Next week the Senate is poised to pass a historic resolution to exert Congress’s war authorizing powers and to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the disastrous war in Yemen. But Saudi and Emirati lobbyists are likely doing everything in their power to make sure that never happens.
They’re spreading propaganda, meeting with key members of Congress and, in some cases, making campaign contributions to Senators just days before the vote. How do we know? Because this is exactly what they did a year ago to kill the same bill in the Senate.
When Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a resolution to remove U.S. Armed Forces from the Yemen conflict in 2018, lobbying firms registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to represent Saudi Arabia and the UAE began furiously contacting elected officials, the media, and think tanks in hopes of stopping the bill in its tracks.
From the time the bill was introduced on February 28, 2018 until the vote on March 20, Saudi and Emirati lobbyists contacted Senate offices more than 100 times, according to FARA filings. Saudi lobbyists had meetings with key Senate offices, including Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), just days before the vote, and UAE lobbyists organized a meeting between Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and the UAE’s crown prince just days before the bill’s introduction. All three Senators then voted to maintain U.S. military support for the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen.
But meetings were only part of these lobbyists’ influence arsenal. In their efforts to shape the Yemen narrative on Capitol Hill, Saudi and Emirati lobbyists have a key weapon—cash. Under current law, it’s illegal for foreign nationals to make campaign contributions in U.S. elections, but it’s perfectly legal for registered foreign agents that are U.S. citizens to do so. They can even make contributions to members of Congress that they’re lobbying on behalf of foreign governments, and can do so days before key votes, which is precisely what Saudi and Emirati lobbyists did last year.
Our analysis of FARA records for forthcoming Center for International Policy reports on the Saudi and Emirati lobbies shows that in the three-week period between the introduction of the Yemen resolution and the Senate’s vote on March 20, firms representing the Saudis and Emiratis reported making nearly $200,000 in campaign contributions. Often, these contributions went to Senators whose votes were critical in blocking the measure.
For example, on March 16, 19, and 20—the day of the vote—Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) received a total of $3,000 from Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck, which was representing the Saudis. On March 12th, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) received $1,000 from the Glover Park Group, which was also on the Saudi’s payroll. On March 9, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) received $1,000 from Squire Patton Boggs, another Saudi firm, and two days before the introduction of the resolution he received a hefty $2,500 campaign contribution from DLA Piper who was working on behalf of the UAE.
Heitkamp, Menendez, and Nelson all voted on March 20 to keep the U.S. involved in the Saudi-Emirati war in Yemen.
Following the Saudi and Emirati lobbies’ successful attempt to block this legislation, Congress’s unwillingness to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war continued unabated until October 2, 2018, when the Saudi government orchestrated the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Following Khashoggi’s murder, the Saudi and Emirati lobbying juggernaut began to crack. Several lobbying and PR firms dropped the Saudis as a client, as did some think tanks, and there was little to stymie public pressure for Congress to punish the Saudis for this horrific act. Thus, the Senate held another vote to move forward with the resolution to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war on November 28.
Despite public opinion now being against the Saudis, their lobbyists still worked feverishly to defeat the bill. For example, in the 10 days prior to the November vote, one of the dozens of firms registered under FARA to represent Saudi and UAE clients—Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld—donated a total of $13,325 to various members of the Senate. This included $7,500 in campaign contributions to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), and smaller amounts to Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Warner (D-Va.), Nelson (D-Fla.), and Tillis (R-N.C.).
But, the post-Khashogg climate made this a very different vote. Despite the efforts of Saudi and Emirati lobbyists, Senators Warner, Nelson and a strong majority of their Senate colleagues ultimately voted to put a halt to U.S. involvement in the Yemen war. This week, because the House failed to act last year, the Senate must once again pass the Yemen resolution. They must once again remember to vote for American interests, not those of Saudi and Emirati lobbyists.
James Allen and Mashal Hashem are Research Associates with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.