WASHINGTON ― Saudi Arabia is facing an unprecedented backlash from the U.S. elite over the presumed murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi ― and it’s threatening an unprecedented offensive of its own to try to turn things around.
Congress is threatening sanctions on the longtime U.S. partner, President Donald Trump is publicly demanding answers about Khashoggi’s fate, and major American businesses are backing out of a high-profile Saudi conference. But as top Americans suggest the U.S.-Saudi relationship may be about to fundamentally change, the Saudis have many powerful levers to pull in their efforts to maintain bipartisan support for their frequently controversial policies.
By directing billions of dollars of Saudi money into the U.S. for decades, Riyadh’s ruling family has won the support of small but powerful circles of influential Americans and courted wider public acceptance through corporate ties and philanthropy. It’s been a solid investment for a regime that relies heavily on Washington for its security but can’t make the same claims to shared values or history as other American allies like Britain. For years, spending in ways beneficial to the U.S. ― both stateside and abroad, such as its funding Islamist fighters in Afghanistan to combat the Soviet Union ― has effectively been an insurance policy for Saudi Arabia.
At times of crisis, like after 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers turned out to be Saudis or when President Barack Obama signed a landmark arms control deal with Saudi rival Iran, the Saudis have used their clout to shield themselves from tough questions or to propagate the idea that the U.S. needs the kingdom.
Khashoggi, who had been living in the U.S. before disappearing in Turkey this month, is today very unlikely to be returned alive. High-level criticism of the kingdom is growing, and a key foundation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship ― American reliance on Saudi oil ― is weaker than ever. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia feels ready to fight. The kingdom’s quasi-ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has consistently behaved aggressively toward regional neighbors and Western powers, and his mostly young population, used to foreign lectures about Saudi backwardness, is fond of his stubborn, often defensive brand of Saudi nationalism. Saudi Arabia’s response to the Khashoggi episode could involve every part of what’s arguably the most complex and sprawling campaign of foreign influence in the U.S. today.
That doesn’t mean it’ll ultimately succeed. Some critics of the relationship say a Saudi escalation could provoke Washington to question not just the prince’s treatment of Khashoggi, but also whether it’s wise for the U.S. to allow the Saudis to have such reach.
One senior Senate aide put it bluntly when asked about the prospect of the Saudis responding to the U.S. the way they did to critical remarks from Canada and Germany, by dramatically limiting trade and diplomatic contacts.
“I would love if they pulled that shit,” the aide said. “I beg them to do that. It’s not remotely comparable, and it would be ugly.”
Here’s how Saudi leaders, credibly accused of killing a U.S. resident, could use public brinkmanship and private persuasion to get what they want from elite Americans in politics, business and what Trump likes to call the “deep state.”
Play The Jobs Card
One of the few traditions in American diplomacy that Trump has embraced wholeheartedly is describing weapons sales as jobs programs. The president has repeatedly said Khashoggi’s fate should not disturb the $110 billion package of arms that Trump says he got the Saudis to buy to support American industry. (Many of the deals were actually struck under Obama, and a large part of the total he’s describing is still in the form of vague statements of intent.)
Keen to keep things on track with the Saudis, arms producers often work in concert with Saudi Arabia’s army of Washington lobbyists, congressional sources say.
Representatives from companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin argue that to keep jobs at plants that mushroomed across the U.S. amid post-9/11 wars, Congress must almost never use its veto over arms deals. “Because we are in a permanent state of warfare, we have a war-based economy,” said Elizabeth Beavers, an organizer with the progressive group Indivisible.
Arms manufacturers have already told Trump aides they are worried about Capitol Hill blocking more sales over Khashoggi, Reuters reported Friday. That would add to the deals already held up over a Saudi military campaign in Yemen that’s been accused of dozens of war crimes.
What Trump, military contractors and the Saudis have argued is that if Riyadh doesn’t buy from the U.S., it will find another supplier less concerned about human rights like Russia or China. So the kingdom won’t suffer or change its behavior, and Americans will lose revenue and chances for counterterrorism cooperation.
Researchers and anti-war activists say that’s a red herring and it’s Washington that has the power here.
Pieter Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said the Saudis have long been used to the U.S. way of doing things, and “it will be difficult for Saudi to change its arms systems and training, for example.”
“They can do that, but it’s coming with a cost,” he said.
The kingdom likely overestimates just how much of an impact its weapons purchases make on the gigantic U.S. economy anyway. “Less than 1 percent of total exports in the world are about arms deals. Arms sales to Saudi are one part of that,” Wezeman said. He added that a true reckoning of the economic importance of selling weapons to the Saudis would have to include projections of the other work skilled U.S. employees could be doing, and account for the fine print in many contracts that requires production to be done in the buyers’ countries ― creating jobs there rather than in the American heartland.
After a string of increasingly tight Senate votes on permitting U.S. arms exports to the Saudis to continue, the weapons-equal-jobs argument was already looking a little weak.
Kate Gould, an advocate with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, said she heard from multiple congressional offices this week that their teams were directly pressing defense lobbyists on Khashoggi and hearing anxiety from State Department contacts about the Senate likely blocking two deals that are expected to come up for approval soon. “It’s the most obvious place where the U.S. just has so much leverage with Saudi Arabia,” she said.
Win The Influence Game
The Saudis spend millions annually on employing high-profile Americans ― from former senators to onetime diplomats, from Republicans to Democrats ― to finesse their image. While a handful of lobbying and public relations firms have ended their relationships over Khashoggi, others are seeing a fresh opportunity. The kingdom has scores of paid friends it can marshal to talk to their own friends in government and the private sector.
It’s hard to excuse using a bone saw on a journalist or bombing a bus full of schoolchildren. But what’s becoming more clear is that good-faith persuasion doesn’t have to be the goal. Ben Freeman, a researcher at the Center for International Policy, found that in 2017, lobbyists representing the kingdom donated nearly $400,000 to lawmakers they had contacted on behalf of Riyadh. In 11 instances, the donations came the same day they had meetings with congressional offices.
“The Saudis realize it’s illegal for foreign nationals to make contributions in the U.S., but lobbying and PR firms are filled with American citizens for whom it’s perfectly legal to take their salaries and use them to give to members of Congress,” Freeman told HuffPost, describing the system as legalized bribery. He believes the actual amount flowing from Saudi coffers to American political efforts is far higher than what is reported, because U.S. citizens paid by the Saudis can also contribute to entities like super PACs without leaving a paper trail.
Another part of the permanent Washington infrastructure that can help the Saudis is the slew of think tanks that often consult on policy matters and are crucial homes for national security experts and former officials. Many of them accept Saudi funding and push ideas Riyadh loves, like the need for the U.S. to confront Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis see as threats to their regime. It’s often unclear whether it’s the insights or the checks that come first. “We can smell something there but they don’t have to register,” Freeman said.
“The Saudis realize it’s illegal for foreign nationals to make contributions in the U.S., but lobbying and PR firms are filled with American citizens for whom it’s perfectly legal.”
The arrival of a businessman president has made a whole new level of pay-to-play possible. Saudi spending at Trump hotels has spiked in recent months, and Trump was already exploring potential new deals in the kingdom during his presidential run.
The prospect of landmark U.S. policy on a key partner’s human rights abuses being shaped by the personal financial interests of the commander-in-chief is a worrying one, particularly in the Khashoggi case, where it’s clear direction is coming from the very top.
“Our concerns are varied and prioritized and the president decides the order,” said Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a former U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia and ambassador to Malta.
And Trump’s choice of what matters here could readjust American priorities and human rights norms for years.
Saudi oil money has attracted Western companies for decades, but the young prince has made it a particular focus to draw more foreign capital to the kingdom as part of his vision of making its economy less reliant on a single industry. He recently concluded a massive tour of the U.S. that focused on wooing business ― even meeting with Jeff Bezos, the employer of the reporter he’s now accused of murdering ― and he’s repeatedly said he believes Westerners should focus on his economic policies rather than his rights record.
The hope is that monied interests can, as they often do, overlook an atrocity or two. Amid the Khashoggi episode, the Saudis likely hope private firms and figures like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon will help ensure the kingdom does not become an international pariah.
But a mix of the prince’s approach to wealthy Saudis and activism abroad has made that assumption increasingly shaky. Financial elites have already been worried about the rule of law and whether their money can be safe since Saudi authorities last year arrested and beat scores of rich citizens, demanding that they hand over unspecified amounts on the basis of corruption charges that were never detailed in public.
The arbitrary treatment of Khashoggi adds to the panic. It doesn’t help that Saudi social media users are now threatening to punish companies that have taken steps like backing out of an upcoming investment conference over the issue, analyst Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute in London said on Twitter.
“These are global companies and [Saudi Arabia] and [ally the United Arab Emirates] are tiny markets in comparison to the Far East. Their risk exposure has been calculated. There is more to lose globally from the reputation … hit of being associated with [the conference] than what can be gained from the Saudi economy,” Stephens wrote. “This is simple maths, people, and feeling angry doesn’t undo basic risk calculus.”
Activists plan to keep pressuring companies to step back from Riyadh, said Kate Kizer of the advocacy group Win Without War, which is directly appealing to firms not to attend the Oct. 23 conference and helping organize regular Americans to do so too.
“It’s a matter of putting it in front of the grassroots that this is about a value proposition,” she continued. “If you ask someone, do you want to be supporting a regime that kills journalists, that starves millions of civilians, that jails women rights activists and tries to execute them, most Americans would say no.”
This story has been updated to reflect Saudi comments Sunday.