What was Neil Bush doing in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, last week? Officially, the president's youngest brother was a keynote speaker at an international business forum. (Among the main backers of the event: the Saudi Binladin Construction Group and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the tycoon whose $10 million offer to help the victims of the World Trade Center attacks was rejected last fall by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.) With an audience filled with Saudi royals, Bush talked about the role of "public opinion" in shaping U.S. Mideast policy.
But Bush's main purpose wasn't public-relations advice. NEWSWEEK has learned the presidential sibling also had another agenda: recruiting Middle East investors for an educational-software firm that, industry sources say, may benefit enormously from the new $26.5 billion education bill signed by President George W. Bush. Neil Bush's Austin-based firm, called Ignite, has raised about $18 million since last year, mostly from foreign investors in Japan, Taiwan and the Middle East, said Ignite exec Kenneth Leonard. The company is exploring joint ventures with computer software firms in Dubai and is seeking contracts with the United Arab Emirates' Ministry of Education and other foreign governments, said Leonard, who has accompanied Bush on three trips to the Mideast since George W became president.
Neil Bush's business career has created problems for his family in the past. In 1990, while his father was president, he was reprimanded by federal regulators for his role as a director of the failed Silverado Savings & Loan. Bush told NEWSWEEK he has avoided contacting U.S. officials during his recent travels and said there was nothing improper about his seeking business from foreign governments. "What am I supposed to do? Nothing in life? Every country has a concern about the education of its children--and I'm happy to cooperate with them. I don't see a conflict." Bush also said he doesn't talk to the White House about Ignite. "I don't get permission from my brother to do business." But some rivals say Bush's role in Ignite could help the firm cash in on a booming new market in "digital learning"--in part due to a fresh infusion of funds for school districts from his brother's education bill. Ignite recently began marketing its first product--an American-history software program--to local school officials. "There's only about four or five [educational-software] firms in a position to take advantage of all this new money, and Neil Bush's company is one of them," said a rival. But competitors acknowledge Bush appears excited about Ignite's potential to boost student performance. "He seems very passionate about it," said Baxter Brings of Advanced Academics.
Bush wasn't the only high-profile figure on the Saudi circuit. Also speaking at the Jidda forum: Bill Clinton, who was paid $300,000. (Clinton earned an additional $475,000 for speeches in Dubai and Cairo.) While accepting the Saudis' money, Clinton was keenly aware of potential fallout for his wife's political career. When he learned bin Laden family members (who have disowned their terrorist brother) were coming to a dinner in his honor, Clinton had them "disinvited," said a Clinton spokeswoman. He also avoided Prince Alwaleed "like the plague," said a source.