From Dr Hamid Hussain.
Last few years I have been working on horizontal and vertical spread of conflict in the Middle East. This is first of the series looking at each player. This one was the outcome of my own trips to Washington every few months to get some feel of beltway currents. I have no specific insight but want to provide some glimpses of the issues facing the region.
“I have had lobbyists, and I have had some very good ones. They could do anything.” Donald Trump
In United States, domestic and foreign entities engage in lobbying at federal and state levels to promote their interests. In the last few years, many Arab countries have increased their lobbying efforts in Washington to promote their interests. In 2017, open conflict between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain on the other has spilled over into international arenas. In Washington, these efforts are multi-faceted including marshalling support of large businesses, think tanks, universities, legislators and public policy influencers.
The meteoric rise of a 30-year-old previously unknown royal family member to the dizzying height and sidelining of the old hands of Royal family in Saudi Arabia changed power dynamics inside the kingdom. This resulted in some competition even in Washington. Crown Prince and interior minister Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef hired a lobbying firm run by a Trump campaign advisor Robert Stryk. The firm was paid $5.4 million to make inroads into new administration. However, in June 2017 when Muhammad Bin Nayef was removed from his positions and Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) elevated as Crown Prince, the deal ended. MBS alienated many royal family members but for international image, he used others. Old hand and once a long-time ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar Bin Sultan quickly changed his direction and lined up behind MBS. During MBS visit to United States, Bandar was at hand to bring in his old contacts. Bandar’s daughter Princess Reema provided the soft and feminine face for the new regime on international circuit defending royal family in Washington and Davos. Full brother and close confidant of MBS Prince Khalid Bin Salman was appointed ambassador to Washington. Saudi embassy chose an American raised and educated Saudi-American Fatima Baeshen as its spokeswoman. She had previously worked at a pro Saudi think tank Arabia Foundation run by a former banker Ali Shihabi. (Bloomberg Businessweek, 26 April 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-26/saudi-arabia-reboots-its-washington-lobbying-blitz)
In the winter of 2015, after launching an ill-thought assault on Yemen, Saudi Arabia increased its lobbying effort in Washington. In the second quarter of 2015 alone, one lobbying firm Qorvis was paid $ 7 million. In 2015, total Saudi lobbying spending in Washington was over $14 million and in 2017, it almost doubled to $27 million. In the spring of 2018, Saudi ambassador Prince Khalid Bin Sultan had a meeting at the embassy with Norman Coleman, Marc Lampkin and Alfred Mottur. Who are these gentlemen? Coleman is a former senator from Minnesota who co-founded a super Political Action Committee (PAC) American Action Network with then House Speaker Paul Ryan. His lobbying firm Hogan Lovells represents Saudi government and received $1.5 million in 2018 for the services. Lampkin has experience on Capitol Hill and served on President Trump’s transition team and Mottur is a democratic strategist. Lampkin and Mottur work for lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. (The Washington Post, 21 October 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/inside-the-saudis-washington-influence-machine-how-the-kingdom-gained-power-through-fierce-lobbying-and-charm-offensives/2018/10/21/8a0a3320-d3c3-11e8-a275-81c671a50422_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7346b5286687) Lobbying efforts paid when a resolution in senate condemning Saudi assault on Yemen was defeated and Crown Prince made a very successful unprecedented three weeks visit of United States.
Several other firms including Podesta Group headed by Tony Podesta whose brother John Podesta was President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, McKeon Group headed by former Republican House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon, Squire Patton Boggs (Patton’s father was democratic house majority leader and when he died in a plane crash, Patton’s mother became Congresswoman), Harbour Group and Glover Park Group were lobbyists for Saudi interests.
Saudis hosted several journalists and influencers for lavish trips including meetings with Crown Prince. The list includes Thomas Friedman, David Ignatius and Denis Ross. Opinion pieces penned by them after the trips were all praise for Saudi Arabia.
UAE coordinates its lobbying efforts with Saudi Arabia. UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba is one the most influential envoys. He is close to Abu Dhabi crown prince Muhammad Bin Zayd nick named MBZ. During his decade long stint in Washington, he has developed personal relations with senior government officials. He is close to Jared Kushner and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. UAE has contract with Harbour Group for $5 million annual fees. Otaiba was instrumental in guiding UAE and Saudi lobbying efforts in Washington.
Qatar is a small sheikhdom but with deep pockets and close association with United States that has been punching way above its weight in regional and international affairs. Qatar hired former Republican John Ashcroft’s firm for a $2.5 million retainer. Ashcroft is a former governor, senator and served as George Bush’s attorney general. Qatar also hired Avenue Strategies and Stonington Strategies. Avenue was run by Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Barry Bennett and was paid $2.3 million for a six months work. Stonington is run by Nick Muzin who had worked on Trump’s campaign and worked for Qatar for a $150’000 per month retainer. (Associated Press, 30 March 2018, https://www.apnews.com/b2d5003280e343a88985d784e9060586) Qatar also hired another Trump associate Brian Ballard for a $175’000 a month retainer. Icing on the cake was when Qatar bought four apartments in Trump Tower New York with the price tag of $16.5 million. (The Guardian, 04 May 2018)
The most controversial and disturbing trend is financing of think tanks where advocacy and research is mixed up. Qatar is the single largest foreign donor to Bookings and gave $14.8 million. One visiting fellow of Brookings said that during his job interview, he was told that he could not take positions critical of Qatari government. The contract itself is very explicit stating that ‘the center will assume its role in reflecting the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones’. UAE has been relying on Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to safeguard its interests. It paid CSIS to arrange for trips of US national security personnel to UAE as well as organize lecture series to give favorable picture of UAE. It gave $1 million to CSIS to refurbish its headquarters. (The New York Times, 07 September 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/us/politics/foreign-powers-buy-influence-at-think-tanks.html) UAE also gave $20 million to Middle East Institute (MEI) in 2016-17. The agreement gave MEI the task of countering ‘egregious misperceptions about the region, inform U.S. government policy makers, and convene regional leaders for discreet dialogue on pressing issues. (The Intercept, 09 August 2017 https://theintercept.com/2017/08/09/gulf-government-gave-secret-20-million-gift-to-d-c-think-tank/) Small players like pro Saudi Arabia Foundation and pro-Qatar Washington Gulf International Forum also opened shops in Washington DC to influence policy makers.
It is very clear from the financial agreements of foreign governments with think tanks that the products generated from experts will be skewed in favor of the clients. No one will pay an entity that churns out critical articles or op-eds. One example clarifies this point. In 2011, Atlantic Council established Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East with a generous grant from Bahaa Hariri. Atlantic Council chose a veteran Middle East specialist Michele Dunne as its founding director. In 2013, after the Egyptian military coup, she signed a petition and testified before Senate Foreign Relations Committee calling for suspension of military aid to Egypt. Bahaa called Atlantic Council and complained. Four months later, Michelle was out the door and replaced by former US ambassador to Egypt during Hosni Mubarak rule Francis Ricciardone Jr. (The New York Times, 07 September 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/us/politics/foreign-powers-buy-influence-at-think-tanks.html)
The case of Elliott Broidy sheds some light on the complex world of business and politics. He is former Vice Chair of National Republican Committee finance committee and a Republican fund raiser. He also served as Trump’s advisor. He ran a defense company Circinus LLC with his business partner George Nader who was advisor to UAE Crown Prince MBZ. Broidy arranged for Trump’s meetings with MBZ. After Trump’s election, Circinus with previous record of only $7000 worth of contract with Pentagon received a $3.9 million contract from U.S. army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM). However, it received an eye popping $600 million intelligence contract from UAE. (Newsweek, 22 May 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/rnc-contract-million-middle-east-trump-939449)
Like many Trump’s associates, Broidy and Nader caught up in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Nader is serving a prison term for child pornography charge and Broidy is under a federal grand jury investigation.
Saudis used a multi-pronged approach to shape a favorable American public opinion. Financial support was given to NGOs such as Clinton Foundation and think tanks including CSIS and Atlantic Council. A new think tank Arab Gulf States Institute was established in Washington. QORVIS was hired for a public relations campaign and to manage websites, media and engaged in congressional outreach. It also brought Saudi officials for talks at think tanks and meeting elected officials. QORVIS hired Targeted Victory run by a former Republican strategist Zac Moffatt to manage a new online news portal Arabia Now. For these services, Qorvis received $7 million for a six months work in 2015. (Lee Fang. Inside Saudi Arabia’s Campaign to charm American policy makers and journalists. The Intercept, 01 December 2015, https://theintercept.com/2015/12/01/inside-saudi-charm-campaign/) Saudis also hired Republican lobbyist Richard Hohlt and for a six months work, he was paid $430’000 in 2017. Trump later appointed Hohlt to President’s Commission on White House fellowships.
(https://publicintegrity.org/federal-politics/trump-appointee-is-a-saudi-government-lobbyist/). In the last twelve years, Saudi Arabia gave $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown universities and $10 million to Yale Law school. In October 2018, murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi consulate in Istanbul severely damaged Saudi brand and many moved away from Saudi Arabia.
UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side and Qatar on the other are also fighting their battle on Washington front. They used high ticket defense purchase items to curry favors from new administration. The Intercept received leaked e-mails of UAE’s ambassador to Washington al-Otaiba planning to wreak financial havoc on Qatar in cooperation with a Luxembourg based bank Banque Havilland. (https://theintercept.com/2017/11/09/uae-qatar-oitaba-rowland-banque-havilland-world-cup/) In the summer of 2017, when Saudi Arabia and UAE unleashed complete boycott of tiny Qatar, the shaky ruling emir was deeply worried about U.S. throwing its lot in favor of its adversaries. Qatar opened its own treasure chest and signed a $12 billion deal for F-15s fighter jets followed by another $500 million deal for helicopter guidance system and missiles. Six months after the blockade, according to a Congressional Research Service report, Qatar had become the second largest U.S. foreign military sales customer with $25 billion worth of new orders. (https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R44533/38) In 2018, Trump brought charts of Saudi shopping list worth billions of dollars during press briefing at White House sitting next to MBS.
Ironically, both parties hired pro-Israel lobbyists and prominent conservative Jewish figures in United States. Board member of Republican Jewish Coalition and a top fundraiser for Trump, Elliott Broidy was in Saudi Arabia and UAE corner. Broidy’s business partner Nader funded a $2.5 million campaign in Washington to sponsor a conference that accused Qatar as sponsor of terrorism (Associated Press, 30 March 2018, https://www.apnews.com/b2d5003280e343a88985d784e9060586) When Emir of Qatar was attending UN general assembly session in New York, Broidy convinced many Jewish leaders not to meet him.
In November 2017, at the annual gala of The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a former Qatari diplomat and head of $100 billion division of country’s sovereign wealth fund Qatar Investments Ahmad al-Rumaihi was a guest. It was quite unusual as merely six months earlier, ZOA had lobbied U.S. government to designate Qatar as sponsor of terrorism and asked Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to bar Qatar Airways from flying in the United States. The story could be a good plot for a Hollywood thriller. Al-Rumaihi was invited by a New York restaurateurs Joey Allaham; a Syrian born Sephardic Jew working as Qatar’s lobbyist joining hands with a well-connected player Nick Muzin; an orthodox Jew. The duo arranged for influential Jewish figures to travel to Qatar and arranged meetings with high Qatari officials. The list includes ZOA President Mort Klein, Chairman of Religious Zionists of America Martin Oliner, Executive Vice Chairman of Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein, head of Orthodox Union Kosher Division Rabbi Menachem Genack and well-known Trump and Bibi Netanyahu supporter Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. In Doha, Dershowitz met with Emir, his mother, foreign minister, attorney general and Qatari ambassador to Gaza. How such contacts pay dividends is clear from the fact that on return from Doha, Dershowitz wrote an op-ed that shocked many. He declared that ‘Qatar is quickly becoming the Israel of the Gulf States’ and ‘surrounded by enemies, subject to boycotts and unrealistic demands, and struggling for its survival’. It was not incidental that in April 2018 Dershowitz spent the whole day at White House the day the Emir of Qatar was meeting with President Trump. Mort Klein who had been busy for several years working to have Qatar declared as sponsor of terrorism praised Qatar for flying Israeli flag on its soil at a handball tournament. Emir of Qatar’s younger brother was a guest at the wedding of Hoenlein’s daughter. (Mother Jones, 13 June 2018, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/06/joey-allaham-nick-muzin-qatar-jewish-leaders/)
Mort Klein who had been advocating sanctioning of Qatar for providing support to terrorists fell in love with Qatari pajamas provided by Qatar airways for his trip. He told a reporter, “The airline had great service. They handed out pajamas, the softest I ever felt. I wear them every night”. (https://www.jta.org/2018/02/13/politics/why-are-jewish-leaders-fighting-about-qatar-heres-a-scorecard) Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera had completed a documentary about pro-Israel lobby in United Kingdom (UK) and United States. UK addition was aired in January 2017 to be followed by U.S. edition. Then Qatar blockade happened, and Emir was urged by many high-profile Jewish visitors to the sheikhdom to stop the documentary. It was never released, and director Clayton Swisher wrote an op-ed for liberal Jewish publication Forward explaining the whole saga. (Forward, 08 March 2018, https://forward.com/opinion/396203/we-made-a-documentary-exposing-the-israel-lobby-why-hasnt-it-run/)
Courting of Jewish influencers caused a civil war among conservative Jews each party accusing the other of hurting Jewish and Israeli interests. (Ron Kampeas provides details of this civil war in a piece for Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 13 February 2018, https://www.jta.org/2018/02/13/politics/why-are-jewish-leaders-fighting-about-qatar-heres-a-scorecard) Arabs in general have an exaggerative perception of Jewish influence on United States policy. This was the main reason that they preferred Jewish interlocuters to the administration.
Lobbying is a legal activity in United States and every country has right to use this legal instrument to advance its interests. Disclosure laws shed some light on these interactions, but they need to be strengthened. One example is that a lobbyist contacts a legislature on behalf of a foreign government and in many cases donates to the political campaign of the same legislature, sometimes the same day. The most troublesome relationship is between foreign governments and think tanks. There needs to more transparency in such transactions. An ethical code from medical field could be borrowed for the think tanks. A medical speaker or author is required to disclose his financial interests with industry. Similarly, a think tank scholar presenting or publishing his work should be required to disclose the donors to the think tank. In this way audience can have this information and able to make their own assessment about the opinion of the author. This is crucial for the think tanks if they want to be viewed as independent bodies and not viewed as simply another re-incarnation of a lobbying firm.
On part of Arabs, it is tragic that the younger generation has embarked on another round of a destructive course. They could have been a hope for the future using their enormous resources and goodwill to help in conflict resolution. They could have genuinely worked on building bridge between Arabs and Israelis and start putting building blocks for a future of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. It is never too late to pull back and reflect on one’s actions and change the course.
“Too often government responds to whispers of lobbyist before the cries of the people”. Andrew Cuomo
Disclosure: Author has no financial disclosures to report related to opinion expressed in this piece.
29 July 2019