WASHINGTON – On Nov. 19, Saudi Arabia’s glamorous ambassador to the United States – Princess Reema bint Bandar – held a private Zoom session with an unusual audience.
No members of Congress or White House officials. No State Department officials. No reporters.
Instead, the kingdom’s ambassador spoke to a group of Philadelphia business leaders, students, educators and other local residents interested in foreign affairs. It was billed as a “candid discussion” with Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador and hosted by Philadelphia’s World Affairs Council, a nonprofit educational group.
“There was a huge message of change and progress,” said Lauren Swartz, president of the council, who led the Zoom session with Reema. “That is … not much reported in the newspapers here.”
The Philadelphia meeting appears to be part of a new Saudi government lobbying strategy – launched in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside a Saudi consulate in 2018 – focused on reaching out to state and local officials from New Orleans to Anchorage.
The pitch: Saudi Arabia is a pivotal global player in the midst of a transformation on women’s rights.
“They’ve made a calculated decision that says, ‘You know, we’re really losing the battle here (in Washington). We’ve got to take this battle out into America,'” said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit foreign policy research group.
Before Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi Arabia was known in Washington for its lobbying firepower, fueled by an expensive roster of politically wired consultants and public relations operatives. But as the gruesome details of the Washington Post columnist’s slaying emerged, marque lobbyists who had collected millions from the Saudi government quickly nixed their lucrative contracts.
As the kingdom’s influence on Capitol Hill began to evaporate, it pivoted and hired a consulting firm based in Iowa.
“I can’t recall any country ever launching such a pervasive campaign to garner influence in middle America the way the Saudis are,” Freeman said. “It kind of seems like what they’re doing is ‘astroturf,'” he added, referring to the tactic of making a campaign appear to stem from grassroots activists, when in fact, it’s orchestrated by well-heeled consultants.
Critics say the Saudi’s strategy is savvy.
Outside Washington’s foreign policy circles, few Americans are likely following the horrors of the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led bombing campaign has killed civilians and contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And they might have missed the details of Khashoggi’s murder, including reports that his Saudi executors used a bone saw to dismember him.
“If you present (Saudi’s pitch) to an audience that doesn’t otherwise know about the reality of Saudi Arabia … then you might be hoodwinked into going along and saying, ‘Well, it’s a transformation in Saudi Arabia’,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a human rights group Khashoggi helped found.
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the Saudi embassy, Fahad Nazer, said the kingdom maintains “healthy and constructive engagements with senior US administration officials as well as congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle.”
At the same time, he said, “we recognize that Americans outside Washington are interested in developments in Saudi Arabia and many, including the business community, academic institutions and various civil society groups, are keen on maintaining long-standing relations with the kingdom or cultivating new ones.”
In one of the federal disclosure reports, the country’s Iowa lobbyists wrote that their work was aimed at informing “the public, government officials and the media about the importance of fostering and promoting strong relations between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Khashoggi murder ‘destroyed’ Saudi political capital in DC
After Khashoggi’s killing, lawmakers denounced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman as “a wrecking ball” who had “tainted” his country by ordering an American resident’s slaying.
“The scandal of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder really just destroyed any of the social capital and PR capital that Mohammed Bin Salman had been trying to build up,” Whitson said. “And the Saudis just dug in and made it worse with every passing day, when they would offer up new lies and denials.”
Now, the Khashoggi case is again in the spotlight, with last week’s elease of a U.S. intelligence report that directly links the crown prince to the journalist’s death. The report, released by the Biden administration’s director of national intelligence, quickly renewed a fierce debate over the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
President Joe Biden has vowed to “recalibrate” the relationship, but he has resisted calls from Democrats in Congress and human rights groups to target the crown prince directly with sanctions or other penalties.
“Our objective is to recalibrate the relationship, prevent this from ever happening again and find ways … to work together with Saudi leadership,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday. She noted that the U.S. doesn’t typically sanction the leaders of other countries with which it has diplomatic relations.
So far, Biden has taken incremental steps to distance the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, a key American ally in the Middle East. He paused certain arms sales to the kingdom, and halted U.S. support for offensive military operations in the Yemen war, where a Saudi-led coalition has used American-made munitions in a deadly bombing campaign.
‘Real people who tackle real issues’
If the kingdom’s lobbying activity is any indication, Saudi officials have decided on a new tactic for weathering any further rebukes from the White House. Although the government’s spending on lobbying has ticked down from a high of $34 million in 2018, the year Khashoggi was killed, the kingdom still doles out millions: approximately $17 million in 2019 and about $6 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
That does not include spending by Saudi-related entities, such as the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, a chemical manufacturing company and subsidiary of the state-owned petroleum and gas company.
Records show that the Saudi government has not abandoned its Washington-focused lobbying. Their consultants reported more than 650 contacts with the House and Senate and another 123 with D.C.-based think tanks, according to the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative’s analysis. However, there’s been a remarkable shift in focus, said Freeman: more than 1,000 of the country’s nearly 2,000 reported lobbying contacts in 2020 were to individuals and groups outside the Beltway.
“We’re seeing them reach out to local Chambers of Commerce,” along with Jewish organizations and synagogues, Freeman said.
The Saudi influence campaign has also targeted smaller media outlets outside Washington. Freeman said, for example, that Saudi foreign agents contacted Shale Magazine, a Texas-based outlet devoted to promoting the energy industry, seven times – matching the number of times they contacted the Washington Post (4) and USA TODAY (3) combined.
The main lobbying firm behind the new strategy is the LS2group, based in Des Moines, Iowa, which the Saudi government paid more than $1 million in lobbying fees in 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. “We are real people who tackle real issues,” the firm’s website says.
That firm in turn has brought on other consultants in Maine, North Carolina and Georgia, among other states, records show. A partner at the firm did not respond to email messages seeking comment.
Some of the “real issues” the LS2group has focused on are women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, an Islamic country that until recently did not allow women to play in sports or to drive, among other banned activities.
Under federal law, lobbyists for foreign governments must filed detailed reports about their influence operations. One filing from the LS2group is a glossy pamphlet touting “great progress in the area of women and sports,” with colorful images of women running, cycling and stretching in mandatory headscarves.
The brochure states that since 2017, the government has granted licenses to women’s gyms (previously forbidden) and created a physical education requirement for girls in public schools, among other steps.
“They have a bottomless bag of money to spend (and) the PR firms are obviously always coming up with new ways for them to spend it,” said Whitson.
She notes that prior to 2015, women were banned from playing sports. “Girls found to be playing basketball were attacked” and threatened with arrest, she said.
Indeed, at the same time the Saudi government was touting these reforms in the U.S., it was jailing some prominent women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who pushed to end a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. In December, a Saudi court sentenced her to almost six years in prison under a broad counterterrorism law.
Al-Hathloul was released on Feb. 10 after a judge suspended part of her sentence and gave her credit for time already served. She and other women said they were tortured and sexually assaulted during their detention.
When the diplomat is a princess
If the LS2group is the Saudi’s behind-the-scenes conduit to average Americans, Reema is the kingdom’s public face.
The American-educated Saudi princess became the country’s first female ambassador in 2019, as the royal family scrambled to contain the fallout from Khashoggi’s killing. She had lived in the U.S. for 22 years, from 1983 to 2005, when her father served as the kingdom’s ambassador to Washington.
Lise Falskow, president and CEO of Alaska’s World Affairs Council, said she was thrilled when she heard Reema would be willing to speak to her group. She had invited Saudi Arabia’s previous ambassador to visit Alaska but never got a response.
“Being an oil country and Alaska being an oil state, it’s interesting to hear their perspective on gas and world markets and living in the neighborhood they do – and her being a woman,” Falskow said.
Only one member of her council objected, a Syrian woman who said Reema’s privileged background would not give Alaskans a true picture.
“She felt like the story of Saudi needed to be told, but by somebody else,” Falskow recounted. But Reema impressed the 70 people who dialed in for the October Zoom, including the woman who had initially objected, said Falskow.
She said the LS2 representatives asked her not to record the session, and she couldn’t recall details of the conversation. But she said it’s no wonder if Reema offered a rosy vision of her home country – that’s what all diplomats are supposed to do.
“They’re trying to promote peace and cooperation and talk about the positives, and (Reema) did a very good job of that,” Falskow said.
Swartz, head of the Philadelphia World Affairs Council, said there was “no hesitancy on our part” to host Reema when the opportunity arose because Saudi Arabia had been in the news “for so many things.”
Reema was very adept at parrying questions about the status of women in Saudi Arabia and a host of other issues, though no one pressed her about Khashoggi’s murder.
“She had all her data points about Saudi Arabia’s impact, opportunity and connections to Pennsylvania,” Swartz said, including ties to the state’s energy industry.
“The biggest takeaway I had was that Princess Reema, Ambassador Reema is an incredible diplomat and politician and spokesperson,” she said.
But the Saudi pitch has not been welcomed everywhere.
Kelley Ponder, of the New Orleans Citizen Diplomacy Council, said her group decided against hosting Reema.
“We didn’t want to, you know, get into anything too political,” she said, adding that other citizen-based diplomacy groups have made the same decision. It was a matter of “not knowing what we were getting into,” Ponder said.
Contributing: Associated Press