Saudi influence: King Abdullah’s K Street connections

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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with red headdress
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Friday President Obama meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, where the two are expected to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and other issues that have frayed the relationship between Washington and its chief allies in the Gulf. Though the meeting offers a chance for some old fashioned face-to-face dialogue, foreign lobbying records collected by the Department of Justice, and compiled by Sunlight, show that the Saudi government doesn’t rely solely on traditional diplomacy when it comes to advancing its interests with the United States.

Saudi interests with government ties have spent millions over the past few years on lobbyists and public relations professionals, who have in turn provided a wide range of services for their clients varying from drafting pamphlets touting the Kingdom’s strides in human rights, legal consultation, arranging meetings with reporters from major news organizations and contacting members of Congress on their clients’ behalf. 

Both governmental bodies and businesses with ties to the royal family have hired influence wielders in Washington: The Saudi government, Saudi Aramco (the state oil company) as well as the Saudi Food and Drug authority are all currently under contract with lobbying or public relations firms.

One of the most prolific of the many Saudi interests is the country’s U.S. Embassy, which spent just over $1.4 million in 2013 on payments to three Washington-area firms: Qorvis Communications LLC ($825,000), Hogan Lovells ($501,000) and Patton Boggs LLP ($105,000).

The six figure outlay paid for newsletters, think tank briefings, contacts with reporters at major news outlets (the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Reuters) and the offices of members of Congress on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.). Those were some of the services Qorvis provided to Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir according to a supplemental form filed last November by the communications firm. In March, Qorvis was accused of going one step further, the Daily Dot reported. Wikipedia users and the site’s founder Jimmy Wales allege the PR firm used “sock puppet” accounts to “deceptively orchestrate an editing bloc … to whitewash the pages of its clients.”

Detailed records of the activities of Qorvis and other lobbyists for interests from abroad are publicly available online thanks to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, which requires public disclosure by firms working for foreign governments, political parties and government-contolled businesses, nonprofits and other entities. Unlike typical domestic lobbying filings, FARA disclosures offer much more detail and include records of contacts with politicians, journalists and others, plus gifts and political contributions made by individual lobbyists.

Thanks to an amended disclosure from 2013 we know that Saudi Refining donated $1 million to the Smithsonian Freer Museum of Art to sponsor a historical exhibit about Saudi Arabia on top of a $160,000 donation to the American Alliance of Museum for the AAM’s 2013 annual meeting.

Other FARA documents indicate some of Saudi Arabia’s other stateside interests, including King Abdullah’s vision for nuclear energy in the Kingdom. He set up King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, referred to as KA-CARE, in 2010 to research and develop atomic energy materials for alternative power sources and water desalination in Saudi Arabia. In 2013, KA-CARE paid Washington law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP just over $840,000 for “legal consultancy services” it provided the Kingdom to ensure “cooperation with the United States government concerning development of a peaceful nuclear power program.”

Update: A supplemental document shows KACARE paid Pillsbury Winthrop a whopping $8.4 million from Aug. 2012 to Jan. 2013. According to the document “There was no reportable activity on behalf of K.A.CARE during this reporting period,” aside from legal consultancy services to the client.

In order for American companies to be considered for the project, the United States and Saudi Arabia have to sign a “123 agreement,” which allows nuclear materials to be moved from the U.S. to other countries. The “123 agreement” requires the Department of State to submit to Congress a proposal on behalf of the applying country, and Congress has 90 days to consider the document. Unless Congress passes a joint resolution in opposition, the agreement automatically becomes law, opening up the door for U.S. companies to submit bids for the project.

In November, Westinghouse Electric – a Pennsylvania-based nuclear power company owned by Toshiba – announced it wanted to bid for the Saudi Arabia project.

Earlier this week, the head of KA-CARE represented Saudi Arabia at the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague, where President Obama and 52 other world leaders met to discuss nuclear terrorism prevention. According to the Saudi Press Agency, Dr. Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani’s speech focused more nuclear security than KA-CARE-specific projects.

The talks in Riyadh conclude the final leg of the president’s international travels.