Saudi Arabia represents the sixth most powerful foreign lobby in the United States. Following Israel and Qatar, Saudi Arabia is the third country in the Middle East to invest the most in shaping U.S. foreign policy, according to the Foreign Lobby Watch. Investigations surrounding Russia’s influence in making Donald Trump win the 2016 election made headlines despite little evidence to prove their veracity and much evidence to prove they were mere conspiracy theories.
Following Israel and Qatar, Saudi Arabia is the third country in the Middle East to invest the most in shaping U.S. foreign policy, according to the Foreign Lobby Watch
One the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s lobbying power made of millions of investments in the United States rarely gets discussed. Even as the U.S. supplies the Kingdom with weapons that commit humanitarian crises abroad, like in Yemen, and the repeated links found between Saudi Arabia and various designated terrorist groups, the issue does not receive the attention it deserves. When did this unholy alliance start? Why does it continue? How does it operate?
President Trump's first visit overseas was to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh May 21, 2017 /AFP
How it Began
The partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia formally began at the end of WWII, when the U.S. needed steady oil supplies from the Middle East and a reliable partner to sell its weapons to. Despite the vast differences in the two countries’ political systems, they maintained a relationship based on defending their mutual interests. While Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy adopting a fundamentalist, Wahhabi view of Islam, the United States is a constitutional Republic based on upholding the rule of law and religious liberty.
The partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia formally began at the end of WWII, when the US needed steady oil supplies from the Middle East and a reliable partner to sell its weapons to.
Although their belief systems are so radically different from one another, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have also been ideological allies in opposition to communism, when they joined forces against the Soviet Union in the Afghanistan war. While the U.S. and Saudi Arabia had disagreements on the creation of the State of Israel, whereby the United States supported its creation while Saudi Arabia supported its Muslim counterparts, both nations, alongside Israel, have found a common enemy against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The combination of Saudi and Israeli funding making common cause against Iran made the U.S. overlook controversial aspects of Saudi Arabia’s funding of extremism, especially since the September 11 attacks -- where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
The 9/11 Commission which investigated the role of Saudi Arabia in the attacks “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or that a senior Saudi official individually funded [al-Qaeda]” but said Saudi Arabia “was a place where Al-Qaeda raised money directly from individuals and through charities with significant Saudi sponsorship.”
The combination of Saudi and Israeli funding making common cause against Iran made the US overlook controversial aspects on Saudi Arabia’s funding of extremism, especially since the September 11 attacks -- where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Yet the famous 28 pages of the 900-page report were fully redacted by the George W. Bush administration, with Bush claiming that releasing the material would "reveal sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror." What sources and methods could it reveal in fighting a war where a supposed ally, Saudi Arabia, could be linked to the enemy, al-Qaeda? National security was merely used as an excuse to avoid diplomatic issues with the Kingdom. In those pages, Saudi Arabia’s links to extremism were discussed. The pages found possible logistical and financial support given by Saudi officials and others suspected of being Saudi agents to the hijackers who committed 9/11.
The subsequent War on Terror launched by the U.S. government, where Saudi Arabia was seen as a key ally in combating extremism, brought no results precisely because Saudi Arabia was also a source of that same extremism. Investigations and statements by U.S. government officials have shown Saudi Arabia was heavily linked with terrorism for a decade before the attack took place.
For example, the Council on Foreign Relations in 2002 issued a report on terrorist financing that concluded, “For years, individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for Al-Qaeda. And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem.”
For example, the Council on Foreign Relations in 2002 issued a report on terrorist financing that concluded, “for years, individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for Al-Qaeda. And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem.”
Groups like Al-Qaeda, which shared Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist view of Sunni Islam, were partnered by even more extreme Wahhabi groups like Daesh (otherwise known as ISIS). Saudi Arabia was reportedly linked to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, or re-branded names of these groups, in its proxy war against Iran in the Middle East, especially in Syria – as seen by journalists covering the issue, here with the headline “America’s allies are funding ISIS, and here with the headline “Iraq crisis: how Saudi Arabia helped ISIS take over the north of the country."
Cabinet meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, White House Cabinet Room March 20th, 2018.
Why a Lobby is Needed
It is no surprise that among these scandals, trust for Saudi Arabia in America has come at an all-time low. A new poll showed that barely one in five Americans view Saudi Arabia as an ally. After the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who decided to take the side of Qatar against the Saudi royal family in the diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia, the relationship with the U.S. government reached an unprecedented low point, in part because of Qatar’s equally, if not more powerful lobby in the United States.
The new Crown Prince of the Saudi Kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, reportedly invested millions in the United States to guarantee its image wasn’t tarnished with its most important ally.
A new poll showed that barely one in five Americans view Saudi Arabia as an ally.
As a result, the U.S. government continues to overlook Saudi Arabia’s controversial role at home and abroad, which has resulted in counter-productive and self-destructive policies with the rise of terrorism and humanitarian atrocities being committed with U.S.-made weapons in Middle Eastern countries like Yemen. Part of this toxic relationship can be explained in terms of defending a commercial partnership, where Saudi Arabia provides the U.S. oil at reasonable prices and creates jobs in the United States by purchasing from its weapons manufacturers.
The political influence Saudi Arabia has on the U.S. government however, goes even deeper. For example, Congress had passed a resolution in April 2019 to end the U.S. supplying arms in the Yemen war, thereby sending a strong message against the coalition that has contributed in causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, according to a UN report. President Trump decided to veto the resolution, by merely claiming it was “unnecessary."
An ironic statement, considering there is no reason the U.S. should be supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in the first place. The war has resulted in the death of countless innocent civilians half-way across the globe and the resurgence of Al-Qaeda, the same group which committed 9/11, which the Saudis are funding in Yemen.
The war has resulted in the death of countless innocent civilians half-way across the globe and and the resurgence of Al-Qaeda, the same group which committed 9/11, which the Saudis are funding in Yemen.
So why would Congress take so long to pass a resolution that would protect America’s interests — and why would Trump decide to veto it without a valuable justification? The only answer can be the exceptional influence of the Saudi lobby. The commercial partnership alone between the two countries does not suffice to explain why the United States is unwavering in its support for Saudi Arabia as an ally, considering how troublesome the alliance has been.
Let’s look at the military partnership, which is supposedly providing the U.S. with jobs. The Saudi military is almost completely dependent on U.S. weapons for support, according to a report from the Centre for International Policy. But while Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on the U.S. for its war machine, the same cannot be said of U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabia for jobs.
What is supposedly a quid pro quo agreement whereby the U.S. would receive numerous jobs at home in manufacturing these weapons for the Kingdom, is in fact far from the truth. Saudi arms sales do not provide a substantial number of American jobs – they create at most tens of thousands of jobs in the United States, not “a million” as President Trump has claimed.
Saudi arms sales do not provide a substantial number of American jobs – they create at most tens of thousands of jobs in the United States, not “a million”, as President Trump has claimed.
Although the latest U.S.-Saudi arms deal amounted to $110 billion, the real paid sum for American produced weapons for Saudi Arabia comes to an average of $2.5 billion per year over the past ten years, which in turn amounts to at most 20,000 to 40,000 jobs. Many of these jobs are located abroad, including in Saudi Arabia.
Even the highest estimate of 40,000 jobs only has a marginal effect on the American economy, as they represent less than three one-hundredths of one percent of the U.S. overall labor force, according to a report by the Centre for International Policy.
In reality, Raytheon, an American defense contractor corporation and Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics, all American aerospace and defense arms manufacture corporations are the biggest beneficiaries. Boeing provides precision-guided bombs, combat aircraft to attack helicopters, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin provide missile defense systems to combat ships to tanks, while General Dynamics provide to transport helicopters and planes to Saudi Arabia.
In reality, Raytheon, an American defense contractor corporation and Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics, all American aerospace and defense arms manufacture corporations are the biggest beneficiaries.
Equally, oil dependency does not suffice as a reason for Saudi Arabia to have such a strong influence in the United States' foreign policy decisions. Canada is the largest provider of oil to the United States, accounting to 43 percent of overall U.S. oil imports, while Saudi Arabia accounts for only 9 percent of U.S. oil imports. Even all OPEC countries combined account for a minority of U.S. imports of oil at 29 percent, according to a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
As we can see, neither arms manufacture jobs nor oil imports can explain why the U.S. continues to support Saudi Arabia in foreign policy decisions that harm its own national interests. Today, Saudi Arabia continues to invest millions to advance its interests in the United States – which it views as a vital partner to defend its ambitions in the wider Middle East, especially against its neighboring enemy of Iran, and lately against Qatar as well.
Neither arms manufacture jobs nor oil imports explain why the United States continues to protect Saudi Arabia’s image, even as it threatens the security of its own country.
The dispute with Qatar represents further motivation for the Saudi Arabia to continue its lobbying efforts, since Qatar also has a powerful voice in the United States.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia invests heavily in U.S. media to garner influence. A report from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative shows that out of the top ten entities, Saudi Arabia contacted the media the most, ahead of the Senate, the House or any private company.
CNN, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, NBC and Bloomberg topped the list of national media outlets that were contacted the most by PR firms working on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, according to the body that governs registering foreign lobbyists in the United States, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Saudi foreign agents also contacted more than 200 local media outlets. Saudi’s approach to the media is therefore comprehensive, contacting both big and small newspapers to influence public opinion.
CNN, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, NBC and Bloomberg topped the list of national media outlets that were contacted the most by PR firms working on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
In terms of think tanks, Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company, contributes between $200,000 and $499,999 to the number one think tank in the world for security, The Centre for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington DC. This should guarantee a degree of protection and discretion when discussing Saudi Arabia’s role in the world when the think tank releases its reports.
In terms of think tanks, Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company, contributes from $200,000 - $499,999 to the number one think tank in the world for security, The Centre for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington DC.
Outside of Western media, the government of Saudi Arabia holds absolute control over its internal media and practices the elimination of opposition within pan-Arab media outlets. This guarantees that even Western outlets relying on local media sources have a Saudi-friendly view of what is happening on the ground. In addition, 40 to 70 percent of the region’s advertising is spent on Saudi Arabia publications, TV channels and networks, according to a report by ETH Zurich.
In addition, 40% to 70% percent of the region’s advertising is spent on Saudi Arabia publications, TV channels and networks, according to a report by ETH Zurich
These advertisers will not risk upsetting the largest economy’s advertising market in the region, so they will abstain from any form of criticism towards the Kingdom.
November 2018, Amnesty International activists put up a mock street sign outside the Saudi embassy in London /AFP
The Saudis have paid about $100 million to lobbyists, consultants and public relations specialists over the past decade, according to research in Mitchell Bard's book The Arab Lobby. Saudi’s influence since that time has not only continued but likely increased.
The FARA filings stated that 31 different firms or individuals were registered to represent Saudi interests in 2018. The diverse range of people recorded under these activities as well as the frequency with which they targeted media outlets and politicians was substantial, and allowed Saudi Arabia to enjoy these firms doing its bidding.
The Saudis have paid about $100 million to lobbyists, consultants and public relations specialists over the past decade since before 2010, according to research in Mitchell Bard's book The Arab Lobby. Saudi’s influence since that time has not only continued, but likely increased.
The MSL Group, a lobbying and communication firm, was the most active firm, with 756 political activities for the Saudis. After the death of Khashoggi, the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s spending in the U.S. went to the MSL Group in a stream of payments in only four months, from October 2018 to January 2019, with more than $18.8 million received from the Saudi government.
The Saudi monarchy was desperate in trying to protect its image, so much that it spent more in lobbying the months after Khashoggi’s death than the entire year leading up to his death. Overall, Saudi interests reportedly spent more than $38.5 million in the 2018 calendar year, up from around $19 million in 2017 and just over $15 million in 2016.
After the death of Khashoggi, the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s spending in the US went to the MSL Group in a stream of payments in only four months, from October 2018 to January 2019, with more than $18.8 million received from the Saudi government
Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS), a lobbying and law firm in the U.S., is the second most active firm registered with FARA on behalf of the Saudis in 2018. Its lobbying was much more traditional, involving Congress directly, with 196 contacts at the Senate and 110 focused on the House.
The firm received around $2.3 million from Saudi Arabia to lobby for its interests. Not coincidentally, Representative Ed Royce in 2017 gave a speech on the House floor defending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, in which he was reading almost verbatim from Saudi lobbying talking points. The script was handed to him by a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia before the speech. When Royce left Congress in 2018, he took a job at BHFS, the lobbying firm representing the Saudi government.
The firm received around $2.3 from Saudi Arabia to lobby for its interests. Not coincidentally, Representative Ed Royce in 2017 gave a speech on the House floor defending U.S. support for war in Yemen, where he was reading almost verbatim from Saudi lobbying talking points
The extent of Saudi influence on PR firms goes even further - APCO Worldwide is the third-largest public relations firm in the U.S. which was reported to lobby on behalf of the Kingdom. APCO has many corporate clients, including Dell, eBay, and Mars Foods which has the ability to directly influence. Another significant firm is Hogan Lovells, which was also registered under FARA as a Saudi lobby. It's one of the ten largest law firms in the world and advises half of the Fortune 100 companies.
The McKeon Group, a government relations, and consulting firm, was also decisively involved in lobbying for the Saudis with the help of former congressmen – not coincidentally it is now led by recently retired Republican Congressman Howard McKeon, who served as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and who also happens to represent Lockheed Martin, the largest arms manufacturer corporation whose main client is Saudi Arabia.
It’s important to note that while registrants are supposed to file every six months, the FARA files are often submitted late, which means that the disclosure date of the payment is also made later, This means the extent of the Saudi lobbying spending this year is likely to be even bigger once all the disclosures from their FARA submissions are revealed.
Over $1.6 million in political donations were made from foreign agents working for Saudi Arabia’s lobbying operations in the 2018 election cycle alone. The 2020 general presidential candidates will need to face the choice of whether or not they will be keeping foreign money offered by the Saudis.
Saudi lobbyists contacted the office of nearly every senator and more than 200 representatives, according to a report by The Centre for International Policy. Yet while the Saudis’ investments in Congress have not always been successful, they have successfully courted Trump to their side. Reporting by OpenSecrets says:
"The Kingdom spent around $60 million in lobbying operations since President Donald Trump took office. Saudi lobbyists even paid for an estimated 500 rooms at Trump’s Washington hotel just after he was elected president."
Saudi lobbyists even paid for an estimated 500 rooms at Trump’s Washington hotel just after he was elected president.
Trump was a former critic of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy influence in America, tweeting in 2014: "Saudi Arabia should fight their own wars, which they won't, or pay us an absolute fortune to protect them and their great wealth - $ trillion!". At the same time, Trump said he got along great with the Kingdom in terms of business relations. At a campaign rally in 2015, he said: “Saudi Arabia (...) they buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
The Saudi lobby has successfully courted Trump on the Kingdom’s side with its lobbying efforts since the beginning of his presidency, so the Saudis followed President Trump's advice in regard to paying the U.S. "an absolute fortune to protect them". A special bond furthermore developed between the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who reportedly has deep financial ties to Israel - a recent, strategic (even if involuntary) ally for Saudi Arabia against its war with Iran. This helped guarantee that Mohammad met with Trump in the White House the same day Congress had created a motion to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war, where Iran is involved in arming the Houthi rebels against Saudi proxies, which include Al-Qaeda.
At a campaign rally in 2015, Trump said: “Saudi Arabia (...) they buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
With regard to political influence outside the Trump family, the Saudis were also relentless to protect their interests. In total, firms representing Saudi Arabia gave $2.24 million to political campaigns, with more than $1.6 million of the contributions being traceable to individual candidates with enormous influence, according to their FARA filings.
Many of the top recipients of contributions from firms representing the Saudis were party leaders with great political power. Kevin McCarthy, former House Majority Leader, was the number one recipient of campaign contributions from Saudi lobbying firms. Former Vice Presidential candidate, Senator Tim Kaine, and Representative Mike McCaul, the top-ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, took the second and third places as receiving the largest campaign contributions from Saudi lobbying firms in 2018, according to the same report by The Centre for International Policy.
In total, firms representing Saudi Arabia gave $2.24 million to political campaigns, with more than $1.6 million of the contributions being traceable to individual candidates with enormous influence, according to their FARA filings.
Other influential lawmakers who received Saudi contributions include Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, and the top-Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez. Saudi lobbying influence is therefore decisively bi-partisan, influencing both the Republican and Democrat parties.
Here is one clear example of how this influence affects foreign policy. In April 2018, Robert Menendez reportedly met a registered Saudi foreign agent with BHFS to discuss the Yemen resolution. Just the same day, he received a $500 contribution from BHFS lobbyist Elizabeth Gore. Just two months earlier, Menendez had voted to table a motion to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war. Just eight days before the vote, Senator Heidi received a $1,000 contribution from the Glover Park Group, which was paid for as part of the Saudi lobby network at the time.
After Jamal Khashoggi's death, the Saudi Kingdom received enormous backlash. In large part, this was due to Qatar's power network in the United States, which painted the Saudi royal family as the culprit in the worst light possible - forcing politicians and media figures to disavow the Kingdom. As a result, Saudi Arabia doubled-down in its efforts to maintain its influence in America's foreign policy decisions. Saudi Arabia’s power in shaping government policy remains decisive, as evidenced by Trump vetoing the resolution to end the war in Yemen. Without any regulations, it will be up to the discretion of private lobbying firms, media organizations, think tanks and politicians whether to take Saudi money and for what purposes in the future.
Alessandra Bocchi is an Italian freelance journalist who covers religion, war and politics in North Africa and the Middle East. You can follow Alessandra Bocchi on Twitter @alessabocchi
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