How Saudi Arabia Restored Its U.S. Influence Machine After the Khashoggi Murder
Biden’s pause on arms sales to the Saudis underscores how lobbying will be even more crucial for Riyadh.
In the months after Saudi officials killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, several high-powered lobbyists in Washington severed ties with Riyadh. The murder of the dissident inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in late 2018 was so ghastly and so brazen, Washington influencers who often represent unsavory regimes no longer wanted to be tarred by the association with Saudi Arabia.
But in the two-plus years since the murder, Riyadh has managed to largely restore its influence machine in the capital and in other parts of the country, hiring at least 16 lobbying firms to help boost U.S.-Saudi trade relations and scrub Riyadh’s image on issues including its devastating war in Yemen and its treatment of women, according to foreign agent registration filings with the Justice Department.
That effort will be crucial during the term of President Joe Biden, whose administration decided on Wednesday to pause arms sales to Riyadh pending a review, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Saudi Arabia is a new client for some of these firms and a returning one for others, like the powerhouse Edelman.
Foreign agents hired to lobby on behalf of Saudi interests have contributed almost $2 million in political donations to federal candidates, including former President Donald Trump and Biden.
In the months since the 2020 U.S. election, the kingdom has reportedly focused on firms with ties to the Democratic Party, hoping they could help influence policy in the Biden administration. Biden has vowed to be tougher on Saudi Arabia than Trump, who bragged about protecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from congressional scrutiny after the Khashoggi murder.
Indeed, late this past November, just weeks after the election, Edelman, a firm that heavily favors Democratic candidates in its political donations, signed a $225,000 contract to provide communications services to Neom, a $500 billion mega-city totally powered by renewable energy sources planned by Mohammed bin Salman as part of his effort to diversify the kingdom’s oil-based economy. Neom was reportedly the location of a recent meeting between the crown prince and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Edelman was also hired by state-owned Saudi Basic Industries in early 2020 to provide strategic communications in a $5.6 million contract.
But Riyadh has also struck deals with companies seen as close to the Republican Party. Just before the presidential election in November, the Saudi Embassy hired Off Hill Strategies, a firm run by a couple with a long history in conservative politics, for $75,000 to lobby for them through January 2021. Reached for comment, the firm’s counsel, Jennifer Baird, confirmed the deal but refused to discuss its work for Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis need to maintain their influence within the Republican Party post-Trump in hopes the Republican Senate can [help] block any bills that might hurt them, like prohibitions on arms sales or withdrawing troops from Yemen,” said Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which seeks to promote transparency and accountability in global relations.
Several lobbyists who loudly proclaimed their intention to drop the country as a client in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder have quietly resumed their relationship with the regime. Among them is Richard Hohlt, a Republican consultant and longtime Wall Street lobbyist who helped banks improve their image during the 2008-2009 financial recession and the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s. Hohlt, who was named by Trump to serve on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, an advisory group, stopped representing Saudi Arabia just weeks after the Khashoggi murder, telling the Center for Public Integrity that he was reassessing his role.
But six months later, he informed the Justice Department that he is serving as a counsel to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, advising on “public affairs and legislative interpretation.” Though he doesn’t lobby, he concedes in government filings that his assistance at meetings might “indirectly benefit” the embassy.
Since Hohlt’s role on the presidential commission was part-time, he was exempt from Trump’s executive order banning White House appointees from serving as lobbyists. Hohlt is also a major fundraiser for the Republican Party, contributing at least $70,000 to Republican political committees and at least $25,000 to Republican candidates in 2020, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
One high-profile lobbying firm, Squire Patton Boggs, was paid $1.2 million by the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court in 2019 and 2020, apparently for doing very little work. The company stated in filings that “there were no reportable activities performed on behalf of the Foreign Principal during this reporting period.”
After Khashoggi’s murder, “there was this public perception that the Saudi lobby went into hiding,” Freeman said. “But that’s not true at all—what we saw is that actually they doubled down, giving money to thinks tanks and U.S. universities to help launder their reputation.”
He noted that the kingdom hired the multinational firm Qorvis to a $10 million contract just three months after Khashoggi’s death in October 2018 to improve its image and reputation, according to filings with the Justice Department.
One of the features of the renewed influence campaign is that Saudi Arabia is focusing its efforts not just in Washington.
One of the kingdom’s most active lobbying firms, LS2 Group, which is based in Des Moines, Iowa, has reached out to small-town elected representatives, business leaders, and tiny news outlets such as the Timber Lake Topic and the Black Hills Pioneer, as well as religious influencers including Libby Parker and the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, according to lobbying records filed with the Justice Department.
Much of the outreach focused on reputation laundering, getting media outlets to run op-eds written by a Saudi Embassy spokesperson and Del Roosevelt, a grandson of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who runs the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council.
“They think they can go out to the countryside and the conservative areas of the country and throw money around, but they’re running out of goodwill,” said Ali Alyami, who runs the U.S.-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.
Several lobbyists for Saudi Arabia helped call attention to the country’s role as host of the G-20 global economic summit last year, sending informational materials to media outlets and lawmakers that highlighted women’s empowerment as a theme of the summit.
Three days after the summit ended on Nov. 22, Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was put on trial in Riyadh. Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 with nine other women’s rights activists. Her family says she was tortured in prison. In late December 2020, she was sentenced to six years in prison.
Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said Riyadh used lobbyists to “whitewash” its image, citing the failure of Mohammed bin Salman to demonstrate that he’s the reformer he claims to be.
A spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Updated, Jan. 27, 2020: This article was updated after the Biden administration said it would pause arm sales to Riyadh pending a review.