Saudi Arabia Ramped Up Multi-Million Foreign Influence Operation After Khashoggi’s Death
At least one foreign agent simultaneously held a U.S. government appointment while being paid to represent Saudi interests as a foreign agent.
(By Anna Massoglia, Center for Responsive Politics) Foreign influence and lobbying spending targeting the United States on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s interests has grown precipitously in the year since the death of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.
Some firms attempted to publicly distance themselves from Saudi Arabia due to the controversy over Khashoggi and mounting allegations of human rights abuses. But other foreign agents and lobbyists capitalized on the opportunity to try to help improve the country’s reputation on the global stage.
Saudi Arabian interests reported spending just over $16 million on foreign influence operations from October 2, 2017, until October 2, 2018, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis. In the year since Khashoggi’s death, Saudi interests have poured more than $27 million into influence operations disclosed in Foreign Agent Registration Act filings in OpenSecrets’ Foreign Lobby Watch database.
The vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s influence spending targeting the U.S. in the past year went to a lobbying and communications firm called MSLGroup in a stream of payments starting days after Khashoggi’s killing. From October 2018 to January 2019, MSLGroup raked in more than $18.8 million from Saudi government — more than Saudi Arabia spent lobbying the U.S. in the entire year leading up to Khashoggi’s death.
Registrants are supposed to file every six months, but FARA filings often are submitted late. That can cause additional delays between when payments take place and when they are disclosed — meaning that Saudi foreign influence spending this year is likely to be even higher once other foreign agents submit their FARA disclosures.
Saudi Arabia deployed 39 lobbying firms and other registrants under FARA this year, down from 49 registrants in the year leading up to Khashoggi’s death. Those firms that stuck with Saudi Arabia were rewarded with big paydays.
Overall, Saudi interests spent more than $38.5 million in the 2018 calendar year, up from around $19 million in 2017 and just over $15 million in 2016.
Saudi interests have spent roughly $60 million on foreign influence and lobbying operations in the U.S. since President Donald Trump took office.
Saudi Arabian Lobbying Strategy
Saudi influence networks deploy a wide array of strategies, ranging from more traditional lobbying campaigns to extensive digital operations. But even Saudi Arabia’s most conventional lobbying efforts are notable for more than just the vast amounts spent.
An impassioned 2017 speech on the House floor defending U.S. support for war in Yemen by former Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) was taken almost verbatim from a lobbyist’s script handed to him earlier that day by a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia. After leaving Congress in 2018, Royce took a job at Brownstein Hyatt, which is one of the major firms representing the Saudi government.
Foreign agents and lobbyists from at least two K Street firms worked directly with the aide who allegedly engineered Khashoggi’s murder.
Sitting lawmakers targeted by foreign influence and lobbying operations are hardly the only politicians whose names show up in FARA disclosures.
Foreign agents working for Saudi Arabia’s U.S. influence or lobbying operations made over $1.6 million in political donations in the 2018 election cycle, and 2020 presidential candidates face the decision of whether to pocket money from foreign lobbyists or reject it.
FARA disclosures are also rife with former elected officials who’ve since entered the revolving door.
Multiple former members of Congress now registered as foreign agents used leftover campaign money in so-called “zombie campaign” accounts to funnel political contributions to the same lawmakers they were lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Former Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) is one such former lawmaker who used leftover campaign money to make political contributions to House Armed Services Committee members while working as a registered foreign agent of Saudi Arabia and lobbying for defense contractors on legislation related to arms deals under the committee’s purview.
Some of McKeon’s political contributions to lawmakers’ campaigns were made the same day he spoke with their congressional offices. McKeon’s firm continued to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars just days after Khashoggi’s death.
Saudi Arabia and the Trump Administration
At least one foreign agent simultaneously held a U.S. government appointment while being paid to represent Saudi interests as a foreign agent. Richard Hohlt registered as a foreign agent of the Saudi Arabian government weeks before the 2016 presidential election and just months before President Trump appointed him to the Commission on White House Fellowships. Hohlt continued raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars to represent Saudi interests while serving on Trump’s commission but ultimately terminated the arrangement following backlash.
Trump’s campaign aides and allies have also been enlisted in Saudi lobbying efforts.
One of Saudi Arabia’s highest-paid firms since Trump took office is Sonoran Policy Group, a lobbying firm founded by Trump campaign advisor Robert Stryk. The firm received a $5.4 million cash infusion from the Saudi government paid upfront for “broad advisory services” under a contract that was reportedly terminated shortly after it was signed, resulting in the Stryk’s firm essentially being paid more than $5 million to “do nothing.”
Another avenue of Saudi influence in the Trump administration has been through Trump’s many business entanglements with foreign countries.
Saudi foreign agents and lobbyists spearheaded by MSLGroup have come under fire for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to put up a group of veterans at Trump International Hotel while lobbying for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act — legislation that enabled 9/11 lawsuits against the government of Saudi Arabia — after those veterans claimed they did not know their trip had been organized and financed by the government of Saudi Arabia.
A 2018 report to Trump Hotel Chicago investors obtained by the Washington Post showed a 169 percent increase in Saudi Arabia-based patrons since 2016.
While the Trump Organization pledged to contribute all profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, Saudi Arabia’s government alone spent more at Trump International Hotel in the four months after Trump won the presidency than the entire Trump Organization donated to cover foreign profits either year he has been in office.
And that’s only what Saudi Arabia’s foreign influence agents and lobbyists have readily disclosed.
In addition to shelling out millions for lobbying campaigns, Saudi Arabia has also quietly strengthened its brand in the U.S. through less traditional channels of foreign influence.
Many of Saudi Arabia’s creative influence operations stem from psychological research built by a subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, a secretive defense and intelligence contractor called SCL Group hired by Saudi Arabia to build a “psychological road map.”
A secretive cultural-exchange project called Gateway KSA enticed hundreds of social media influencers with invitations for all-expenses-paid trips to Saudi Arabia chock full of amenities ranging from VIP tickets to concerts and safaris.
The trips generated social media fodder from non-Saudi influencers across the world in advance of Saudi Arabia’s new tourist visa formally launched Sept. 27 as part of efforts to rehabilitate the country’s image and develop its tourism industry, according to reporting by Bloomberg and Insider. Gateway KSA is run by a cousin of Crown Prince Mohammed and receives support from Saudi government-owned entities.
Influencers were reportedly not permitted to explore Saudi Arabia outside their official itineraries, effectively limiting the content they shared to the parts of Saudi Arabia the country wants to promote. Instead of relying solely on posts by Saudi Arabia’s official government accounts to promote the country’s interests, the program enabled Saudi actors to amplify their message through non-Saudi social media accounts across the world and effectively curate what content influencers who accepted the invitations shared about the trip.
In August, Facebook suspended hundreds of accounts, pages and groups it determined were tied to the Saudi government due to “coordinated inauthentic behavior” attacking Saudi Arabia’s rivals and promoting the government’s propaganda. The ring of accounts spent six figures on on Facebook and Instagram ads reaching more than a million people across the platforms, according to the company.
At least four of the accounts were verified, including one that belonged to a U.S. meteorologist who died more than two years ago. They appear to have been hacked and sold to pro-Saudi entities, according to research from an assistant professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar.
The thousands of suspended Twitter accounts were tied together by their frequent interactions with a recently-rebranded verified Twitter account called @TheGlobus, which as a news outlet. The same account had been previously linked to a pro-Trump information operation trying to denounce the special counsel report as a “Russiagate hoax.” Prior to its rebranding, the Globus was named Arabian Veritas and primarily posted news and memes favorable to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to researchers who uncovered the network.
Following violations of “platform manipulation policies,” Twitter also suspended the account of Saud al-Qahtani, a Saudi official sanctioned by the U.S. after being implicated in Khashoggi’s killing. Qahtani is considered the “architect” of Saudi Arabia’s digital media operations, procuring bots and spyware to target perceived critics of the country.
Following Khashoggi’s death, the New York Times reported that the Saudi government reportedly had a spy working inside Twitter to help track dissidents like Khashoggi online and deployed an army of over 100 people working as a “troll farm” to go after them.