WASHINGTON: By any standard, the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia is a brutal one. In October, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The U.N., after investigating the murder, concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the grisly killing and dismemberment. The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies came to the same conclusion. Yet Saudi Arabia’s influence grows in Washington despite that country’s brutal regime.
In early July, Reporters Without Borders, which advocates for press freedom, increased pressure on Saudi Arabia to release dozens of journalists currently detained in the country and to relax its suppression of the news media and dissenting voices.
Saudi Arabia’s influence – and lobbying efforts – continue to grow in Washington, D.C.
Saudi Arabia has a bleak human rights record and permits no religious freedom. Arbitrary detention of journalists and human rights activists is the norm. Several prominent women’s rights activists have been held and were reportedly tortured after their arrest last year.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen called for airstrikes that killed thousands of civilians. Subsequently, the U.N. found this action violated international law. Yet the U.S. has been selling Saudi Arabia billions of dollars in arms to conduct this war.
Recently, Republicans and Democrats sought to limit arms sales to the Saudi regime. They were unsuccessful, in large measure because the Washington swamp remains alive and well. Saudi Arabia fields an army of Washington lobbyists who work hand-in-hand with lobbyists for America’s defense industry to make sure such sales continue.
“The Saudis lost some lobbyists last year, but the firms still working for them went into overdrive,” said Ben Freeman, who tracks foreign influence in Washington for the Center for International Policy. There’s still no punishment for them,and the lobby is a key part of making it happen.”
Saudi lobbying efforts continue to grow. In February, they hired Karv Communications, a New York public relations firm run by Andrew Frank. Frank previously worked at the U.S.Information Agency (USIA) in the Clinton Administration. Karv Communications has been paid $340,000 thus far, according to the Washington Post.
Saudi PR and propaganda spending increases
Saudi Arabia is one of the highest spending countries seeking to influence U.S. policy. The country ranks fifth in an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. Approximately 20 firms are registered to lobby for Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s standing in Washington has been strengthened by the relationship between the crown prince and Jared Kushner, a senior a White House adviser and son-in-law of President Trump. Mohammed and Kushner have worked together closely since early in the administration, and the president made Saudi Arabia the destination of his first foreign trip.
According to the Huffington Post, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this May that Kushner had cut him and other top diplomats out of talks with Saudi leaders, including the crown prince.
Tillerson was fired by President Trump in March 2018.
Trump showed strong support for Saudi Arabia at the 2019 G-20 summit of world leaders in Osaka, Japan. While he said he was “very angry” at the Kashoggi murder, he declines to place responsibility on the crown prince. This despite the fact that the U.N. and U.S. intelligence agencies hold the prince responsible for the brutal murder Khashoggi.
The Senate weighs in against Saudi Arabia’s influence, but to no avail
The U.S. Senate voted in December to condemn the Saudi crown prince over the Khashoggi murder. But that body did not follow up with additional sanctions. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) recently reintroduced the idea.
He lamented Trump’s declaration that it was “an honor” to meet with the Saudi prince at the G-20 meeting.
”The president’s praise for MBS who U.S. Intel says ordered or authorized the murder of a…Saudi dissident sends the wrong message to the world. It’s past time for Congress and the administration to impose sanctions for the murder of Jamal Kashoggi.”
Yet even Romney later backed away from pressing for sanctions.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-SC, a frequent defender of the president, has been one of the few Republican legislators to publicly cite the U.N. report linking the Saudi royal family to the Kashoggi murder. In no uncertain terms, he directly condemned the crown prince during a June confirmation hearing for Kelly Kraft, the president’s nominee to be ambassador to the U.N.
“There’s no amount of oil coming out of Saudi Arabia and there’s no threat from Iran that’s going to get me back off.”
Prince Muhammad bin Salman and the current administration remain good buddies,
It is difficult to understand what Trump was thinking at the G-20 meeting. He referred to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman as a “friend” “ who is “doing a spectacular job.” Other than Saudi Arabia’s army of highly paid lobbyists in Washington, no one in either party has expressed support for this assessment of a brutal and repressive leader.
Congress in general regards MBS as guilty not only of the murder of Jamal Kashoggi but the jailing and torture of dissidents and women’s rights advocates. And what many view as a campaign of genocide in Yemen.
However, we must ask what the president is thinking by embracing such an individual, a tyrant who represents the opposite of our own values. The president owes us an explanation. His references to billion-dollar arms deals will not do.
— Headline image: Promotional image of Jamal Khashoggi.