In the past two years, the Saudis have intensified their efforts to cement the U.S. relationship. The kingdom’s spending on U.S. lobbying and consulting, which had dropped from $14.3 million in 2015 to $7.7 million in 2016, surged to $27.3 million last year, according to public records. More than 200 people have registered as agents on behalf of Saudi interests since 2016, according to lobbying documents posted by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Among those on the payroll have been some of Washington’s top public relations and lobbying shops: the McKeon Group, helmed by Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; BGR Group, a firm founded by prominent Republicans Ed Rogers and Haley Barbour; the Glover Park Group, which was launched by Democratic political strategists including Joe Lockhart and Carter Eskew; and the now-defunct Podesta Group, the former firm of Democratic superlobbyist Tony Podesta.
Rogers and Eskew are both contributing opinion writers for The Washington Post. Last week, both of their firms announced they were dropping their representation of Saudi Arabia. The Post had told them they could not continue to write for The Post and lobby for Saudi Arabia, according to spokeswoman Kristine Coratti Kelly.
Separately, Saudi money — and funds from its close ally, the United Arab Emirates — have also flowed into think tanks throughout Washington, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Brookings Institution and the Middle East Institute. All three said last week that they are ending or reconsidering Saudi grants.
“One of the foreign policy truisms force-fed in Washington is that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a special, unbreakable relationship,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and leading critic of the war in Yemen. “At least everybody who is smart and knows about foreign policy who walks into your office tells you that. But as it turns out, a lot of those people are getting gulf money.”
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Saudi money has been the Middle East Institute, which touts itself as “an unbiased source of information and analysis on this critical region.” The organization is chaired by Richard A. Clarke, who held senior national security positions during the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Between 2016 and 2017, the think tank received between $1.25 million and $4 million in funding from Saudi interests, according to its public disclosures.