Before the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, Saudi Arabia had amassed one of the largest and well-funded influence operations in the United States. It had more than two dozen lobbying and public relations firms on its payroll. Its lobbyists lined congressional campaign coffers on the very same day they met with senators and representatives to discuss Saudi interests, and the Saudis were pumping cash into think tanks and elite American universities across the nation.
But now the Saudi’s once seemingly invincible influence machine has started to malfunction. Four of Saudi Arabia’s lobbying and public relations firms, and at least one think tank, have severed ties with the Saudis.
The question isn’t why organizations are distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia now; the real question is why did Washington wait to sour on the Saudis? The short answer: the Saudis’ extraordinary spending on influence in the United States.
The story of the rise of Saudi influence in Washington begins after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. In the next 10 years, the Saudis spent more than $100 million to reshape their image in Washington. They were so successful that the Obama administration — while negotiating the Iran deal that the Saudis opposed — offered Saudi Arabia $115 billion in arms sales, far more than any administration in U.S. history. These are the same arms deals that President Trump keeps falsely claiming credit for and is using as a completely misguided justification for not punishing the Saudis for Khashoggi’s death. [Continue reading…]