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Buy airliner, get a diplomat

The king of Saudi Arabia wanted the United States to outfit his personal jet with the same high-tech devices as Air Force One.

world Updated: Jan 04, 2011 00:17 IST

The king of Saudi Arabia wanted the United States to outfit his personal jet with the same high-tech devices as Air Force One.

The president of Turkey wanted the Obama administration to let a Turkish astronaut sit in on a NASA space flight.

And in Bangladesh, the prime minister pressed the State Department to re-establish landing rights at Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Each of these government leaders had one thing in common: they were trying to decide whether to buy billions of dollars' worth of commercial jets from Boeing or its European competitor, Airbus. And United States diplomats were acting like marketing agents, offering deals to heads of state and airline executives whose decisions could be influenced by price, performance and, as with all finicky customers with plenty to spend, perks.

To a greater degree than previously known, diplomats are a big part of the sales force, according to hundreds of cables released by WikiLeaks, which describe politicking and cajoling at the highest levels.

It is not surprising that the US helps American companies doing business abroad; given that each sale is worth thousands of jobs and that their foreign competitors do the same.

One example of the horse-trading involved Saudi Arabia, which in November announced a deal with Boeing to buy 12 777-300ER airliners, with options for 10 more, a transaction worth more than $3.3 billion at list prices.

That announcement was preceded by years of intense lobbying by American officials.

Letter from Bush

One pitch came from the highest levels, the cables show.

In late 2006, Israel Hernandez, a senior Commerce Department official, hand-delivered a personal letter from President George W. Bush to the Jeddah office of King Abdullah, urging the king to buy as many as 43 Boeing jets to modernize Saudi Arabian Airlines and 13 jets for the Saudi royal fleet, which serves the extended royal family.

The king read the letter from Bush, the State Department cable says, and announced that Boeing jets were his favorites. He said he had just turned down two new Airbus jets, opting instead for a slightly used Boeing 747.

But before he would commit to a mostly Boeing fleet, the king had a request. "I am instructing you," he told Hernandez politely, according to the State Department cable, "to speak to the president and all concerned authorities," as the king "wanted to have all the technology that his friend, President Bush, had on Air Force One." Once he had his own high-tech plane, with the world's most advanced telecommunications and defense equipment - the king told Hernandez " 'God willing,' he will make a decision that will 'please you very much.'"

A State Department spokesman confirmed last week that the US had authorized an "upgrade" to King Abdullah's plane, adding "for security reasons, we won't discuss specifics."

Hasina's demand
Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheik Hasina Wazed, was equally direct in making a connection for the landing rights at Kennedy Airport, as a condition of the airplane deal, which was then at risk of collapsing.

"If there is no New York route, what is the point of buying Boeing?" a November 2009 cable quotes Hasina as saying as she pressed American officials. The deal with Boeing went through. So far, flights by the country's national carrier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, to New York have not been restored.

Turkey's Nasa dream
The request from Turkey for a slot on a future NASA flight came early last year, as Turkish Airlines was considering buying as many as 20 Boeing jets.

Turkey's minister of transportation, Binali Yildirim, in a January 2010 meeting with the United States ambassador to Turkey, made clear that the country's president, Abdullah Gul, wanted help with its fledgling space program and perhaps assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration to improve its aviation safety.

The deal was announced a month later, as Turkish Airlines ordered 20 Boeing planes.