As the Saudis face worldwide scorn for brutally murdering Jamal Khashoggi, they find themselves in a familiar position. It’s the same one they were in after the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, when it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from the Kingdom. Their solution to the problem then was the same that it is now: money, lots of money. Specifically, millions of dollars spent on lobbying and public relations firms in the United States to sell the illusion that America needs to sell the Saudis arms.
The Saudi lobby is now in overdrive to not only retain clout in Washington but ensure the continuance of arms sales to the Kingdom. Although Saudi Arabia’s influence operation has taken an undeniable blow, with several major firms cutting ties, this does not mark its end. If the past is any indication, Riyadh’s massive machine will redouble its efforts to save the reputation they’ve worked so hard to cultivate in Washington.
For years, Saudi Arabia has employed swaths of lobbyists to paint a positive image of the Kingdom in the United States and influence American policy in the region. A new report by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, a program of the Center for International Policy where we both work, found that in 2017, foreign agents at firms lobbying for the Saudis reported contacting over 200 members of Congress, making more than $2 million in campaign contributions and carrying out more than 2,500 political activities on behalf of Saudi clients. MSLGROUP, Podesta Group, Glover Park Group, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, and Hogan Lovells were the firms that reported the most activities, with over 1,900 contacts made between them in 2017 alone. Their political outreach was largely focused on party leaders and members of Congress who held positions on key committees. They targeted Democrats and Republicans alike. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was the most contacted Republican, and Chris Coons, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was the most contacted Democrat.
What’s more, this examination showed numerous instances where foreign agents working for Saudi lobbying firms made considerable monetary contributions to key members of Congress that were also contacted by the same firms on behalf of Saudi clients. The timing of the political donations is especially revealing—several of the contributions from lobbyists representing Saudi clients were made at times when key issues related to Saudi Arabia, namely the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act and arms sales, were being voted on or discussed in Congress. In 2017, firms reported nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions made to members of Congress whom they had contacted on behalf of Saudi interests, and 12 instances in which the contact and contribution occurred on the same day. Keeping with the Saudi lobby’s commitment to bipartisanship, in 2017, Senator Tom Udall and Senator Bob Corker both received campaign contributions from firms representing the Saudis on the same day they were contacted by those firms. Corker called for an investigation of the Saudi government following Khashoggi’s death, despite accepting a $2,700 contribution from a Hogan Lovells lobbyist on the exact same day he met with a Hogan Lovells lobbyist representing the Saudi Embassy.
Evidently undeterred by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi government’s attempted cover-up, more than two dozen firms are still registered under FARA to represent Saudi Arabia. Just as before, they’re likely contacting the same members of Congress whose 2018 reelection campaigns they’ve donated to.
Saudi influence certainly doesn’t end with the lobbying firms they hire. After all, they give millions to D.C. think tanks and American universities too. But perhaps even more importantly, at least to President Donald Trump, they buy a lot of military equipment from the United States. The president has repeatedly boasted that this results in thousands of American jobs and $110 billion in arms sales. The $110 billion figure has been debunked by a number of experts, yet Trump continues to use it as justification for preserving the U.S.-Saudi relationship. He has stated that if the U.S. stops these arms sales, the Saudis will turn to Russia, China, and others for their weapons. However, the Royal Saudi Air Force is entirely dependent on American and British support for its fleet of F-15 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and Tornado aircraft. If the U.S. stopped the flow of munitions, spare parts, and technical support needed to sustain such a fleet, then the RSAF would be grounded. Without this air support, the Saudis would be unable to continue operations in Yemen and a ceasefire could be negotiated, saving thousands of lives and ending the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. Trump’s argument is completely inverted. The U.S. is not dependent on Saudi Arabian money; Saudi Arabia is dependent on U.S. firepower.
The United States and Saudi Arabia are now at a crossroads. So far, the Saudi lobbying juggernaut has been able to survive an attack on U.S. soil carried out by Saudi nationals and an ever more expensive and devastating war in Yemen. However, the apparent vicious murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has finally pierced the façade. It is about time that Washington woke up to Saudi Arabia’s dishonesty. While Trump shows no signs of altering his stance, Congress has an opportunity in the next few months to show the world that the United States is beholden to no one, no matter how many billions of dollars is spent on arms sales and no matter how many millions is spent on influence. It is time to halt American-made bombs falling on civilians in Yemen and expose the Saudi lobbying machine for the smokescreen that it is.
Avery Beam is a research associate with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.
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Thomas Low is a research associate with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative and Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.