The Royal Treatment: Riyadh’s Influential Political Lobby in Washington

Saudi Arabia has spent millions of dollars on public relations campaigns to enhance its image and promote its national interests on Capitol Hill. Recent global events, however, may temporarily deter Saudi Arabia’s powerful lobby in Washington and undermine Riyadh’s ability to achieve its long-term political goals in the Middle East—and beyond.
The Royal Treatment Riyadh's Influential Political Lobby in Washington
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets with Saudi Arabia’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., Mar. 22, 2018. (DoD photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm)

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab countries launched a military intervention in Yemen ostensibly with the objective of fighting against Iranian-backed, Yemeni insurgents, known as Houthis for their leader, and restoring the international-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Since the beginning of the coalition’s intervention, the U.S. has provided “logistical and intelligence support” for the operations of the coalition, including air and missile strikes. Although the rapid mobilization of U.S. military forces to support the Saudi-led cause might suggest that Washington’s alliance with Riyadh has no limits, that has not turned out to be the case.

Although the relationship between the long-time allies started to sour during the Obama administration, most notably due to the signing of the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, U.S. support for the coalition forces also began during Obama’s administration. Despite the efforts of various American lawmakers to stop U.S. support for the civil war in Yemen over the past several years, the flow of intelligence and munitions to Saudi Arabia has continued unabated.

This is due in large part to the efforts of the kingdom’s influential lobby on Capitol Hill.  For example, U.S. lobbyists on Riyadh’s payroll gave more than $2.3 million to U.S. political campaigns to undermine anti-Saudi congressional action and promote Saudi interests in late 2016 and 2017, according to a report by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, a left-leaning Washington-based think tank. According to the same report, Saudi lobbyists contacted over 200 members of Congress, including every Senator. While Saudi Arabia’s use of the U.S. lobbying system is not illegal, the kingdom has tested the limits, and perhaps even crossed the line of what is acceptable or lawful.

Foreign Agents Registration Act

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was enacted in 1938. It is a disclosure statute that “requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities.” FARA records from 2017 reveal that the Saudis spent nearly $27 million on lobbying and public relations firms––nearly triple the amount spent in 2016. Riyadh’s strong ties to the American business world has also helped it build its political influence, especially recently.  

Before becoming president, Donald Trump did business with the Saudi government and its wealthiest citizens for decades. When he was elected in 2016, the kingdom found itself in the advantageous position of already being close to President Trump. The close relationship between Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also played an important role in easing the tensions that strained U.S.-Saudi relations by during the Obama administration.

In addition to courting President Trump, Riyadh also pays millions of dollars to lobbyists, blue-chip law firms, and think tanks to shape American public opinion about the kingdom and block congressional measures that disrupt its political agenda. Despite Saudi Arabia’s favor with the Trump administration and its near-religious commitment to wooing Washington elites, its political influence machine is not infallible. This is best exemplified by its failure to block the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).

The “Dysfunction” of the Saudi Influence Machine

JASTA allows Americans to “sue foreign states for playing a role in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.” Even though JASTA is written in general terms, the legislation was drafted specifically to enable the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the attacks. Even though President Obama vetoed the Act, arguing that the measure could expose U.S. officials to similar lawsuits abroad, it received widespread bipartisan support and was enacted on September 28, 2016.

Although 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks were Saudi citizens, the Saudi government has consistently denied any involvement in the attacks. Instead of admitting defeat, the passage of JASTA only emboldened the pro-Saudi lobby on Capitol Hill to push for amendments to gut the Act in early 2017. To achieve this goal, Saudi consultants recruited military veterans to come to Washington and tell Congress how JASTA could leave them vulnerable to potential litigation.

The veterans speaking out against JASTA stayed at the Trump International Hotel, one of the U.S. president’s properties, and the kingdom paid the $270,000 tab that the veterans incurred, according to the Washington Post. In 2017, 9/11 families filed a complaint with the Justice Department that revealed that some of the veterans were not told that Saudi interests were backing their visit.

“Several U.S. veterans targeted by [the Saudi lobby against JASTA] have come forward to complain that the Kingdom’s foreign agents and [the] materials those agents disseminated deceived them into serving as unwitting advocates for the Saudi government, a circumstance that itself indicates widespread violations of FARA.”

“Several U.S. veterans targeted by [the Saudi lobby against JASTA] have come forward to complain that the Kingdom’s foreign agents and [the] materials those agents disseminated deceived them into serving as unwitting advocates for the Saudi government, a circumstance that itself indicates widespread violations of FARA,” according to the complaint.

There are many U.S. government officials who believe that preserving Washington’s relationship with Riyadh is vital, as it is a key partner in deterring the rise of Iran in the Middle East. However, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul has caused many American lawmakers to rethink and scrutinize U.S.-Saudi relations. More importantly, it has put the Saudi lobby in Washington and the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policy under a microscope.  

Growing Discontent with Saudi Arabia’s Misconduct

The shocking circumstances of Khashoggi’s death and Saudi Arabia’s suspected involvement in the murder has united Americans from across the political spectrum. In fact, countless congressional Republicans have joined their Democratic counterparts in calling for sanctions against Riyadh, among other punitive measures. While anti-Saudi sentiment continues to grow on Capitol Hill, the White House position on Saudi Arabia seemingly remains unchanged.

President Trump continues to stand by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman even despite a recent CIA assessment that suggested that he ordered the killing of Khashoggi.“He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally,” President Trump said in an interview in the Oval Office on December 11, according to Reuters.

Ironically, President Trump’s unwavering support of Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader have only served to undermine the kingdom’s interests in Washington. In an unexpected turn of events, the U.S. Senate voted to withdraw U.S. military assistance for the war in Yemen on December 13. Not only did the 56 to 41 Senate vote represent a rare and bipartisan move to limit presidential war powers (the first ever exercise of the War Powers Resolution designed to curb renegade presidential power infringing on Congress’ war powers), but it also “sent a potent message of disapproval for a nearly four-year conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and brought famine to Yemen,” according to the New York Times.

Even though the House of Representatives will not take up the equivalent House measure before the end of 2018, the Senate vote has demonstrated that Congress will no longer allow President Trump to support Riyadh’s flagrant violations of human rights in Yemen. So, the question remains: what will become of the multi-million dollar Saudi lobby in Washington? Regardless of what happens, the new year is likely to signal a new phase in Saudi relations with the U.S. and the world.