While lobbyists in DC are finding it slightly harder to justify working with Saudi Arabia after the Saudis confessed to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi - the lucrative relationship is unlikely to die anytime soon.
Dozens of US lobbying firms have not ended their relationships with Saudi Arabia in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killing in spite of worldwide condemnation, TRT World’s review of lobbying records shows.
These firms continue to take millions in dollars from the kingdom, while simultaneously giving out millions of dollars in donations to politicians in the United States, which some observers have said “bought” their silence.
These relationships have come into question.
The Washington Post, for whom Khashoggi worked as a columnist in the months leading up to his death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, reportedly pressured several of its writers to end their lobbying relationships with the kingdom.
Carter Eskew, a co-founder of the Glover Park Group (GPG) and Ed Rogers, chairman of the BGR Group, were given these ultimatums. Both firms ended their relationships with Saudi Arabia, though Eskew said GPG had made the decision independently.
Still, there are 36 US firms actively lobbying for Saudi Arabia in the US, according to filings with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) database.
"The Saudis have invested tens of millions of dollars in DC lobbyists since Trump entered the Oval Office. Now lawmakers and White House officials with ties to such lobbyists are under pressure given outrage over Khashoggi's murder," says CEO and Founder of Gulf State Analytics Giorgio Cafiero.
The contracts and accompanying political donations, including lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s national petroleum and natural gas company Aramco, totalled roughly $13.8 million in 2017, according to FARA reports reviewed by TRT World and confirmed by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a DC-based organisation that tracks money in politics.
This includes more than $2.3 million to political campaigns in 2016 and 2017.
FARA records show Saudi Arabia has spent nearly $6m in lobbying 2018, though this number is likely to increase as more firms file reports with the Justice Department.
Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative with the Center for International Policy, said in an interview with the Libertarian Institute that a small amount of money could “buy the silence” of US politicians, which is what happened for “the first week” of the Khashoggi affair.
“People weren’t really speaking out on this heavily,” Freeman said.
“You didn’t have anyone in Congress speaking out on it for almost a week after his disappearance. I think that was a testament to how powerful this lobby is.”
The work of these lobbying firms covers a wide array of activities, including spreading a positive take on Saudi Arabia’s war efforts in Yemen, which the UN says is 2018’s worst humanitarian crisis and lobbying against legislation that would endanger Saudi Arabia’s place as the US’ premier petroleum exporter.
Saudi Arabia has long spent millions to sway public opinion and influence lawmakers in the US capital, but its lobbying tripled during the first year of Trump’s presidency as the kingdom settled into the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS.
MBS was named the crown prince in June 2017. Under his guidance, the kingdom has adopted an “anti-corruption” economic outlook that hopes to move away from dependence on petroleum. MBS is also pushing for a “modern” interpretation of Islam, allowing women to drive and opening cinemas.
Still, many have called his approach into question. In the weeks leading up to the removal of the ban on female driving, many activists who had campaigned for women’s right to drive were imprisoned.
The “anti-corruption” crackdown saw Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel turned into a detainment centre for Saudi elites suspected of corruption.
One general, Ali bin Abdullah al-Jarash al-Qahtani, reportedly died of torture during his detainment at the Ritz.
Though most of the Saudi lobby engages in influence peddling behind doors, some are more public.
Fahad Nazer, a consultant to the Saudi consulate in the US, a columnist for Arab News and an international affairs fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations, often praises Saudi leadership on his verified Twitter account.
After the announcement of Khashoggi’s death, Nazer tweeted the Saudi government’s public statement and images of MBS meeting with the slain journalist’s son, a move that drew ire from many who assumed the crown prince knew about Khashoggi’s murder beforehand.
Nazer appears to regularly tweet figures that attempt to soften the image of Saudi war efforts in Yemen and write columns about MBS’s ‘anti-extremism’ efforts.
Nazer is also being paid $7,000 a month by the Saudi embassy in the US, according to his contract. FARA filings show that Nazer worked with the Saudi embassy “for improving the image of Saudi Arabia in the United States.”
He also listed his Twitter, media interviews and talks at thinktanks as activities that could benefit Saudi Arabia.
TRT World was unable to contact Nazer for comment by the time of publication.
The Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) has been another driving force in bettering the image of Saudi Arabia in the US.
SAPRAC registered with FARA in August 2017, though their lobbying activity dates back to at least July 2017, shortly after the Saudi-led quartet, which also includes Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, began a total blockade on Qatar over allegations of support to terrorist groups.
Qatar has denied the allegations.
Reports from Al Jazeera show that SAPRAC spent $138,000 on anti-Qatar television advertisements in DC in July.
FARA filings show SAPRAC had bigger plans, including a campaign to accuse Qatar of working with North Korea as “partners in terror” in an apparent effort to cast doubt on Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
SAPRAC was largely quiet between October 2017 to March 2018, when it became general public relations counsel for the Muslim World League (MWL), according to the filings.
The MWL is entirely funded by Saudi Arabia and spreads a conservative vision of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the world.
The MWL was said to be one of the “various” governmental and Saudi nongovernmental organisations that “has had the effect, whether intended or not, of promoting the growth of religious extremism globally”, by a 2005 US Government Accountability Office report.
In spite of previous concern from the US government, SAPRAC has found success organising meetings between MWL officials and the State Department, including Sam Brownback, the US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, a Trump appointee.
According to CRP, SAPRAC spent over $2.5m in lobbying efforts in 2017.
Lobbying reports from the days surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance won’t become public for months, as FARA filings encompassing donations, emails and visitations are typically filed once every six months.
Still, there is evidence to suggest that Saudi Arabia is continuing its history of heavy donations in DC. Current filings show the Kingdom spent roughly $6m in 2018.
By Freeman’s standards, this should be more than enough to purchase continued silence, and Gulf Analyst Cafiero says that eventually, the scrutiny on these lobbying relationships, will die down.
"Riyadh is now under a spotlight, but whether this outrage and pressure will last remains to be seen. Clearly, the Saudis have close allies in DC who are hopeful that this storm will pass and that the risks of being perceived as being too close to the Saudi leadership will decrease with time," says Cafiero.