To counter Iranian rival, Saudi Arabia steps up Washington lobbying

Saudi officials feel slighted by the Obama administration's pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran. In a shift, Saudi lobbyists are targeting Congress and news organizations. 

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal in Vienna on January 16.

The slickly choreographed video is classic war propaganda: missiles destroying homes, bodies in a bombed-out crater, small children lie wounded on a hospital floor.

The video, distributed by Saudi-funded PR companies and shown to congressional staffers, then lays the blame for all the carnage and death on one country: Iran.

It’s part of a widening PR and lobbying campaign by Saudi Arabia to influence lawmakers and US media outlets. And it speaks to the frustrations of Saudi rulers with the Obama administration over last year’s nuclear deal with Iran and its policy in Syria.

But putting a positive spin on Saudi Arabia’s own image is a lot harder than attacking its political rival Iran. Moreover, there’s skepticism that its new barrage of lobbying in Washington – Saudi Arabia was the fourth largest spender among foreign nations in 2015 – will restore the close bilateral ties that Saudi rulers crave.

For much of the past century, Saudi kings had close, direct ties to US presidents, consummating a marriage of convenience between US arms sales and Saudi oil wealth. This has translated into Middle East policies closely aligned with Saudi interests. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, ambassador to the US during 1983-2005, was fondly referred to as “Bandar Bush” for his personal ties to two Bush presidents.

But amid a cooling of ties with the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia is determined to build a PR and lobbying army to sway not only the White House – including the next occupant – but also Congress and the broader public.

Over the past 16 months, Saudi Arabia has signed on several high-profile PR firms and lobbyists from both sides of the aisle. Many boast strong ties to current lawmakers and presidential candidates.

They are promising to give Riyadh a media makeover and to shore up support in both the House and the Senate for its anti-Iran agenda. Another priority is keeping US arms flowing to Saudi forces embroiled in a protracted and ruinous war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia committed $11 million in direct lobbying in 2015, according to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) registry.

Much of this spending relates to Iran and trying to counter any détente between Washington and Tehran. For example, former Senator Norm Coleman was paid in 2014 for “providing representation … regarding legal and policy developments involving Iran and limiting Iranian nuclear capability,” according to a FARA disclosure.

In March 2015, the Saudi embassy in Washington contracted to pay $50,000 a month to law firm DLA Piper to reach out to members of Congress and congressional staff to “advance mutual national security interests.”

Keeping up pressure on Iran

Since the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia has turned its efforts from preventing the deal to limiting its impact in terms of sanctions relief and other concessions.

“The Iranian nuclear deal is a fact, and cannot be stopped and Saudi has recognized that. But there may be efforts by Saudi Arabia to maintain pressure on Iran,” says Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi Arabia and professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University.

The lobbying extends to US media outlets. By providing media time and interviews for pro-Saudi analysts, sponsoring op-eds, and hosting congressional aids at lavish gala dinners – including one attended by King Salman himself last September – the anti-Iran messaging is amplified.

Saudi lobbyists are urging US lawmakers to push for fresh sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and to block the Obama administration from lifting further sanctions.

“We are hearing concerns that this released money is going straight into the hands of Iran-sponsored terrorists, both from our allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, and we are listening,” says a congressional source.  

Muted debate over Yemen crisis

In recent months, both Britain and Canada have witnessed lively parliamentary and public debates over the ethics of arming Saudi forces in Yemen. But similar pushback has been muted in Washington, even as human rights groups point to the deaths of more than 2,500 Yemeni civilians and a humanitarian crisis.

“Yemen is a problem for Saudi Arabia that it has gotten away with so far in the Western media,” says Simon Henderson, Saudi Arabia specialist and director of the Gulf Energy and Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In March 2015, just before it began bombing rebels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and lobby firm Qorvis inked a deal with Targeted Victory, a digital strategy firm cofounded by Republican National Committee official Michael Beach, for “promotion of Saudi Arabia.” The campaign has targeted the media, Congress, and analysts and produced a web portal called Arabia Now that puts a positive spin on the Saudi war.

Now Saudi Arabia is lobbying to speed up a $1.29 billion purchase of smart bombs that the State Department approved last November. It is widely believed that the deal aims to replenish Saudi’s arsenal, which has been exhausted by its 10-month war in Yemen.

Last month Saudi Arabia also scored an apparent PR victory by depicting Iran as “hostile” in the row over the execution by Saudi Arabia of a leading Shiite cleric in January.

By bombarding US media outlets with interviews over the storming of its embassy in Tehran, observers say Riyadh largely succeeded in shifting the focus from its execution to Iran’s retaliation.  

Challenges at home

In lobbying Washington, Saudi Arabia’s greatest challenges are arguably at home.

Among the US public and in Congress, there is abiding suspicion of Saudi extremism and links to Islamic terrorism dating back to the involvement of Saudi nationals in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Its image is further hurt by a poor record on human rights. Recent examples include the imprisonment and flogging of Raid Badawi, a Saudi blogger, the public beheading and crucifixion of prisoners, and the fact that women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. A million-dollar media campaign can’t erase these impressions, say analysts.

“These incidents just don’t go down well with either the Washington policy community or the general US public, which is still suspicious of Saudi Arabia,” says Mr. Henderson.

Still, that won’t stop Saudi Arabia from trying to influence Washington, given its deep pockets and the fact that it sees few other options.

“There is a consensus among Saudi officials that there is an impasse with the Obama administration and the real focus is on 2017,” says Fahad Nazer, former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington. “There is hope that by ‘telling their story’ to the US public and Congress, Saudi Arabia’s position will be stronger.” 

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