Old Etonian smoothie fails to buff Indonesian leader's image

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Until last week, when it evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared, the headquarters of Behavioural Dynamics was one of the hidden wonders of Jakarta.

Until last week, when it evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared, the headquarters of Behavioural Dynamics was one of the hidden wonders of Jakarta.

Even the people who worked there speak with awe of the vast room, with its 25 computers, its 16 hi-tech flat-screen monitors, and the two giant TV screens. Men and women sat glued to the internet, or analysed news stories from home and abroad. Above their workstations stretched a long mirror, and it was behind here that the real business of Behavioural Dynamics went on.

From the far side, some of the most influential people in Indonesia were discreetly ushered in to look down on the scene below through the one-way glass. Visitors compared it to a Tom Clancy novel, or to the greatest secret agent of them all. "It was fun and exciting, but also a bit dangerous because everything he did was so secretive," an Indonesian who worked in the operations room, officially called the Jakarta International Media Research Centre, said of his boss. "We didn't know the purpose of it all, we just did what he asked. We called him Mr Bond because he is English, and because he is such a mystery."

The Englishman in question is 38-year-old Nigel Oakes - Old Etonian, former lover of a minor royal and, most recently, image consultant to President Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the world's largest Muslim nation. Their association, which appears to have come to an end after being embarrassingly exposed last week, is unlikely enough in itself. But it also tells a depressing story about Indonesia and Mr Wahid, and about the depths to which his reputation and credibility have sunk during his nine months in office.

On the surface, there is nothing surprising about the arrangement between the two men, for few national leaders are in more need of good public relations advice than Mr Wahid.

Last November, he became Indonesia's first legitimately elected president. After 32 years of dictatorship under President Suharto and 18 months of uncertainty under his sidekick B J Habibie, Indonesia finally appeared to have a leader who was popular, principled and able. But that has given way to increasing disillusion with his leadership style, his unpredictability and the alarming influence of his family.

Tomorrow, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), Indonesia's supreme legislative body, meets, in what promises to be an 11-day assault on Mr Wahid's performance. He will be criticised for his handling of Indonesia's conflict-ridden regions. He will be assailed for his handling of the coalition government, in particular for the peremptory sacking of two cabinet ministers. Most seriously, he will be questioned about a number of financial scandals among his inner circle, alarmingly reminiscent of the state-sponsored plunder which flourished under Mr Suharto.

Although it is now considered unlikely, a few weeks ago there was even talk of sacking Mr Wahid. And it was around this time, in early June, that members of the president's family met Mr Oakes, head of a company called Strategic Communications Laboratories. Under discussion was the crescendo of attacks on Mr Wahid in the media: when Mr Oakes outlined ways of turning this around, his listeners were impressed. Money changed hands - reports vary from $300,000 to $2m (£207,000 to £1.3m). Within days, the gleaming operations centre had been set up.

The use of international PR agencies by national leaders and their governments has become commonplace; under Suharto, Indonesia retained the international firm Burson-Marsteller to counter the negative publicity in East Timor. But for all his computers and camera equipment, Mr Oakes was hardly in the same league.

His career has included working in the record industry, giving lectures at Harvard and running a company which fills shops with nice smells to encourage spending. Indonesians who have met him speak of his charm, good manners and immaculate tailoring. But during the 1980s, he was known for rather different reasons.

Mr Oakes enjoyed a brief period of notoriety as the boyfriend of Lady Helen Windsor, now Lady Helen Taylor, the daughter of the Queen's cousin. On her engagement in 1992, he gave an interview to the Sunday Mirror which was perhaps less than discreet. "She was quite passionate and demonstrative," he said of their physical relationship. "It would be done in an old-fashioned, romantic way, wearing a nightie and pyjamas."

According to diplomats he first made his presence known in Jakarta towards the end of Mr Suharto's new order. He unsuccessfully offered his services to Mr Habibie and set up an earlier version of his ops room in Jakarta's Mandarin Hotel. Finally he was introduced to Mr Wahid's daughter Yenni. Two months later the fusillade of criticism of the president has eased somewhat, but whether that is Mr Oakes's doing is another question.

His work appears to have been rather limited. A series of television messages were produced in the name of the obscure Foundation of Independent Journalists, stressing religious and ethnic harmony - implicitly saying only Mr Wahid could deliver this. He then organised a seminar on journalistic ethics and independence; ironically, its participants appeared to be unaware that it was subsidised by the presidential palace.

Otherwise, the operations centre monitored stories about Mr Wahid, but its primary function appears to have been cosmetic. "It was just like a movie set to impress the clients, to calm down the family," said one Indonesian who visited it. "They are really desperate."

Indeed, it is unclear how much say the 60-year-old president, who is almost blind, had in the hiring of Mr Oakes. There appears to have been little co-ordination with other departments: sources in the presidential secretariat say that the first they knew about Mr Oakes's contract was a newspaper report last week.

Others say that it was a personal initiative of the Wahid entourage. "I'm not sure whether [he] knows about it," said one. "It's the family and the people around him. They need him to keep his power."

To Indonesians, this is painfully reminiscent of the last years of Mr Suharto, when a small group of close friends and relatives known as the "cronies" financially exploited their connection with the dictator. Last Friday, Mr Suharto was formally charged with corruption; Mr Wahid has a long way to go before he plumbs the depths of his predecessor. But he is in trouble which no amount of expensive editing equipment will put right.