WASHINGTON — When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launches his tour through the United States in the coming weeks, he will be cushioned by a complacent mainstream press and his feet will pad over a lush red carpet rolled out by the White House, Congress, and foreign policy establishment in Washington.
Why not? He paid for it.
While most of the talk about the “foreign influence game” today revolves around Russia, possibly no world leader alive has the kind of elaborately engineered public relations machine laying the groundwork for his foreign visits as the Saudi prince, otherwise known as MbS. And it’s not just him, but the entire Kingdom, which over the years has benefitted from billions of dollars of investment in Washington, D.C. lobbying firms, think tanks, and universities. These institutions, each in their own way, have polished up an image of Saudi Arabia that’s not only a whitewash of reality but seeks to deflect negative news, and helps shape U.S. domestic policies in the Kingdom’s favor.
“The first year of the Trump administration has been critical for the Saudis. They’ve added several new firms to their already powerful lobby and have managed to court the Trump administration in a way they never quite could the Obama administration,” lobbying analyst Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy told TAC.
In recent months, MbS has led a campaign of power consolidation in which he’s jailed rival princes and Saudi elites, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, and led a traumatizing break with and blockade of neighboring Qatar. Meanwhile, he’s attempting to “bomb and starve Yemen into submission” with a massive air campaign and blockade that’s created a catastrophic humanitarian situation there: at least 10,000 dead (numbers are still unclear), with millions more displaced, in need of food aid, and suffering from an intensifying cholera epidemic.
But ask many in Washington about Saudi Arabia and they’ll give you the mixed review, invariably mentioning Saudi women’s new license to drive, the opening of movie theaters for the first time, and the billions of aid that Saudis have been pumping into Yemen to “relieve the suffering” there.
That last one is particularly cynical because, as Irin News reports, the Saudis recruited U.S. defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to help design the aid plan, which was announced at the same time that dozens of fresh Saudi airstrikes and more civilian deaths were reported in Saan’a on February 6.
And, as Irin reporters point out, “the [aid] plan rejects calls by the UN to lift an on-off blockade of Hodeidah port, a vital lifeline for civilians in the rebel-held north: it proposes reducing the overall flow of cargo into the city and stepping up imports into coalition-controlled areas.” As always, it’s a sleight of hand, enabled by slick PR that in this case includes the assistance of both U.S. and UK firms. This isn’t humanitarian aid; it’s a show.
Meanwhile, top establishment figures are already doing advance work for MbS. David Ignatius, in a “a wide-ranging late-night interview at his palace” in Riyadh, came to the conclusion there was a “cultural ferment” in the air:
“Women tell visitors what kind of cars they plan to buy when they’re allowed to drive in June; new gyms for women are opening; female entrepreneurs are operating food trucks; and female sports fans are attending public soccer games,” he gushed in his weekly Washington Post column, barely noting Yemen or human rights abuses there.
Dennis Ross, who served as either a Middle East envoy or counselor in every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan’s, noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed that “I just returned from my second trip to Saudi Arabia” since MbS “became the driving force for change” there. Not only is MbS trying to “transform Saudi society” into something more secular and tolerant, said Ross, he’s heralding “a new prominence of women” that is in fact a “revolution from above.” A few more encomiums like this and MbS will have Washington eating out of his hand when he arrives.
As these pages have pointed out many times before, the Saudi advantage is the Kingdom’s vast oil wealth. And money buys influence. Whether it be opposing the new U.S. law holding al Saud’s leadership accountable for 9/11 deaths, or, along with the equally shrewd United Arab Emirates, marshaling friendly think tanks to give their bullying of Qatar a scholarly sheen, Saudi Arabia is a force that either will or won’t be ignored according to its own whims and dictates. Ross may not be getting paid to say what he does, but as a fellow at the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he is immersed in a nexus of shared foreign policy interests with the Saudi lobby—and it shows.
“(Saudi Arabia) is arguably the biggest player in the foreign influence space,” said Freeman. “I think to understand the Saudi lobby is to understand foreign lobbying, period. And I think the public deserves to know it.”
Freeman is heading the Center’s new Foreign Influence Initiative and his first task is identifying Saudi Arabia’s American influence by scouring annual Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings, which can provide a decent (but never complete) snapshot of a country’s lobbying here in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the American firms working for the Kingdom are many. Sifting through FARA filings from September 2016 to August 2017, the most recent available, Freeman identified 29 individual contracts by 25 different firms totaling $15.9 million.
“These are the who’s who of lobbying firms,” said Freeman. “It’s everybody—and it isn’t a partisan affair.” There’s the Podesta Group, formerly run by Clinton supporter and Democrat Tony Podesta. The outfit shut down after 30 years in late 2017, shortly after it came under scrutiny in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe as one of the firms hired by Paul Manafort to lobby on behalf of then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (at the same time the Obama administration was opposing Yanukovych). Podesta signed contracts with an annual worth of $2.2 million for public relations and Capitol Hill lobbying services for the Kingdom.
Meanwhile, the high-powered firm of Squire Patton Boggs, which lists notable Republican leadership alumni like John Boehner and Trent Lott among their top lobbyists, signed a $100,000-a-month contract to advocate for the Saudi government on Capitol Hill, totaling $1.2 million. DLA Piper, which also boasts former GOP l heavyweights like former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and former Democratic Sen. George J. Mitchell, signed an additional $85,000-a-month contract “to assist the (Saudi) Ministry (of Foreign Affairs) in strengthening the ability of the United States and Saudi Arabia to advance mutual national security interests.”
Glover Park Group, founded by President Clinton’s press secretary Joe Lockhart (Democratic alumni include Dee Dee Myers and Harold Wolfson), signed their own $100,000-a-month contract in 2016 to provide legislative, policy, and media relations counsel to the Saudi government.
These are the firms that use revolving door cred for cache. And keeping them on retainer, in a way, guarantees they’ll be in pocket. There are a host of others on the list, however, who garner just as much money, if not more, but operate in a much more opaque manner. They include Qorvis MSL Group, which has been working with the Saudis since 9/11. Qorvis received some $14.7 million in 2002 alone to “educate” members of the public that the Kingdom, which is the world’s biggest exporter of Islam’s extremist Wahabbism school, had nothing to do with al Qaeda or the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were of Saudi origin.
More recently, Qorvis was one of firms paid millions by al Saud to lobby against JASTA (the Justice Against State Terrorism Act), which was pursued by families of 9/11 victims because it would allow them to take the Kingdom to court for its alleged ties to the hijackers. JASTA was passed in 2016 but it was a watered-down version of the original. Still, the Saudi government has continued to pour money into efforts to make sure the families never see a dime in compensation. One of their most notorious schemes has been to send U.S. veterans to Washington to pressure members of Congress to modify the law. TAC reported last year that several veterans contacted after their all-expense-paid trips to D.C. (lavish dinners, accommodations at the Trump Hotel) did not know Saudi money had paid the bill. That’s because the Saudis used American interlocutors who told veterans that JASTA makes individual service-members and veterans liable for crimes overseas—which is not true.
“That was the shadiest ever,” said Freeman. He noted that tens of thousands of dollars spent by the Saudis in that 2016-2017 period was for anti-JASTA work, including placing op-eds by veterans and others in local newspapers. But while they were lobbying against the terror bill, groups like Qorvis were also trying to convince Congress and major media about the evils of Qatar and the Iranian influence in Yemen to justify the crippling war there.
Abbas Kadhim, an Iraqi-American scholar of Middle Eastern studies, is finishing up a term as a non-resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Previously, he held positions in teaching and research at the Naval Post-Graduate School and Stanford University. He wants to stay in D.C., but is having a hard time finding a new perch. Being an independent thinker is difficult, he says, when there is so much Saudi and UAE money tied into the think tanks and universities here.
“People like me who do this kind of work…they all get money from think tanks—and universities are the same thing—all financed by the Saudis,” he told TAC.
“For me, I have a hard time with the way (Saudi Arabia) handles ‘terrorism,’” he said. He pointed to the war in Yemen and the blockade against Qatar, the latter of which has been justified in part by what the Kingdom and the UAE claim is Qatar’s support of Islamic terrorism.
“There is no amount of money that can be paid to me that would make me push a narrative for or against anybody. It doesn’t matter,” he said.
While the foreign influence in think tanks and at universities is harder to track, there have been a few data points over the years that hint at how big it’s grown. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported late last year that the UAE gave $20 million to the Middle East Institute from 2016 to 2017. The Emirates, according to the Associated Press, operate a network of “torture pens” in Yemen in which detainees are literally grilled alive. The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, and the U.S. has acknowledged interrogating prisoners in these prison but denied knowledge of, or participation in, the abuses.
A New York Times expose in 2014 found that a staggering $100 million was given to Washington think tanks from foreign governments from 2011 to 2014. Interestingly, the only Gulf state it focused on was Qatar, which gave $14 million to Brookings over four years for a new center in Doha, and the UAE’s $1 million to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to help finance its new office building. The piece did not mention Saudi Arabia once.
In 2015, Saudi and UAE sources launched their own think tank, the Arab Gulf States Institute, which serves as a full-throated propaganda machine. Qatar then launched its own Washington think tank. Meanwhile, Saudi royals and magnates have in the last 12 years given $10 million to Yale Law School and $20 million to Harvard and Georgetown Universities each, plus millions more to other U.S. colleges and universities, mostly for Arab and Islamic studies programs and centers.
Repeated attempts to reach the Saudi embassy for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
“Where the ethics break down is where people push lobbying narratives renamed as academic research,” said Kadhim. Both he and Freeman admit it’s nearly impossible to prove that research is “bought” in this way, but it’s clear the lines have been blurred considerably. In a 2016 report, The New York Times studied 75 Washington think tanks and found numerous scholars moonlighting as lobbyists for industries (all domestic).
Some of those think tank fellows were lobbying for major defense contractors, which have a stake, as we know, in the multi-billion-dollar arms deals between the U.S. and the Kingdom, as well as continued American military support of the Saudi war in Yemen.
It’s all part of a complex, sometimes nebulous network of influence in which it’s difficult to see where one relationship ends and another begins, though Freeman said some of those ties will come into better focus when MbS lands in the U.S. Who welcomes him and in what manner of luxury will be telling. So will any omission of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and the Yemen and Qatar crises.
“To me, it’s all about transparency,” Freeman said. “Whether it is with JASTA or it’s with Yemen, they are trying to whitewash some very bad stuff and we want the public to know exactly what they’re saying and how it’s done. Most people don’t know how big of a business this really is.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is the executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.