Saudi Arabia hopes to buy a new image, but will it work?
Real life, as we know, can be stranger than fiction. So, if the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s current, frenetic hiring spree of Washington lobby and public relations firms were the subject of a satirical novel it would be judged too far-fetched. This year, Saudi Arabia is conservatively estimated to be paying more than $20 million to K Street denizens to polish the desert kingdom’s tarnished image among American lawmakers and the media.
The most recent addition to a long list, according to the website Intercept.com, which tracks money and influence in politics, was BGR Government Affairs, founded by the former Republican Chairman Haley Barbour. BGR was one of five firms hired in 2015, and its reported $500,000 a year fee is a drop in the oil bucket compared to the astronomical sums paid to other firms on both sides of the political picture.
The Saudis are also clients of Qorvis MLS Group, the embassy’s prime contractor; the The Podesta Group, a lobbying firm with close ties to the Hillary Clinton campaign (Tony Podesta, who heads the firm, is the brother of John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign), DLA Piper, and Pillsbury Winthrop.
The campaign coincides with the new monarch, King Salman, ascending the throne and pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy in the region at the expense of the decades- old practice of following America’s lead. The Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, and Obama’s recent remark that Saudi Arabia and Iran should “share the neighborhood,” disagreements over Syria’s civil war, and Saudi Arabia’s disastrous Yemen offensive, alleged Saudi financial support for the Jihadists of al- Nusra, al-Qaida and ISIS, and the reduction of Saudi leverage from falling oil prices and U.S. declining dependence on oil, Saudi Arabia’s economic lifeline are all factors in the increased tension on the old alliance.
In addition, the enhanced reach of social media has placed the Saudi human rights record under unprecedented scrutiny even as the number of beheadings and whippings has spiked, as in the case of the blogger Raif Badawi sentenced to 1,000 lashes and the recent street beheading of a Burmese woman.
Ironically, an extensive and skillful use of Twitter and other social media is part of the new Saudi image enhancing strategy, along with lobbying Congress, engaging in dialogue with foreign policy experts, lavish receptions and trips to Saudi Arabia.
But is it money well spent? An essentially hostile Congress seems bent on legislation that would hold Saudi Arabia responsible for having a role in the 9/11 terrorist attack (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis). Reports on President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia earlier in April did not hide the fact that the desert atmosphere was as cold as an Arctic winter.
But the Saudis have another, more potent, hold on Western governments – the prospect of lucrative arms purchases. For all the lack of bi-lateral warmth the Obama administration has since 2010 sold $108 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh, which is way more than the “friendly” George W. Bush administration’s $16 billion.
This sidebar appeared in the May 2016 issue of Washington Life.