they’re all over the world with a massive public diplomacy effort.” Some even point to China’s worldwide infrastructure project, the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, as more public diplomacy than true trade and business effort.
Saudi Arabia may be wealthy, but they don’t have the ability to do their own Radio Free Europe or a global infrastructure effort, “so they hire a PR firm to help them do this and they get some engagement,” Pachios said.
He agreed the likely targets were Collins and U.S. Sen. Angus King, given their perception as something close to swing votes and their relative influence over arms sales to Saudi Arabia: Collins serves on the Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on defense; King serves on Armed Forces and chairs its subcommittee on strategic forces. Both have intelligence-related roles.
But it’s hard to think the six months or so of Saudi effort had much of an effect.
Dagher, at UMaine, said there hasn’t been any follow-up from Saudi Arabia. The Central Maine newspapers recently ran an op-ed saying the Biden administration was going too easy on Saudi Arabia, given the findings of the Khashoggi investigation, and online commenters universally agreed. Second Congressional District candidate Eric Brakey last year even tried to paint his opponent and the eventual Republican nominee, Dale Crafts, as in Saudi Arabia’s pocket.
“There’s been nothing since that interview,” WGAN’s Harriman said on reflection. “If that was an opportunity for Maine, we would have seen next phases, next steps, more boots on the ground, so to speak. And that didn’t happen.”
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].