How Much Saudi Arabia Spends To Influence Public Opinion In The U.S.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
After allegations that the Saudis were involved in Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance, several big lobbying firms here in Washington D.C. canceled contracts with Saudi Arabia - contracts worth upwards of $100,000 a month. Also two think tanks, the Middle East Institute and the Brookings Institution, announced they have stopped taking funding from Saudi Arabia. This got us wondering how much does Saudi Arabia spend to influence public opinion here in the U.S.? What has Riyadh gotten in return - questions we will put now to Lydia Dennett. She's an investigator with the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.
Lydia Dennett, welcome.
LYDIA DENNETT: Thank you.
KELLY: Let me start with the lobbying firms. You've been able to track how much Saudi Arabia spends on lobbying by studying documents filed under something called the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA. Is that right?
DENNETT: Yes, exactly. And from these reports, we know that Saudi Arabia has spent about 19 million dollars on influence campaigns here in the U.S. since the beginning of 2017 and 9 million this year alone.
KELLY: This year alone in 2018 that you've been able to track so far?
KELLY: Can we tell what they are trying to buy with that money - what policy outcomes Saudi Arabia might be trying to achieve?
DENNETT: To a certain extent based on what is in the disclosures, you can tell broad narratives of what they're trying to influence.
KELLY: OK. And so in the case of Saudi Arabia, what are some of the answers? Who are they trying to lobby?
DENNETT: So in 2017, they contacted every single senator, as well as those who are on the appropriations committees, the foreign affairs committees and the armed services committees multiple times - those who are directly making the decisions about whether or not arms deals - multibillion dollar arms deals are going to go through with the government. But the other side of it is a massive public relations campaign. And that's very much focused on pushing Saudi Arabia's reform agenda and portraying them as a valuable ally within the Middle East. And that what they are doing in Yemen is not only to benefit the U.S. but also Yemen itself.
KELLY: I imagine there's also contracts that you can follow tracing Saudis reaching out to lobbyists who they want to reach out to the private sector if we're talking arms deals.
DENNETT: Yes. So a great example of that is one of the lobbying groups that Saudi Arabia hired recently was founded by Howard Buck McKeon who was the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. And one of their other clients is Lockheed Martin which is one of the defense contractors that sells arms to Saudi Arabia fairly regularly.
KELLY: I also mentioned think tanks.
KELLY: And those donations and grants - those are a little bit harder to track. Explain why.
DENNETT: Exactly. So the Foreign Agents Registration Act is not well enforced by the Department of Justice. They rely on a policy of voluntary compliance. And they haven't really clarified what activities and relationships are covered by the law. Think tanks have traditionally not been required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. There is a rule in the House that when non-governmental witnesses, particularly think tank experts, are asked to testify they have to file what are known as truth in testimony forms, in which they have to disclose any foreign funding received within the last two years as it relates to the subject of the hearing.
Unfortunately, as it relates to the subject of the hearing has ended up being very narrowly interpreted. So for instance, a hearing on Iranian-backed militias, which has a table of experts from think tanks who specialize in Middle Eastern policy and receive millions of dollars from governments like Saudi Arabia Qatar and the United Nation of Emirates, which really do have an interest in this topic, go undisclosed.
KELLY: So this is a long-standing practice...
KELLY: ...Of a country, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, providing grants or other donations to big think tanks that are influential. Lydia Dennett, thanks so much for stopping by.
DENNETT: Thank you for having me.
KELLY: She's an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.