By Jack Detsch September 12, 2018
Saudi Arabia’s lobbying checkbook remains wide open as the kingdom touts its economic and social reforms while seeking to silence skeptics.
Riyadh spent $13 million last year to promote its efforts to modernize its oil-rich economy and defend its hard line on Qatar and Yemen, according to a review of lobbying records by Al-Monitor, down slightly from a high of $14 million in 2016. As it struggles to take its behemoth oil company public, the ruling Al Saud family has launched a full-court press to convince US policymakers and potential investors of its determination to root out corruption and religious extremism.
The charm offensive culminated with 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s April visit to Washington and several major US cities, his first since becoming heir to the throne in June 2017. The trip was preceded by a surge in outreach to lawmakers and media outlets from President Donald Trump favorite Fox News to ESPN by Saudi-hired firms including Hogan Lovells and MSLGroup (formerly Qorvis).
More controversially, the prince was celebrated as the reformist face of the so-called “Magic Kingdom” in a 97-page glossy magazine put out in the lead-up to his visit by American Media Inc., the tabloid publisher owned by former Trump friend and fixer David Pecker. Pecker has been caught up in investigations surrounding the 2016 presidential election.
“You saw a concerted effort by the Saudis to court Trump in a way that they couldn’t under [President Barack] Obama,” said Ben Freeman, who studies the impact of foreign lobbying in Washington at the Center for International Policy. “They invested pretty heavily early on in getting folks that could get them closer to the Trump administration.”
The Saudi outreach appeared to pay off early in the administration, as the crown prince reportedly became close with senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and the president tweeted support for the Saudi-led embargo against Qatar in June 2017. But the White House has since lost patience with an entrenched Gulf crisis that undermines regional unity against Iran even as Doha builds up its lobbying defense.
The three-year-old Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen has also come under increasing scrutiny amid reports of civilian deaths. After the UN accused all sides in the conflict of possible war crimes last month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that US support in the form of aerial refueling and bomb sales was “not unconditional.”
Congress has also stepped up its oversight, passing an annual defense bill that calls on the White House to certify that the Saudis and the Emiratis are taking steps to reduce civilian casualties in the conflict before US support can continue. (The White House has threatened to ignore the provision). And Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has placed a hold on sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for the Yemen campaign.
To counter the growing criticism, Saudi Ambassador Khalid bin Salman spent much of mid-July and early August during a UN-brokered pause in the fighting over the port city of Hodeidah building ties with military officials and lawmakers, including some opposed to the campaign, according to photos the embassy posted to Twitter. Salman held meetings with a handful of House and Senate foreign affairs panel members in July before visiting US Central Command chief Joseph Votel, the top US military officer in the Middle East.
“What I do hear from staff is they do get inundated with the Saudi one-pagers; they’re filling up a lot of these key staffers' inboxes,” Freeman said. “The Saudi point of view is not lost on the Hill.”
The Saudis have also courted Trump’s good will by agreeing to pick up $100 million in aid for Syrian reconstruction, allowing the president to move forward with plans to reprogram $230 million in US assistance. The State Department thanked Riyadh for its “generous” contribution in an Aug. 16 statement.
Even as Riyadh touts its economic reforms to ween the country off its reliance on dwindling oil reserves, the kingdom remains a profligate spender when it comes to lobbying.
In the most extreme example, the Interior Ministry paid $5.4 million up front to the Sonoran Policy Group last spring for 12 months of public relations and other services, lobbying records indicate. The firm’s founder, Robert Stryk, is a former Republican congressional staffer with close ties to Trump’s team. But the contract was ended almost immediately after Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef was replaced a month later in a palace reshuffle. There is no record that Sonoran, which did not respond to a request for comment, paid any of the money back.
The subsequent termination of the Saudi Royal Court’s contract with the Podesta Group following the firm’s collapse last year has left Hogan Lovells as Saudi Arabia’s top lobbyist, with $1.27 million in fees last year. The firm signed a new contract with the Saudi Embassy this summer for $1.5 million a year, with former Senator Norm Coleman, R-Minn., at the helm.
The Saudis have continued to ramp up their lobbying roster this year, with the embassy in Washington rehiring well-connected former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon and his McKeon Group in June for $50,000 per month, up from $70,000 for all of 2017. McKeon, who also lobbies for US arms manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is tasked with promoting a “mutually beneficial security relationship” between the two countries.
Separately, the Energy Ministry hired four law firms in February and March as talks heat up with the Trump administration regarding a potential civil nuclear agreement. Riyadh’s insistence on retaining the right to enrich uranium and to reprocess plutonium has raised bipartisan concerns in Congress.
The latest lobbying efforts come in the wake of an ill-fated campaign to reverse a 2016 law that allows the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue the kingdom. As part of that push, the Saudi embassy paid MSLGroup $270,000 for lodging and catering at the Trump Hotel in Washington, according to disclosure forms for October 2016 through March 2017.
In addition to the $13 million spent last year on more traditional lobbying, Riyadh relies on its oil sector as a cash cow to help project its soft power. Last year, Saudi Aramco and related companies together spent almost $1.2 million to promote the kingdom, including $430,000 to bankroll a film on the Saudi arts scene.
Finally, Riyadh’s campaign against Qatar has gotten a helping hand from the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, whose founder Salman al-Ansari, a self-described Saudi businessman and political commentator, reported a $2.9 million budget last year. The group received another $1.2 million from Bahrain in 2017 before the relationship with Manama ended last fall.
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