Ben Freeman is the director and founder of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.
Before the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, Saudi Arabia had amassed one of the largest and well-funded influence operations in the United States. It had more than two dozen lobbying and public relations firms on its payroll. Its lobbyists lined congressional campaign coffers on the very same day they met with senators and representatives to discuss Saudi interests, and the Saudis were pumping cash into think tanks and elite American universities across the nation.
But now the Saudi’s once seemingly invincible influence machine has started to malfunction. Four of Saudi Arabia’s lobbying and public relations firms, and at least one think tank, have severed ties with the Saudis.
The question isn’t why organizations are distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia now; the real question is why did Washington wait to sour on the Saudis? The short answer: the Saudis’ extraordinary spending on influence in the United States.
The story of the rise of Saudi influence in Washington begins after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. In the next 10 years, the Saudis spent more than $100 million to reshape their image in Washington. They were so successful that the Obama administration — while negotiating the Iran deal that the Saudis opposed — offered Saudi Arabia $115 billion in arms sales, far more than any administration in U.S. history. These are the same arms deals that President Trump keeps falsely claiming credit for and is using as a completely misguided justification for not punishing the Saudis for Khashoggi’s death.
While becoming the leading recipient of U.S. arms sales just 15 years after being implicated in the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil might seem surprising, the Saudi lobby was only getting started. In 2016, the Saudi government was fighting the Justice Against State Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which effectively would allow for the families of 9/11 victims to continue with a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. To fight JASTA, Saudi Arabia’s longtime public relations consultant Qorvis/MSL Group, among others, orchestrated a campaign that reportedly duped U.S. military veterans into lobbying against the 9/11 victims’ families in exchange for a trip to Washington, including a stay at the Trump International Hotel.
This was just the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s courtship of the Trump administration and the dramatic expansion of their influence operation in Washington. Foreign Agent’s Registration Act (FARA) records filed in 2017 show the Saudis spent nearly $27 million on lobbying and public relations firms, nearly triple their spending in 2016. Further analysis of 2017 FARA filings shows that these firms contacted members of Congress, the Trump administration, the media and various think tanks more than 2,500 times. And they made nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions to representatives and senators they’d contacted on behalf of their Saudi clients. Eleven of these contributions occurred on the exact same day the member was contacted on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
All of this paid off immensely for the Saudis as the United States, particularly Trump, either cheered or, at best, remained silent in a series of alarming events in the past two years.
Since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been indiscriminately killing civilians with U.S. bombs in the war in Yemen. Yet, just last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Saudi Arabia has been protecting civilians, and Trump has repeatedly defended the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, reportedly at the suggestion of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who had become friends with Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s son. Within a month of the trip, Saudi Arabia orchestrated a blockade of Qatar, home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, and Mohammed launched a literal palace coupe to depose his cousin and become crown prince. Trump’s reported response: “We’ve put our man on top!”
In November, MBS, as the crown prince is known, then kidnapped, held hostage and tortured some of the Saudi royals who had opposed his power grab, to which Trump tweeted he had “great confidence” in the Saudi king and crown prince.
But Khashoggi’s murder by the Saudis has changed the equation. For the first time in the recent history of Saudi misdeeds, there are outcries from across the political spectrum. Some of the loudest voices opposing the Saudis are congressional Republicans who, along with many of their Democratic colleagues, have called for a host of punishments for the Saudis, including sanctions, blocking arms sales and ending U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
One thing hasn’t changed, however: The Saudis still have an army of lobbyists and public relations firms on their payroll. While some firms have dropped the Saudis as a client since Khashoggi’s disappearance, another, Southwind Strategies, recently signed a deal with the Saudis, and more than two dozen FARA-registered firms continue to work for the kingdom. They’re likely working tirelessly right now to help the Saudis come out of this unscathed.
We owe it to Jamal Khashoggi to not let them win. We owe it to him to silence the Saudi lobby and punish Saudi Arabia for what they have done.