Saudi lobbying effort in the US reaches out beyond the Beltway

Lobbying efforts in the US capital remain essential in the Saudi PR strategy. The grassroots outreach programme is coupled with a lobbying effort targeting members of Congress and their staffers using feedback from their local constituencies to buttress Saudi arguments.
Monday 19/04/2021
The flag of Saudi Arabia flies above the Saudi Arabia embassy near the Watergate Complex in Washington. (REUTERS)
The flag of Saudi Arabia flies above the Saudi Arabia embassy near the Watergate Complex in Washington. (REUTERS)

Washington - A soon-to-be published report by The Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Centre for International Policy (CIP) argues that the focus of Saudi Arabia’s lobbying effort in the United States has shifted from traditional work within the American capital to outreach programmes in various US states.

Since being posted to Washington in 2019, Saudi ambassador Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud has begun “a campaign of courting Main Street America,” in states with traditional ties to Saudi Arabia such as Main, Iowa, Alaska and Texas.

The outreach programme includes influential business groups, community leaders and local figures with “star power” in the various states.

An example was the Saudi envoy’s speaking in July 2020 at a virtual event hosted with the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Des Moines International Trade Council and the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Also speaking during the event was Hall Delano Roosevelt, the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the CEO of the US-Saudi Business Council.

To organise their beyond-the-Beltway effort, the Saudi government signed contracts with experienced and well-heeled firms such the Larson Shannahan Slifka Group, known as LS2. The company presents itself as a “bipartisan public relations, government affairs, public affairs, and marketing firm headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.”

For about $126,500 a month, the firm has that said it organised more than 1,600 political activities on behalf of their Saudi clients “more, that is, than all the other firms working for the Saudis combined in 2020,” said the report.

The effort deployed outside of Washington DC seeks to highlight “the importance of the 75-year relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States”, all aspects of bilateral cooperation and the progress made by Riyadh as part of “Vision 2030,” the plan heralded by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman as he pushed for modernisation and diversification of resources by the Kingdom.

Lobbying efforts in the US capital remain essential in the Saudi PR strategy. The grassroots outreach programme is coupled with a lobbying effort targeting members of Congress and their staffers using feedback from their local constituencies to buttress Saudi arguments.

The Hogan Lovells firm working for Riyadh is finessing the inroads made by the Saudi image building effort in the US hinterland to fashion tailored messages addressed to US members of Congress.

The key issues for members of Congress and US decision makers are relatively predictable. They often have to do with such issues as US arms sales to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war, its human rights record and the impact of Saudi oil policies on the US energy sector.

Last March, the Saudi ambassador held a conference call to explain Saudi oil policies to a group of US Senators. The effort arranged by the lobbying firm Hogan Lovells pitched a central message: “Saudi Arabia has not, and will not, seek to intentionally damage US shale oil producers.”

“By enlisting trusted community members across the US to help peddle the best possible version of the Kingdom, the Saudi lobby has given its brand a home-grown, American-as-apple-pie shine,” wrote recently Ben Freeman the the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative and researchers Brian Steiner and Leila Riazi in a newspaper article introducing their forthcoming report.

“At a moment when the Biden administration and Congress are weighing the future of the US-Saudi partnership, the value of such an image shouldn’t be underestimated,” they added.

Saudi lobbying effort is a traditional fixture in US-Saudi relations. Amid the White House transition from Republicans to Democrats and the changes in the balance of power on Capitol Hill, experts see Riyadh as betting on the long-term resilience of US-Saudi partnership.

Such a relationship continues to loom large in Saudi security and stability prospects considering the ongoing challenges which Riyadh faces. In tackling such challenges, many of which are the focus of American attention, such as Iran’s activities in the region and fluctuations of the oil market, Riyadh is bound to continue working on its image in the US at the same time it pursues its policies and interests within the Beltway and beyond.