Saudi Attempt to Influence American Policy:
All the Influence Money Can Buy
Successful in Washington, but a failure in the rest of America
Twenty-five years ago this month, American public opinion of Saudi Arabia was at its highest as it had allied itself with the US for Operation Desert Storm.
Today, however, public perceptions of Saudi Arabia are at its nadir as Americans see an intolerant Saudi Arabia, violator of human rights, ruled by aging kings, who use beheading as punishment and kill Yemeni civilians, while prosecuting women and dissidents at home.
What is truly ironic is that in the intervening 25 years, Saudi Arabia has spent more money trying to burnish its image inside the US that it has before then.
What has happened?
Obviously, public image isn’t something one can always control, but Saudi Arabia is spending millions of dollars on Washington lobbyists and PR firms to improve the kingdom’s reputation in the West. It has hired some of the most influential PR firms with strong contacts within the administration and Congress. But, the impact is decidedly uneven. While Saudi Arabia has strong influence inside the halls of power in Washington, their reputation declines dramatically once one leaves the Washington beltway.
The Saudi PR Machine
According to the Institute for Policy Studies, Saudi Arabia spends over half a million dollars a month on public relations. Firms listed as “active foreign principals for Saudi Arabia” on the State Department’s Foreign Agent Reporting Act (FARA) website include: DLA Piper, Targeted Victory, Qorvis/MSLGroup, Pillsbury Winthrop, Hogan Lovells, and the Podesta Group.
Qorvis/MSLGroup appears to the biggest recipient of Saudi money. Their FARA filings reveal what appears to be a $240,000 per month retainer. Their work includes speeches, press releases, and even monitoring and making comments on American social media sites on the Internet.
Former Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota is with the Qorvis/MSLGroup, which gives the Saudis an opening to Republican congressmen. Coleman is also the chair of a major Republican political action committee.
However, Saudi political influence isn’t limited to Republicans. The report also noted the Podesta Group received $200,000 from the “The Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court” for approximately one month of “public relations services” from August to September. The Podesta Group, cited in the Times as working for the Saudi government, is listed as an “active” foreign agent for Saudi Arabia on the FARA website, suggesting that the contract is ongoing.
The Podesta Group is a lobbying firm founded by Tony Podesta, a major fundraiser for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. He is closely connected with the Obama White House and has repeatedly been named one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists and fundraisers.
Last year the Saudis retained the influential lobbying firm, DLA Piper. DLA Piper, employs many former government officials, including retired U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss and George Mitchell.
The money spent on these PR firms has paid off on Capitol Hill. Although congressmen are well aware of Saudi human rights abuses, they are reluctant to talk about them or criticize the kingdom.
The Saudis haven’t just focused on the White House and Congress. They have also contributed money to various think tanks in order to influence policies. And, these contributions are harder to unearth as they do not need to be reported to the US government.
Foreign governments are looking for new avenues to reach policymakers inside Washington. As a result, lobbyists and PR firms are increasingly encouraging clients to donate to think tanks as a way of getting researchers to spend time on the issues that these governments care about.
A year and a half ago, the New York Times reported about how foreign governments used their contributions to Washington think tanks to influence the policy recommendations. They noted, “The arrangements involve Washington’s most influential think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Atlantic Council. Each is a major recipient of overseas funds, producing policy papers, hosting forums and organizing private briefings for senior U.S. government officials that typically align with the foreign governments’ agendas.”
Obviously, this isn’t limited to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and other GCC states became active contributors to think tanks in the 1970s. Japan started using its growing wealth in impact policy in the late 1970s. In the 1990s, China became a major player. And European and Latin American countries have also given their share of grants. The New York Times report reveals how Norway, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan have used contributions to enlist the aid of think tanks to propose policies favorable to them.
One example is the Brookings Institution, the oldest and most prestigious of the Washington think tanks. In 2013, 22% of their money came from foreign governments according to the Washington Post. This is a result of Brookings president Strobe Talbott, a former Clinton administration diplomat, who decided then to remake Brookings with a far-reaching expansion plan that would rely on aggressive fundraising and make the institution even more influential. In the first ten years of his presidency, he tripled the amount of contributions to the think tank.
Of course, when it comes to Middle East policy, Saudi Arabia does have competition at the Brookings Institution. The Brookings Doha Center, an arm of the think tank in Qatar’s capital that focuses on Middle East issues, is funded largely by the Qatari government, which has pledged $21.6 million to Brookings since 2011 according to the Washington Post.
However, the biggest influencer isn’t found at think tanks or PR firms. It is the billions of dollars spent in arms purchases that impact Washington as much as anything. Saudi arms purchase not only help the economy and the bottom line of defense firms, they also help subsidize the cost of US arms purchases.
The Congressional Research Service reports that Saudi Arabia topped the list of arms transfer recipients among developing nations from 2007 to 2014 with $86 billion in agreements. Obviously, this gives US defense contractors an incentive to lend their own lobbying and PR firepower to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to improve their public opinion.
“The Saudis in particular have leveraged American arms purchases to exercise domestic influence in the US for decades, though, so that’s not a brand new factor,” David Weinberg, gulf expert and senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Defense News.
Matthew Hedges, an independent Arabian Gulf-based military analyst also told Defense News that, “Over the past five years, Saudi Arabia has used their purchasing power to influence major decisions in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and other power seats in the world.
“In 2013, when the US ceased military aid to the Egypt, the two countries (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) lobbied and influenced the US to reverse its stance successfully as well as help broker a preliminary deal with Russia for arms worth $3.5 billion,” he said.
That influence may grow as the Saudis need to replenish the munitions used in Yemen and plan to expand their navy in response to Iran.
Power in Washington, but Unpopularity in the Heartland
While the Saudis have their way in Washington, they are facing growing unpopularity elsewhere in the US. A Gallup poll taken in 2014 showed that while 72% of Americans supported Israel, only 35% of Americans viewed Saudi Arabia favorably.
The problem is that Saudi Arabia has a Middle Eastern view of America – one where the “best and brightest” people gravitate to the large cities, especially Washington. As a result, their focus is inside Washington, while totally ignoring most Americans who live outside Washington and the East Coast Corridor.
Compare this to the Israeli public relations effort, which has a powerful Washington segment, but is also well established at the grassroots. The result is that about 3 in 4 Americans support Israel.
There is no better example than Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who frequently comes to America and makes himself available to groups outside Washington, especially evangelical Christians. His interviews on TV shows like the 700 Club reach more American viewers that traditional news shows like “Meet the Press.” The result is that evangelical Christians are more likely to support Israel than even Jewish Americans.
Former diplomat who served in Saudi Arabia observed: “Although turning around its human rights policy would be important to boosting Saudi popularity in the US, the kingdom can also boost its reputation by focusing more on the “outside the beltway” Americans. This, however, requires a change in strategy”.
He pointed to the fact that “As is seen in the rise of Donald Trump, America is in the midst of an anti-Washington mood. While focusing its efforts in Washington allow for short term policy impact, it not only doesn’t impact the unfavorable image of the Saudis with the average American, it merely allows Americans to see the kingdom as another Washington “influence peddler.”
He concluded: “Saudi Arabia needs to look beyond the Washington based media and expand its reach to the growing alternative media. Although it would be hard to break the Israeli hold on the evangelical Christian block, it could improve its image if it could show that it is trying to protect Syrian Christians through its efforts in Syria.”
A Saudi effort that looks beyond Washington to the states and state capitals would have a bigger impact. Although states don’t have any foreign policy impact, state legislators have more contact with their constituents than US congressmen. Briefings to state legislators would have a greater chance of reaching the average American voter.
Law enforcement relations are also an ideal way to reach out. In fact, this has been a major sector for the Israeli lobby, which regularly has courses on “fighting terrorism”. Since most Americans know a policeman, it also impacts American views of Israel.
In the end, buying influence isn’t the same as winning hearts and minds. The Saudis have a powerful influence machine that will grind to a halt if they stop paying for it. By contrast, Israel has powerful influence in Washington and a grassroots support that will continue despite Washington-Tel Aviv relations.
Also we can observe how the Saudis are eager to improve relations with Israeli government including “unauthorized “meetings between Saudi individuals and Israelis. Many Arab officials believes the best way to gain influence in Washington runs through Tel Aviv and the Israeli lobby in U.S.
Therefore, it was not a complete surprise to learn of the planning announcement to launch next March SAPRAC as a new public affairs tool for the Saudis found by Salman Alansari who is believed to be funded by the Royal Court (diwan).
Technologies Converge and Power Diffuses: The Evolution of Small, Smart, and Cheap Weapons
By T. X. Hammes
January 27, 2016
Policy Analysis No. 786
Dramatic improvements in robotics, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing), and nanoenergetics are dramatically changing the character of conflict in all domains. The convergence of these new and improving technologies is creating a massive increase in capabilities available to smaller and smaller political entities — extending even to the individual. This increase provides smaller powers with capabilities that used to be the preserve of major powers. Moreover, these small, smart, and cheap weapons based on land, sea, or air may be able to dominate combat. This new diffusion of power has major implications for the conduct of warfare and national strategy. Because even massive investment in mature technology leads to only incremental improvement in capabilities, the proliferation of many small and smart weapons may simply overwhelm a few exceptionally capable and complex systems. The advances may force the United States to rethink its procurement plans, force structure, and force posture.
Chasing Egypt’s Economic Tail
By Yezid Sayigh
January 21, 2016
A little-noticed decree issued by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the end of November 2015 empowered the agency responsible for managing real estate no longer used by the Egyptian Armed Forces to engage in profit-making enterprises and form commercial ventures with domestic and foreign counterparts. A few weeks later, in early January 2016, he instructed the central bank to incentivize the country’s banking sector to inject $25 billion into small and medium-sized businesses, which are increasingly struggling in today’s Egyptian economy. These and a host of other decrees issued since Sisi assumed the presidency in 2014 are symptomatic of his routine bypassing of the government institutions nominally responsible for economic policy making and management. This reflects his sense of urgency regarding the need to resolve the country’s social and economic problems. But his exercise of an inordinate role in setting Egypt’s economic agenda and overall direction is unlikely to deliver on the intended goals, and may exacerbate existing problems or generate new ones.
The Prince and Politics Behind a Saudi Aramco IPO
By Perry Cammack and David Livingston
January 15, 2016
Last week, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi deputy crown prince, created shock waves when he told the Economist he was “enthusiastic” about the possibility that Saudi Aramco, with the world’s largest oil reserves, might be privatized. Such a move would throttle the global energy industry and lead to the creation of a company some estimate would have a larger market capitalization than Apple, ExxonMobil, Berkshire Hathaway and Google—combined. Last Friday, Aramco issued a carefully worded press releaseconfirming it is studying options to list “an appropriate percentage of the Company’s shares and/or the listing of . . . its downstream subsidiaries.” There is certainly a logic to privatizing Aramco. The Kingdom depends upon Aramco for nine-tenths of its government revenue, and last year’s oil price collapse starkly demonstrates the need for long-term economic diversification.
Latest Hillary Clinton Email Dump Reveals Suggested Push For Palestinian Protests
By Clare M. Lopez
Center for Security Policy
January 21, 2016
Hillary Clinton’s personal email server continues to yield a treasure trove of information. Most recently, a series of emails suggest Clinton had considered a plan to incite Palestinian protests against Israel. The email, surfacing thanks to the dogged efforts of Judicial Watch, is an 18 December 2011 message from former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Pickering in which he suggests that then-Secretary of State Clinton should consider a plan to re-energize the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by inciting Palestinians to ‘non-violent’ demonstrations and protests against Israel.
A Method to the Madness: The Logic of Russia’s Syrian Counterinsurgency Strategy
By John R. Haines
Foreign Policy Research Institute
Asked about Russia’s Syrian intervention, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acerbically turned on President Vladimir Putin, whom he and others seem to regard as Geopolitical Russia incarnate. “What his long term plan is, I’m not sure he has one. I think he is kind of winging this day to day,” Mr. Clapper said, adding that Mr. Putin is “very impulsive and opportunistic.” Former ambassador Michael McFaul likewise wrote in a jeering New York Times op-ed, “Mr. Putin is adept at short-term tactical responses to setbacks, but less talented at long-term strategy.” Responding to the caustic appraisal of these two respected figures requires an argument with several parts. One of these parts — delineating the contours of Russian geopolitical objectives in Syria — is best evinced by the facts on the ground.
Turkey and Russia’s Proxy War and the Kurds
By Gökhan Bacik
German Marshall Fund
January 21, 2016
Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet has resulted in dramatic changes between those two states. But while it was an extraordinary development, the paradigmatic shift between Turkey and Russia is not a result of this incident. Both countries had already been heading in different and opposing directions in foreign policy; the jet affair has only triggered both states’ embrace of bellicose positions on regional politics.
Sisi’s Fracturing Regime
By Eric Trager
January 22, 2016
Monday marks the fifth anniversary of the Jan. 25, 2011, protests that sparked Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising, and the Egyptian government is on edge. Fearing that activists will use the occasion to launch a new round of mass protests, the regime has intensified its crackdown on oppositionists in recent weeks, arresting members of prominent revolutionary organizations, anti-government Facebook page administrators, and critical journalists. The regime has also taken its fight to the mosques, with the minister of Islamic endowments decreeing that protesting on Jan. 25 “contravenes sharia law, as it drags Egyptians into violence.”