The Obama administration has signaled a new effort to partner with the Saudi Arabian government as its key ally in the region against the Sunni militia group in Syria and Iraq known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to Jeddah for a heavily symbolic meeting with the Saudi king on the September 11 anniversary this fall.
At the same time, however, Washington remains saturated with Saudi money and the influence it buys, even as the US economy’s dependence on imports of Saudi crude oil has waned.
The Saudi lobbying presence manifests itself in a variety of ways.
Disclosures show that the latest addition to the Saudi government payroll includes former US Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota who leads one of the largest Super PACs in the country.
Many influential nonprofits in Washington have relied upon Saudi government support. The confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed that the Atlantic Council, a think tank that advises lawmakers on foreign policy, received contributions from Saudi Arabia, among other foreign governments. (Such legally and ethically questionable financial relationships between think tanks and foreign governments were scrutinized in a lengthy New York Times exposé on September 6, 2014, and there is now a move afoot to require disclosure of such ties for congressional testimony.) Hagel previously served as chairman to the organization. The Saudi government has also provided funds to what is now known as the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the Middle East Policy Council, the Middle East Institute and the Smithsonian Freer Museum of Art.
Several organizations connected to the kingdom play an active role in policy debates. Khalid Alnaji, a registered agent of the Saudi government and president of the US subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian national oil company ARAMCO, sits on the board of the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful lobby group that funds several conservative nonprofits and sponsors election-season television advertisements. On September 17, the former Ambassador Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the need to arm Syrian rebel groups.
Throughout the years, Saudi Arabia has retained numerous law and lobbying firms to influence American public opinion and policy.
The contract to work with Coleman was registered in July through Hogan Lovells, a law firm where Coleman has worked since 2011, after being defeated in his re-election campaign in 2008.
In addition to Hogan Lovells, the Saudi government counts several other firms, including Squire Patton Boggs and Qorvis-MSLGROUP, as part of its lobbying operation. As Al-Monitor reported, the Saudi kingdom’s relationship with “Qorvis dates back to 2001, when then-Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan inked a $3.2 million deal for an image makeover after ‘favorability toward Saudi Arabia…declined significantly’ among ‘Washington insiders’ in the wake of the terror attacks.”
Qorvis-MSLGROUP’s latest disclosure reveals that the firm has suggested story ideas to The Weekly Standard and NPR, and pitched other interviews on behalf of the Saudi government. The disclosure also shows that the Saudi Embassy, through Qorvis-MSLGROUP, manages the Twitter account @SyrCoalition, which is touted as the “official” voice of the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad.
What’s notable about the hiring of Coleman is that he appears to be the first leader of a significant Super PAC to simultaneously lobby for a foreign government.
Coleman is the chairman of two groups that have channeled big money into congressional races this year, the American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund. The committees have aired ads in a number of races, and according to a report last week in Politico, the pair will spend over $8.1 million this fall on ten different congressional races to boost Republican candidates. The American Action Network is a 501(c)4 nonprofit, meaning it can engage in election activity without disclosing its donors, while the Congressional Leadership Fund is a registered Super PAC. If the groups make good on their promise to spend over $8 million, they would rank among the top three largest Super PACs in the country this campaign cycle.
Although lobbyists for domestic corporate and union interests have helmed Super PACs and big spending efforts in the past, Coleman’s dual role as a Saudi lobbyist and a leader of the twin campaign entities appears unprecedented.
“Regrettably, even former lawmakers serving as hired guns for foreign governments is not unusual. But this is the first I’ve heard of a revolver serving both on the lobbying side for a foreign government and running a domestic campaign spending operation through a super PAC and dark money nonprofit group, which are not supposed to receive or spend foreign money in our elections,” said Craig Holman, a lobbying expert with Public Citizen, in an e-mail to The Nation. “This type of com[m]ingling of roles is ripe for abuse and is most difficult to monitor,” he added.
In March of this year, Hogan Lovells, which maintains longstanding ties to the Saudi government, renewed its annual contract with the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia for a retainer of $60,000 per month. Four months later, Hogan Lovells filed a form with the Department of Justice, which administers the foreign lobbying registration system, to notify the agency that Coleman would be “providing legal services to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia” on issues including “policy developments involving Iran.”
The firm is also involved in responding to the upheaval in Syria. According to disclosures filed by the firm, Hogan Lovells arranged meetings on behalf of their Saudi clients with the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Congressman Ed Royce, to discuss “Middle East peace issues regarding Syria, Iran, etc.” The documents disclosed by Hogan Lovells make clear the firm engages in a broad array of foreign policy matters on behalf of the embassy, including “advice on legislative, regulatory and public policy activities of interest.”
Saudi Arabia’s interests in the region include the sectarian-motivated campaign of countering the rise of Shiite power. In 2011, Saudi Arabia dispatched soldiers to put down protesting Shiite demonstrators in neighboring Bahrain. With the civil war in Syria, the closest ally to Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia became the largest supplier of weapons to Syrian rebel groups fighting to oust forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As the Obama administration has opened nuclear negotiations with Iran and refused to bomb Assad last year, Saudi Arabia has sought to forcefully shape the conflict in Syria on its own, and has reportedly stepped up weapons shipments to Syrian rebels, including to Islamic militants tied to Al Qaeda and other anti-American forces.
“The Saudis have very generically been interested in maintaining the balance of power in the region, in which they play a predominate role, and their geopolitical interests, in which they counter Iran,” says Toby C. Jones, associate professor of history at Rutgers University. Part of the Saudi Kingdom’s political lobbying in Washington, Jones says, is to maintain “American military assurances to get done what they want done in the region.”
As the Hogan Lovells team continues to engage foreign affairs lawmakers, Coleman’s group has sought the defeat of at least one lawmaker with influence over Saudi Arabia policy. The American Action Network announced that it will spend $750,000 on television advertisements to defeat Congressman Ami Bera, a California Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Coleman’s groups are also planning to oppose Democratic incumbents including Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, Joe Garcia of Florida and Pete Gallego of Texas. The groups will target Virginia Democrat John Foust, who is running for an open seat against Republican candidate Barbara Comstock.
The role of Saudi Arabia as a partner to US efforts to thwart ISIS comes as human rights experts have decried persistent abuses in the country. Human Rights Watch reports that the government has “stepped up arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations by citizens.” The rights of women in Saudi Arabia, who face segregation in public places and are barred from driving cars, rank among the lowest in the world. American policymakers have reacted swiftly to the videotaped beheading of two American journalists by ISIS, but they have been less emphatic in denouncing the Saudi government for the draconian punishments it imposes according to its Wahhabist interpretation of Islamic law. Last month, the Saudi government executed twenty-two people in the span of two weeks, eight of whom were beheaded for crimes as minor as drug trafficking hashish and “sorcery.”
Further questions are also being raised about how Saudi involvement in the Syrian civil war has directly and indirectly assisted the rise of ISIS and other radical groups in Syria. A report this month filed by Conflict Armament Research, a London-based think tank, found that “M79 90 mm anti-tank rockets captured from IS forces in Syria are identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the ‘Free Syrian Army’ umbrella in 2013.” A recent report from Agence France-Presse claimed that some Syrian rebel groups had recently signed a “non-aggression” pact with ISIS. The White House has strenuously denied such a pact exists.
The Saudi kingdom’s “primary interest is in overthrowing Assad,” says Jones, who is also the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. “Who’s most likely to help them accomplish that? The Islamists on the ground, let’s put money into their pockets—and the consequence is ISIS.”
Numerous media reports and social media postings have linked individuals based in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia with efforts to raise money for ISIS. One campaign run by a Saudi sheikh who is based in Syria and “close to Al Qaeda” operates a fundraising drive called “Wage Jihad With Your Money,” promising donors “silver” or “gold status” for those who provide money for bullets or mortar rounds, according to a report in The New York Times. The Saudi government, however, has denied allegations that it has financed terrorist groups such as ISIS.
The funding of ISIS remains a critical issue as the United States prepares to lead an international coalition against the radical group, and recent reports have claimed that private citizens in Saudi Arabia are funneling cash and other resources to the group. In 2010, according to cables released by Wikileaks, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Earlier this year, David S. Cohen, the US Treasury Department’s top official for terrorism and financial intelligence, praised Saudi Arabia for cracking down on Al Qaeda funding sources, but conceded that extremists in Syria have accessed donors in the kingdom and other gulf states.
Still, the United States has embraced plans to elevate the role of Saudi Arabia in the fight against ISIS. On September 10, Saudi officials announced that anti-ISIS fighters will be trained and equipped on a Saudi military base. After President Obama’s speech promising to lead a coalition against ISIS, another Saudi lobbyist, Ayal Frank, who works on behalf of the Saudi embassy through a contract with his employer, Qorvis-MSLGROUP, tweeted: “Fighting & defeating #ISIS across both #Iraq & #Syria will make @BarackObama a great president.” Another registered Saudi lobbyist with Qorvis-MSLGROUP, Matt Lauer, tweeted: “ISIS is reason carpet bombing exists.”
For Coleman, who also serves on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, the job of Saudi lobbyist comes as somewhat of a role reversal from the senator’s work a decade ago. In 2005, Coleman signed onto a congressional letter condemning the Saudi government for distributing publications that preach a “Nazi-like hatred for Jews” and for spreading extremist ideology throughout the world.
Now, he will work to advance Saudi Arabia’s agenda in Washington. Two days after registering to lobby for the Saudi Royal Embassy, Coleman appeared at a foreign policy forum on Capitol Hill at the Hart Senate Building. Video from the event shows Coleman, who invoked the importance of working with Saudi Arabia, identified only as a former lawmaker. Toward the end of his talk, Coleman suggested that the Saudi Ambassador fears a nuclear weapons-armed Iran just as much as Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer. “If you look at the Saudis and the Emiratis, the Israelis on issues of Iran, on issues on what’s happening in Syria, on issues of what’s happening in Iraq, on Hamas, Hezbollah—there is a confluence of interest,” he continued, asking why the United States has not staked out the same positions as its allies. “We should be hand in glove with our allies in the region on these issues.”