Diminished Saudi influence on display in Senate debate over Yemen

Saudi Arabia’s typically formidable lobbying operation has gone quiet as the Senate prepares to vote on the resolution.

Protesters gather in front the Saudi Arabian Embassy as they call for justice in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Washington.
Protesters gather in front the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images


When the Senate voted in March on a resolution to withdraw American military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally visited Capitol Hill to urge senators to oppose it.

Now the resolution has returned, but the crown prince has not. Saudi Arabia’s typically formidable lobbying operation has gone quiet as the Senate prepares to vote on the resolution again, a sign of the kingdom’s diminished influence in Washington after the killing of the journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi two months ago.

The Saudi embassy has emailed Senate offices touting what it says are humanitarian efforts in Yemen, but lobbyists for the kingdom have largely disengaged since Khashoggi was killed in October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Khalid bin Salman, only returned to Washington last week after nearly two months away.

And the offices of three Republican senators who joined with Democrats late last month to advance the resolution, which calls for yanking U.S. backing for Saudi efforts in Yemen, said they hadn’t heard from any lobbyists for the Saudis ahead of a final vote on the bill.

“There’s not the same kind of environment for the Saudi government to be welcomed on the Hill,” said Kate Gould, a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker nonprofit that’s been advocating for the resolution.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s conclusion that Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered Khashoggi’s death, along with growing international outrage over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, have curtailed Saudi Arabia’s influence in Washington. Five of the small army of lobbying firms that worked for the kingdom quit after the death of Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post.

One Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested the Saudis had been slow to appreciate how much their position in Washington had eroded. “I don’t think they quite understand how strong the feelings are here in this town, how significant [Khashoggi’s killing] is for the reputation and credibility of Saudi Arabia,” the official said.

But one person familiar with the Saudi lobbying efforts, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters, said the Saudis “are self-aware” and realized that “direct advocacy on Yemen is made more difficult” by the anger over Khashoggi’s killing.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is working to defeat the Yemen resolution, which is widely seen as a way to rebuke Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with senators the day of a vote on the resolution last month to talk up the importance of the American alliance with Saudi Arabia. Pompeo cautioned that pulling back in the region would strengthen Iran — which is backing the Houthi rebels the Saudis are fighting — as well as the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

While senators voted to advance the resolution anyway, “it’s still more effective for Secretary Mattis and Mike Pompeo to be lobbying on it” than anything the Saudi government could be doing, the person familiar with the Saudi lobbying efforts said.

The Saudi embassy has made some limited efforts to burnish the kingdom’s image among senators by emailing Senate staffers. One email sent last week, which was obtained by POLITICO, touted the “King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center's on going [sic] efforts to reduce risks associated with landmines that have been indiscriminately planted in Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthi militia.”

But lobbyists for the Saudis don’t appear to be making more substantial efforts to help derail the resolution.

Every Democratic senator voted to advance the resolution last month, along with 14 Republicans. But the offices of three of those Republicans— Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rob Portman of Ohio — told POLITICO they hadn’t heard from any lobbyists representing the Saudis.

“The only voice that’s really been supporting the Saudis at this point has been the administration,” a staffer for another senator said.

The absence of a major push to kill the resolution stands in stark contrast to previous Saudi lobbying efforts. When Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) first introduced the Yemen resolution in February, Saudi Arabia’s lobbyists leaped to respond.

Lobbyists at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which represents the Saudi government, called, emailed and met with staffers for more than a dozen senators to discuss the resolution, according to a disclosure filing, and they also reached out to aides to Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Weeks later, a Brownstein Hyatt lobbyist emailed a dozen members of Congress to invite them to dinner with the crown prince.

Saudi Arabia had previously flexed its muscle in Washington by spending millions of dollars to mount an all-out push in 2016 to kill legislation that allowed families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue the kingdom. (The bill ultimately passed overwhelmingly over President Barack Obama’s veto.)

Lobbyists for Saudi Arabia also mobilized last year during a diplomatic standoff between Qatar and the Saudis and their allies. Qatar scrambled to hire Washington lobbying firms to counter those retained by Saudi Arabia at the time.

Five lobbying and public relations firms the Saudis had on retainer dropped the kingdom as a client in the wake of Khashoggi’s death, although several prominent firms continue to work for Saudi Arabia, including Hogan Lovells and Brownstein Hyatt.

Still, the Qatari government appears confident enough that it’s seized the upper hand in the ongoing diplomatic dispute that one person familiar with Qatar’s lobbying efforts said the country’s lobbyists weren’t pressing senators to support the anti-Saudi resolution.

“The boulder’s just rolling down the hill,” the person said. “No one needs to help push it.”

Nahal Toosi contributed reporting.


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