Steiner, Riazi, and Freeman, a message from the Saudi lobby


Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, shown on at the Embassy in Washington, is the first woman to serve as Saudi ambassador to the United States, representing a country where women have long had fewer rights than men. One of her predecessors is her father, Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, whose picture hangs in the Embassy, at the end of the top row of frames above. PHOTO/Allison Shelley/Politico

Some things just never seem to end. What came to mind was the way in which, during administration after administration, the Saudis and other foreign powers have poured money into Washington to ensure that their governments and their desires will be supported, that they will be sold arms in a major way, and… well, you know the story. In fact, over the years, you’ve read it at TomDispatch.

Here, for instance, is a paragraph I wrote in an introduction to a piece by Ben Freeman that appeared at TomDispatch two and a half years ago. Check it out and then consider today’s piece or, more aptly, in a phrase from my youth that still couldn’t be more on target, “read it and weep.” In some strange sense, given the roles of both Washington and Riyadh in these years, tears should indeed be in order. Now, here’s that passage:

“There are some distinctly un-American deep pockets out there on our planet that are also pouring money into this country’s politics in order to get their own direct lines buzzing to Washington. In fact, speaking about the Middle East, as TomDispatch’s Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, points out today, right at the top of that list are the royals of Saudi Arabia.  That includes, of course, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, now the power behind the throne in that country. He’s wooed President Trump with the promise of massive future Saudi arms deals and, earlier this year, reportedly bragged that he had the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a key adviser on the Middle East, ‘in his pocket.’ And what a pocket that’s proven to be! Given the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen that the prince launched in 2015 and that Washington has supported ever since, believe me, that’s no small thing. Today, Freeman offers an unprecedented look at just how a set of foreign Sheldon Adelsons have opened their deep, oil-rich pockets and put American politicians of all sorts in them. It’s a story that needs to be told.”

That was written in October 2018.  Today, as Brian Steiner, Leila Riazi, and Ben Freeman report (and as they will chronicle in far greater detail in a soon-to-be-released study of the Saudi lobby by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, where they all work), the tactics of the Saudi royals, when it comes to retaining influence in this country under increasingly difficult circumstances, have changed in striking (and ingenious) ways, but the money just keeps pouring in. Tom

How to Make a Gulf Monarchy All-American


The Saudi Lobby Moves from K Street to Main Street

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., was on the hot seat. In early March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world, oil prices collapsed and a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia, leaving American oil and gas companies feeling the pain. As oil prices plummeted, Republican senators from oil-producing states turned their ire directly on Saudi Arabia. Forget that civil war in Yemen — what about fossil-fuel profits here at home?

To address their concerns, Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud agreed to speak with a group of them in a March 18th conference call — and found herself instantly in the firing line, as senator after senator berated her for the Kingdom’s role in slashing global oil prices. “Texas is mad,” Senator Ted Cruz bluntly stated. As the ambassador tried to respond, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan retorted, “With all due respect, I don’t want to hear any talking points from you until you hear from all [of us], I think there’s 11 or 12 on the call.”

The Saudi lobby in Washington was similarly flailing in its reaction to the anger on Capitol Hill. Hogan Lovells, one of the Kingdom’s top lobbying firms in the nation’s capital, was spearheading the response, emailing staffers in the offices of more than 30 members of Congress. Its message couldn’t have been clearer: “Saudi Arabia has not, and will not, seek to intentionally damage U.S. shale oil producers.”

However, its efforts were apparently falling on deaf ears, as some of Washington’s most-lobbied policymakers remained furious at Riyadh for slashing oil prices. Even after being personally phoned four times by Hogan Lovells lobbyists between March and April, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing made by the firm, Senator Sullivan called for the Trump administration to place tariffs on Saudi oil imports. Other Republican senators, who had previously supported billions of dollars in arms sales to the Kingdom, now threatened to upend the entire American alliance with Saudi Arabia. North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer, for instance, warned that the Kingdom’s “next steps will determine whether our strategic partnership is salvageable.”

That spring oil dispute was far from the first setback the Saudi lobby had faced in Washington in recent years. From the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen to the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Congress had ample reason to turn its back on that country. Perhaps not so surprisingly, then, in a series of bipartisan bills that passed the House and the Senate, Congress sought to end America’s military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition’s brutal war in Yemen and halt arms sales to the Kingdom. Fortunately for the Saudi lobby, it had President Donald Trump, long wooed by the Kingdom’s royals in the most personal of ways, as a safety net to veto those bills and protect them from punishment for their many misdeeds.

Yet, in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged America, it became increasingly clear that Trump’s reelection prospects were dimming and, with them, that guarantee of eternal protection.

And so, the question arose: What was an authoritarian government with oodles of lobbying money but dwindling influence in Washington to do as the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency and a Democratic Congress rose? The answer, it turned out, was to move its influence operation from the Beltway to the heartland.

The Saudis Shift to the States

Since becoming ambassador in February 2019, Princess Bandar Al-Saud found herself spending ever more time with people outside the Beltway, particularly in states that were reputed to have deep ties to Saudi Arabia. From Maine to Iowa to Alaska, the Saudi ambassador began a campaign of courting Main Street America.

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