The disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought to the forefront an open secret in Washington: Saudi Arabia is spending heavily to influence the nation’s capital.
Since Khashoggi disappeared after walking into the Saudi consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2, lobbying firms that work on behalf of the Saudi government have found themselves under increasing scrutiny.
The Saudis have poured money into lobbying for decades, but the numbers increased dramatically under the Trump Administration.
According to data compiled by the Center for International Policy, a foreign policy think tank, that was provided to TIME, the Saudi government spent $10 million on lobbying in 2016. By 2017, that number had nearly tripled, increasing to almost $27 million.
Dr. Ben Freeman, director and founder of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, said that the Saudi government saw an opening for improved relations with Trump’s presidency, and immediately began investing — both monetarily and diplomatically.
“The Saudis had a pretty strained relationship with Obama,” said Freeman, noting that the Saudis weren’t happy wth the Iran deal. “But with Trump I think they saw the opportunity for a pretty important reset in US-Saudi relations, and really for Trump they had someone who was already pretty biased to their point of view.”
Trump’s fondness towards Saudi Arabia was also reflected in his policies; he made a point of improving diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia once he took office. But Freeman said he believes it was Trump’s business interests that motivated the Saudi Arabian government to increase their lobbying efforts once he became President.
“He had these personal business connections that I think the Saudis were pretty prepared to capitalize on,” said Freeman.
Trump has denied he has any financial interests in Saudi Arabia, calling such allegations “fake news.” Although the Trump Organization has no properties in Saudi Arabia, Trump himself has said their real estate purchases benefit him. “I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me, they spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much,” he said of Saudi Arabians at a campaign rally in Alabama in 2015.
Over the years, Trump has had a number of business dealings with Saudis. In 1991, he sold a yacht named the Trump Princess to Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in 1991, in 2001 the Saudi government bought an entire floor of the Trump World Tower in New York and in 2016 business from the Saudis at the Trump hotel in Chicago helped offset losses there from reduced bookings. On Wednesday, 11 Democratic Senators sent s letter to the President and the Trump Organization requesting a full disclosure of their ties to Saudi Arabia.
But Saudi influence operations in the United States aren’t just limited to Trump. In fact, they’re a bipartisan affair.
The more than 15 firms the Saudi government employed in the last two years — according to those who have registered under the Foreign Agent Registration Act — span both sides of the aisle.
Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman is Senior Counsel of Hogan Lovells, which received over $1 million from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in both 2016 and 2017, according to CIP data. Joel Johnson, a former aide to Bill Clinton, founded both the Glover Park Group and the Harbour Group. Both of those groups were among those to cut ties with the Saudis. But the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, which entered into a contract with Saudi Arabia in September of 2016 for $100,000 month, currently employs former House Speaker John Boehner and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and previously employed in the past White House Counsel Don McGahn.
In addition to Glover Park Group and the Harbour Group, BGR also reportedly severed ties with Saudi Arabia in the past week. The others did not respond to request for comment or said they would be continuing.
Saudi’s influence also extends beyond lobbying. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the kingdom was the largest single source of investor funding for startups in Silicon Valley, with Salman directing investments totaling $11 billon since 2016. Some of the United States’ biggest financial institutions, like J.P. Morgan and BlackRock, have been doing business with Saudi Arabia for years. Khashoggi’s disappearance coincides with an investor conference in Saudi Arabia that was designed to host the major players in the finance world, although several, including JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, have pulled out. On Thursday morning, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also backed out.
In the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers voiced disapproval with Saudi Arabia and said there must be immediate action. A bipartisan group of 22 Senators sent a letter to President Trump on October 10 triggering an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Some lawmakers were more mum, however, on the Saudi’s financial influence.
“I don’t know — let me think about that,” Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy told TIME on Wednesday when asked if lobbying firms should continue to work on behalf of Saudi Arabia. “Everyone has the right to petition the government but I don’t know about that.”
Freeman, for one, thinks this crisis ultimately won’t make much of a difference when it comes to their sphere of influence.
“I think ultimately we’re [going to] see the Saudis do what they always do and thats double down in times of crisis,” he said, noting that they went on a lobbying spree after 9/11, after it was discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if we saw more firms sign with Saudi Arabia.”
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