Can’t Buy Mohammed bin Salman Love
After years of denouncing Obama and cozying up to Trump, Saudi Arabia is trying to resurrect its influence among Democrats in advance of the 2020 election. It won’t work.
Last month, credible reports emerged that the U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was courting campaign investors linked to Saudi Arabia. In June, Buttigieg held a fundraiser in the home of Hamilton James, a major Democratic donor and the mastermind behind a $20 billion deal to generate Saudi investment in U.S. infrastructure.
Buttigieg is not alone. The Intercept revealed that former Vice President Joe Biden’s American Possibilities PAC includes investment from former Democratic Sen. John Breaux, a lobbyist for the firm Squire Patton Boggs, which is registered as a representative for Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s apparent decision to court both campaigns is an early sign that Saudi Arabia is seeking to rebuild its influence among Democratic presidential candidates following three years of increasingly strained relations. Its efforts to do so will be difficult given Saudi Arabia’s open-armed embrace of U.S. President Donald Trump and the kingdom’s move away from a bipartisan approach to lobbying.
While the Saudi government has always maintained close ties with American politicians, it has dramatically expanded its lobbying and campaign activities since the 2016 U.S. election cycle. It was joined in these activities by its closest Arab ally, the United Arab Emirates. Most lobbying efforts have been directed at Trump and his Republican allies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were particularly eager to pour money into Trump’s election campaign because they viewed him as far more sympathetic to their interests than his predecessor, Barack Obama, or Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Much of this was driven by the Gulf nations’ bitterness over their exclusion from the Iran nuclear negotiations and Obama’s reluctance to intervene against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They found a sympathetic ally in Trump, who promised to withdraw from the nuclear deal and check Iranian influence. Their very public support for Trump, along with their increasingly erratic and destructive actions in the Middle East, have made Democrats highly critical of the Gulf states. The massive civilian casualties resulting from the Saudi-led war in Yemen formed the foundation of their criticism, but the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was the last straw for both politicians and Democratic voters.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE worked to earn Trump’s sympathies by spending millions of dollars on donations and lobbying efforts. Saudi officials had lobbyists purchase hundreds of rooms in the Trump hotel, paid $5.4 billion to a firm led by Trump advisor Robert Stryk, and spent over $430,000 on consulting fees that went to Trump appointee Richard Hohlt. The UAE and Saudi Arabia also famously used their political advisor George Nader to advance their interests, including promoting anti-Qatar policies.
The Gulf monarchies also never missed an opportunity to take a jab at Obama or his advisors. In the media and in private meetings, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed accused the Obama administration of turning its back on the Middle East. They lambasted the Iran nuclear deal and praised Trump for his harsh rhetoric against Iran. Their criticism was of course not just aimed at Obama, but at the broader policy stances of many Democrats eager to shift away from costly U.S. engagements in the Middle East.
The final piece of the Gulf’s Trump-era strategy was to take on a greater military and political role in the region—intended to fill in the void left by waning U.S. influence, as they often point out. This entailed actions viewed by many Democrats as reckless and immoral, such as the military campaign in Yemen, the killing of Khashoggi by Saudi agents, and the blockade against Qatar.
Democrats condemned these actions and overwhelmingly supported legislation to end all U.S. support for the Saudi-Emirati campaign in Yemen. Additionally, Democrats and progressives regularly criticize the Trump administration for allowing Saudi behavior to go unchecked even when it clashes with core U.S. values and interests.
Saudi and Emirati behavior and rhetoric over the past three years seemed blind to the fact that Democrats are likely to regain control of the White House—if not in this election cycle, then perhaps the next. Instead of seeking to build strong relationships and respect across party lines, they behaved as if the Trump-era blank check for their behavior would never end. This resulted in a rapid loss of goodwill among many Democrats. The question now is whether the Gulf countries will be able to undo the damage to their reputations among Democrats.
The first obstacle to Saudi and Emirati lobbying efforts will be Democrats’ criticism or rejection of donations from foreign lobbyists. Both Biden and Buttigieg have criticized the murder of Khashoggi and questioned the merits of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Furthermore, candidates including Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Sen. Bernie Sanders have already vowed not to take donations contributed directly by federal lobbyists for foreign states. (It is not clear how they will handle donations and lobbying efforts from investors and firms with less direct ties to the Gulf states.)
Second, any attempt to win over Democrats will likely be viewed by candidates and their staffers as insincere and insufficient. Democrats will not be able to easily forget the Saudis’ and the Emiratis’ relentless anti-Obama commentary. Many of the important foreign-policy voices of the Obama era will be deeply involved in Democratic campaigns and any future Democratic administration.
Even putting personal tensions aside, their key policy positions—such as supporting the Iran deal, opposing the Qatar blockade, prioritizing non-Middle East threats, and calling out human rights abuses—have not shifted. If anything, they have become more entrenched in response to Trump’s coziness with Saudi and Emirati leaders and his refusal to condemn their actions.
The one thing working in the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s favor is that they remain important U.S. allies in the Middle East. Therefore, Democratic leaders could ultimately prioritize them over regional competitors such as Iran. However, the desire to rein in and reprimand the Saudis and Emiratis for their misadventures, especially those that put U.S. interests and citizens at risk, will remain. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have little to gain from further alienating Democratic policy advisors as they pursue these changes, even if they disagree with U.S. policies or priorities.
Regardless of how they approach this challenge, the rift between the Gulf and the Democratic Party will not simply disappear due to lobbying and campaign donations. The complications created by the Gulf monarchies’ abandonment of a bipartisan approach in recent years has likely created lasting damage for their standing as U.S. partners. If the Gulf countries are not willing to change course, the ill will created over the last three years could significantly change the nature of the United States’ relationships with these countries under a Democratic president.
Alia Awadallah is a Middle East analyst and graduate student at John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Before that, she was a Middle East research associate at the Center for American Progress. Twitter: @aawadall