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.