By Jack Detsch December 12, 2017
Saudi Arabia is desperate for a lobbying win against upstart rival Qatar after a series of stinging reversals on Capitol Hill.
Riyadh has hired at least five new firms over the past 14 months to try to defeat legislation that allows the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue the kingdom, pushing its lobbying spending to $14 million last year, a 50% increase over 2015. Despite those efforts Congress voted overwhelmingly to override a presidential veto last year while showing almost no interest since in revisiting the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
The Saudis did not give up after the September 2016 vote, with longtime embassy lobbyist MSLGROUP (formerly Qorvis) spending $8.4 million from October 2016 through March of this year and hiring 76 individuals in a bid to build support for changes to the bill proposed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. R-Ariz. The move backfired, however, after US veterans complained of being recruited to lobby against JASTA with stays at President Donald Trump’s new hotel in Washington and other perks without being told Riyadh was footing the bill.
Meanwhile, congressional support for the Saudi-led intervention against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen is also dwindling amid the rising death count. The Senate barely approved a $510 million sale of guided missiles in June, while House and Senate members of both parties are banding together to stop deeper US involvement without congressional approval. And Trump himself offered a rare rebuke on Dec. 6 when he urged the Saudis to allow humanitarian aid to reach war-torn Yemen.
Relations with the Trump administration got off to a strong start, with the president picking Riyadh for his first official trip abroad and endorsing the Saudi narrative that Qatar is a regional troublemaker backing militant Islamists. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” Trump tweeted the day after Saudi Arabia and three of its Arab allies cut of ties with Doha.
Trump has also stood by the country's young crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, as he consolidates power and pushes through social and economic reforms. “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump tweeted last month following the detention of dozens of royal family members and former officials in an anti-corruption probe. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been 'milking' their country for years!”
US military commanders and diplomats, well aware of Qatar’s contributions to the fight against the Islamic State, quickly sought to carve out a neutral mediation role for the United States in the Gulf dispute. The Saudis have pushed back, putting their controversial lobbying practices squarely back in the spotlight.
In mid-July, a for-profit corporation called the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) began bombarding US Sunday news shows with anti-Qatar ads. The firm, run by Saudi expatriate Salman al-Ansari, incurred more than $1.28 million in costs for TV spots in July and August according to Federal Communications Commission filings, while its Qatar Insider spin-off has been showering news sites and social media with online ads.
Many of the ads were produced by the Podesta Group, which registered as a foreign agent for SAPRAC in mid-August amid growing allegations that the Saudi government is secretly paying the group’s expenses. Podesta’s $50,000-a-month contract contains a disclaimer from SAPRAC asserting that it is not “affiliated,” “supervised” or “financed or subsidized in whole or in major part” by a foreign government, but Qatar lobbyist Avenue Strategies Global has nevertheless asked the Justice Department to investigate. After the allegations were made public, SAPRAC registered as a foreign agent and Bahrain filed lobbying disclosures saying it was paying SAPRAC $1.2 million for digital and TV ads targeting Qatar. Then in late October, SAPRAC filed an amended lobbying report "at the request" of the Justice Department claiming that Ansari himself paid the firm $2.9 million for 90 days of lobbying activity starting June 20, 2017.
The SAPRAC ads are widely seen a sign that Riyadh is looking to press the initiative with the new US administration. Ansari did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
“A lot of people in town have been doing this … but not so overtly,” Hossein Askari, a George Washington University economics professor who tracks Saudi Arabia’s lobbying in the United States, told Al-Monitor in reference to public activities aimed at swaying DC policymakers. “This is a much more in-your-face kind of thing.”
The Saudi narrative on the Qatar crisis is also being pushed by the Arabia Foundation, a new Washington, DC, think tank started by Saudi citizen Ali Shihabi that says it is funded by “corporate and private donations.” The foundation’s inaugural event in June featured a diverse group of policymakers, including Saudi critic Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., debating Wahhabism and terrorism, but its commentary has mirrored Riyadh’s line on Qatar and Iran.
Saudi Arabia also uses its considerable financial clout to lobby on behalf of other regional priorities across the Middle East. Its contract with MSLGROUP, for example, also pays for media services on behalf of the Riyadh-based Syrian High Negotiations Committee, while BGR Government Affairs has retained the services of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s longtime Washington fixer, Amal Mudallali, as part of its work for the Saudi royal court.
Overall, the Saudi perspective is also broadly shared by the Trump administration.
During his trip to Riyadh, the president signed a strategic partnership with Riyadh aimed at curtailing violent extremism and terrorist financing and pushing forward with cooperation on defense issues. The Trump administration has also promised more than $400 billion in bilateral investments and signed a $110 billion preliminary agreement on arms sales with Riyadh, even though the much-vaunted deal consists of letters of intent that have been under discussion since the Barack Obama administration and are at best years away from delivery. And on Oct. 6 the State Department greenlighted a $15 billion sale of the US's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, just as the Russians were trying to sell Riyadh a rival system.
“I don’t think there’s that much pressure on Saudi Arabia to change its ways,” Askari said. “The narrative in Washington is very simple: Iran is a sponsor of terrorism, and Saudi Arabia is a good guy. Before Mr. Trump came, Saudi Arabia was seen in a very bad light, but it’s slowly being rehabilitated.”
MORE LIKE THIS
REGISTER NOW AND GET UNLIMITED ACCESS TO:
1The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
4The Week in Review
5Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly
for delivering our services, for market research, and for advertising. Detailed information, including the right
By using our site, you agree to these terms.