Saudi Arabia's influence-buying in Washington under the spotlight following Khashoggi affair

A security member of the consulate waits in front of the gate door of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Oct 17, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The disappearance and likely killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2 has shone the spotlight on how Saudi Arabia is buying influence in Washington by retaining an army of lobbyists and contributing to a legion of think-tanks.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country to do this. China, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, among others, have come under similar scrutiny at various times.

But the Khashoggi case has triggered widespread outrage in Congress and in the media and as such could turn into a spanner in the works for the US-Saudi alliance.

The White House is trying to find a way to preserve the alliance as well as its relationship with the ambitious but now seen as ruthless Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Already, Congress, in a display of rare bipartisanship, has vowed to act against the kingdom while several organisations in Washington scrambled to shed links to the Saudi rulers.

Reports in the Wall Street Journal and Politico said the organisations included the Middle East Institute think-tank, and three lobby firms - the Glover Park Group; BGR Group; and Harbour Group.

The Washington Post reported that the Glover Park Group, founded by former Bill Clinton and Al Gore staffers, has cancelled its US$150,000 (S$206,000) a month contract with the kingdom. The Republican-aligned BGR Group has dropped an US$80,000 per month contract, the Post said.

The Brookings Institution terminated its sole research grant from Saudi Arabia last week, a spokesman told BuzzFeed News. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has said it will wait for evidence to emerge and the response of the Saudi and US governments before taking a decision on any funding from Saudi Arabia.

How much Saudi money pervades Washington policy circles is not clear but one group, the Center for Responsive Politics, said the Saudis spent US$17 million on influence campaigns in the US last year.

Overall, foreign governments and entities may have spent half a billion dollars on policy circles in Washington, the Centre for International Policy (CIP) reckons.

Dr Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the CIP - a think-tank - in an article this month wrote: "The Saudi government has hired lobbyists in profusion and they, in turn, have effectively helped convince members of Congress and the President to ignore blatant human rights violations and civilian casualties in Yemen."

The Saudi government is fighting a US-supported war in Yemen, which is essentially a proxy war against Iran. Saudi Arabia has been accused of targeting civilians, and the war has triggered what the World Food Programme executive director David Beasley has described as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis by far".

Saudi Arabia has, however, also contributed to the UN, which has raised almost US$2 billion in response to the conflict in Yemen. The fighting has left well over two million people displaced and many tens of thousands fleeing the country.

Dr Freeman said an upcoming report of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative will state that registered foreign agents working on behalf of interests in Saudi Arabia contacted congressional representatives, the White House, the media and figures at influential think-tanks more than 2,500 times in 2017 alone.

And the Saudis contributed nearly US$400,000 to the political coffers of senators and members of the House of Representatives as part of lobbying efforts including for voting on arms sales to the kingdom.

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