by Thomas W. Lippman
Ever since the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 infuriated Americans with escalating gasoline prices and long lines at the pump, Saudi Arabia has spent lavishly in the United States on efforts to burnish its image among Americans. The Saudis have given lucrative contacts to law and public relations firms and donated liberally to universities and think tanks in pursuit of a better reputation.
But their money has mostly been wasted. The kingdom keeps generating headlines that alienate the people they are trying to win over. Saudi Arabia has partners in business and in security operations, but if it has admirers—other than President Trump—they are not much in evidence.
The latest example appeared the other day, when the Saudis announced without embarrassment that they had executed 37 men convicted in mass trials. According to Human Rights Watch,
At least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism. The mass execution was the largest since January 2016, when Saudi Arabia executed 47 men for terrorism offenses.
The crimes of which they were convicted included “supporting demonstrations,” “distorting the reputation of the kingdom,” and attempting to “spread the Shia confession” in Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Islam is the official religion.
The week before, the Saudis postponed yet again the scheduled trial of 11 women’s rights activists, including prominent and well-known personalities—leaving them in jail, where they have been since last year. The government has shrugged off widespread reports that the women have been tortured and sexually abused while in custody.
In the wake of the murder last October of the Washington-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence officials have said was orchestrated by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), those events have not exactly enhanced the kingdom’s standing among Americans.
In the past, Saudis have stoked antipathy and even hostility among Americans with developments that ranged from the mass murders of 9/11 to ridiculous pronouncements from religious leaders, such as the infamous 2013 fatwa asserting that women should not be allowed to drive because it would damage their ovaries.
Nevertheless, year after year, the Saudis throw money at their image problem.
American firms and individuals who represent the interests of foreign governments are required to register with the Justice Department. The department’s current roster of registered agents shows 31 organizations and individuals who list the Saudi government or Saudi state-owned groups as clients. The list includes some U.S.-based offshoots of Saudi enterprises, such as Aramco Affiliated Services Co., but it also includes prominent law and lobbying firms such as Hill and Knowlton.
As recently as February, when some Washington firms had dropped the Saudis as clients because of popular and congressional outrage over the Khashoggi murder, the Saudis were reportedly negotiating with Vice Media for joint production of documentaries celebrating social modernization in the conservative kingdom under the leadership of MbS.
According to Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Intelligence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy,
Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records filed in 2017 show the Saudis spent nearly $27 million on lobbying and public relations firms, nearly triple their spending in 2016. Further analysis of 2017 FARA filings shows that these firms contacted members of Congress, the Trump administration, the media and various think tanks more than 2,500 times. And they made nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions to representatives and senators they’d contacted on behalf of their Saudi clients. Eleven of these contributions occurred on the exact same day the member was contacted on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
It’s easy for the Saudis to spend money on public relations and lobbying. But as I have learned in multiple conversations in the kingdom over many years, they don’t seem to grasp that American consumers won’t buy a tainted product, no matter how slick the advertising. Even Saudi academics and business executives who were educated in the United States—people who have had close American friends for years – seem baffled that these personal relationships are not reflected in the collective American sentiment about their country and their society.
Perhaps the most striking example was the 2016 vote in Congress on a measure allowing 9/11 survivors and relatives to sue the Saudi government. The Saudis and lobbying firms on their payroll vigorously opposed the bill, and President Barack Obama vetoed it. But Congress overrode his veto, by votes of 97-1 in the Senate and 348-77 in the House.
Other countries might have turned for help to congressional caucuses that promote better relations between them and the United States. There are caucuses welcoming ties with countries from Azerbaijan to Vietnam. But there is no Saudi caucus because members have nothing to gain politically from embracing a country popularly associated with high oil prices and acts of terrorism.
U.S. military and security officials value Saudi Arabia as a partner in combating terrorism and promoting stability in the Persian Gulf region. That partnership has been in place since 1945 and has survived many serious strains, including the oil embargo and the 9/11 attacks. But no amount of lobbying money can elevate that partnership into an alliance of ideas and ideals.