The Cable

Saudi Arabia Prepared for Trump Visit by Hiring Former Trump Advisors

The Saudis are still learning how to play Washington’s game.

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Ahead of Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Saudi authorities prepared by arranging for the president to be greeted by horses and a military flyover. They also took care to hire three U.S. lobbying firms, including one made up of Trump’s former advisors, CNN reported on Thursday.

According to CNN’s perusal of records filed with the Justice Department, the Saudi Interior Ministry hired the Sonoran Policy Group of Arizona exactly one day after Trump announced he would visit the kingdom, with a contract worth a pricey $5.4 million.

In December, Sonoran hired Stuart Jolly, who directed a pro-Trump PAC, and also worked as the national field director for the Trump campaign; Politico reports that Jolly parted ways with Sonoran in May. He worked with lobbyist Jacob Daniels, chief of staff for the Trump campaign in Michigan, and Robin Townley, who worked briefly on Trump’s National Security Council.

The lobbying firms are a bit of a departure for Saudi Arabia, which for years relied on close personal connections to press its case in Washington, explained Bilal Saab of the Atlantic Council. Prince Bandar bin Sultan was U.S. ambassador for over a decade and a close personal friend of the Bush family.

But when personal connections frayed — President Barack Obama didn’t click with the Saudis, who never viewed well his outreach to Tehran — the Saudi powers that be realized they needed other avenues, or “strategic communications,” as Saab puts it. And they’re still in the relatively early days of establishing them.

But they’re proving a quick study. CNN also noted that Saudi Arabia has 28 lobbying contracts with different firms, more than any country in the world, save for Japan’s full-court press, which includes 47 different D.C. lobbying contracts.

The Saudi attention isn’t just meant to restore closer ties, or successfully close long-pending deals, like the $110 billion arms deal that Trump inked with the Kingdom on his recent visit. Regardless of who won last November, Saudi Arabia was going to have to take a more proactive stance trying to shape the agenda in Washington: Congress last year overturned Obama’s veto to pass legislation allowing victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks to sue the Saudi government.

Pushing back against that, as much as keeping Trump orb-happy and dancing, will likely keep the Kingdom busy for years.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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