It’s another Trump affair — this time without the allegations of sexual harassment (and worse), the charges and counter-charges, the lawsuits, and all the rest. So it hasn’t gotten the sort of headlines that Stormy Daniels has garnered, but when it comes to influence, American foreign policy, and issues of peace and war, it couldn’t matter more or be a bigger story (or have more money or lobbyists involved in it). Think of it as the great love affair of the age of Trump, the one between The Donald and the Saudi royals. And if there’s any place to start laying out the story, it’s naturally at a wedding, in this case in a tragic ceremony that happened to take place in Yemen, not Washington.
On Sunday, April 22nd, planes from a Saudi Arabian-led coalition dropped two bombs on a wedding in Yemen. The groom was injured, the bride killed, along with at least 32 other civilians, many of them children.
In response, the Saudis didn’t admit fault or express condolences to the victim’s families. Instead, they emphasized that their “coalition continues to take all the precautionary and preventative measures” to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen. This disconnect between Saudi rhetoric and the realities on the ground isn’t an anomaly — it’s been the norm. For four years, the Saudis and their allies have been conducting airstrikes with reckless abandon there, contributing to a staggering civilian death toll that now reportedly tops 10,000.
The Saudis and their close ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have repeatedly reassured American policymakers that they’re doing everything imaginable to prevent civilian casualties, only to launch yet more airstrikes against civilian targets, including schools, hospitals, funerals, and marketplaces.
For example, last May when Donald Trump landed in Saudi Arabia on his first overseas visit as president, Saudi lobbyists distributed a “fact sheet” about the prodigious efforts of the country’s military to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen. Five days after Trump landed in Riyadh, however, an air strike killed 24 civilians at a Yemeni market. In December, such strikes killed more than 100 Yemeni civilians in 10 days. The Saudi response: condemning the United Nations for its criticisms of such attacks and then offering yet more empty promises.
Through all of this, President Trump has remained steadfast in his support, while the U.S. military continues to provide aerial refueling for Saudi air strikes as well as the bombs used to kill so many of those civilians. But why? In a word: Saudi Arabian and UAE money in prodigious amounts flowing into Trump’s world — to U.S. arms makers and to dozens of lobbyists, public-relations firms, and influential think tanks in Washington.
Trump’s Love Affair with the Saudi Regime
Saudi Arabia’s influence over Donald Trump hit an initial peak in his first presidential visit abroad, which began in Riyadh in May 2017. The Saudi royals, who had clearly grasped the nature of The Donald, offered him the one thing he seems to love most: flattery, flattery, and more flattery. The kingdom rolled out the red carpet big time. The fanfare included posting banners with photos of President Trump and Saudi King Salman along the roadside from the airport to Riyadh, projecting a five-story-high image of Trump onto the side of the hotel where he would stay, and hosting a male-invitees-only concert by country singer Toby Keith.
According to the Washington Post, “The Saudis hosted the Trumps and the Kushners at the family’s royal palace, ferried them around in golf carts, and celebrated Trump with a multimillion-dollar gala in his honor, complete with a throne-like seat for the president.” In addition, they presented him with the Abdul-Aziz al-Saud medal, a trinket named for Saudi Arabia’s first king, considered the highest honor the kingdom can bestow on a foreign leader.
The Saudis then gave Trump something he undoubtedly valued even more than all the fawning — a chance to pose as the world’s greatest deal maker. For the trip, Trump brought along a striking collection of CEOs from major American companies, including Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, and Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group. Big numbers on the potential value of future U.S.-Saudi business deals were tossed around, including $110 billion in arms sales and hundreds of billions more in investments in energy, petrochemicals, and infrastructure, involving projects in both countries.
The new president was anything but shy in claiming credit for such potential mega-deals. At a press conference, he crowed about “tremendous investments in the United States… and jobs, jobs, jobs.” On his return to the U.S., he promptly bragged at a cabinet meeting that his deal-making would “bring many thousands of jobs to our country… In fact, will bring millions of jobs ultimately.” Not surprisingly, no analysis was offered to back up such claims, but it’s already clear that some of these deals may never come to fruition and many of those that do are more likely to create jobs in Saudi Arabia than in the United States.
Still, President Trump’s love affair with that country’s royals only intensified, leading to a triumphant U.S. visit last month by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the power behind the throne in that nation. He is also the architect of its brutal Yemeni war, where, in addition to those thousands of civilians killed thanks to indiscriminate air strikes, millions have been put at risk of famine due to a Saudi-led blockade of the country. But neither of these activities that, Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu has noted, “look like war crimes” nor Saudi Arabia’s abysmal internal human rights record drew a discouraging word from Trump or anyone in his cabinet. First things first. There were business deals to be touted — and so they were.
Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the White House took place on the very day that the Senate was considering a bill to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni bombing campaign. While senators debated the constitutional authority of Congress to declare war and the human-rights impact of U.S. support for the Saudi war effort, Trump was boasting yet again about all those jobs that arms sales to Saudi Arabia would create, adding — in a sign of the total success of the Saudi charm offensive — that the relationship between the two countries “is now probably as good as it’s really ever been” and “will probably only get better.”
The centerpiece of Trump’s meeting was a show-and-tell performance focused on how Saudi arms sales would boost American jobs. As he sang the praises of those Saudi purchases, he brandished a map of the United States with the legend “KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] Deals Pending” above a red oval that said “40,000 U.S. jobs.” Prominent among them were jobs in the swing states that put Trump over the top in the 2016 elections: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida. Score another point for Saudi influence in the form of Trump’s firm belief that his relationship with that regime will bolster his future political prospects.
So the public courtship of Trump by the Saudi royals is already paying large dividends, but public flattery and massive arms deals are just the better-known part of the picture. The president has been heavily courted privately as well, both through personal connections and through an expansive lobbying operation, which it’s important to map out, even if there’s no administration show-and-tell on the subject.
The Personal Courtship
As a start — as has been widely publicized — Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and officially anointed point man on Middle Eastern peace (an outcome he is uniquely ill-equipped to deliver), has struck up a beautiful friendship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Their relationship was solidified at a March 2017 lunch at the White House, followed by numerous phone calls and several Kushner visits to Saudi Arabia, including one shortly before the prince cracked down on his domestic rivals. Though that crackdown was publicly justified as an anti-corruption move, it conveniently targeted anyone who could conceivably have stood in the way of bin Salman’s consolidation of power. According to Michael Wolff in Fire and Fury, after bin Salman’s power play, Trump joyfully told Kushner, “We’ve put our man on top!” — an indication that Kushner had offered a Trump stamp of approval to the prince’s political maneuver during his trip to Riyadh.
The friendship has clearly paid off handsomely for the Saudis. Kushner was reportedly the main advocate for having Trump make his first foreign visit to that country — over the objections of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who felt it would send the wrong signal to allies about Trump’s attitudes towards democracy and autocracy (as indeed it did). Kushner also strongly urged Trump to back a Saudi-UAE blockade and propaganda campaign against the Gulf state of Qatar, which Trump forcefully did with a tweet: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”
Trump later changed his mind on this issue — after learning that Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military air base in the Middle East and after Qatar launched a PR and lobbying offensive of its own. That small, ultra-wealthy state hired nine lobbying and public relations firms, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s, in the two months after the Saudi-UAE blockade began, according to filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Most notably, the Qataris agreed to spend $12 billion on U.S. combat aircraft just weeks after Trump’s tweet.
Wherever Trump ultimately ends up on the campaign against Qatar (driven in part by a Saudi belief that its emir hasn’t sufficiently toed a tough enough line on Iran), Kushner’s role in the affair gives new spin to the old phrase “The personal is the political.” According to a source who spoke to veteran reporter Dexter Filkins, Kushner’s antipathy toward Qatar may have been driven in part by anger over its unwillingness to bail his father out of a bad Manhattan real estate investment with a massive loan.
Another snapshot of the Saudi-UAE urge to get up close and personal with The Donald lies in the strange case of George Nader, a political operative and senior advisor to the UAE, and Elliott Broidy, who reportedly can get face time with President Trump as needed. Nader evidently successfully persuaded Broidy to privately press Trump to take positions ever more in line with Saudi and UAE interests on Qatar and in their urge to see Secretary of State Rex Tillerson head for the exit. Whether or not Broidy’s appeals were instrumental in Trump’s decisions, he can’t be faulted for lack of effort. His exploits underscore how far both countries are willing to go in their efforts to bend U.S. foreign policy to their needs and interests.
In his campaign to win over Broidy, Nader gave him a cool $2.7 million to fund an anti-Qatar conference sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a sum that was also followed by more than $600,000 in donations for Republican candidates.
The keynote speaker at that conference was House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, who then crafted a sanctions bill against Qatar and — miracle of miracles — shortly thereafter received a campaign contribution from Broidy. Wherever those funds came from, it strains credulity to believe that this was all coincidental. To sweeten the deal, Nader also dangled the prospect of major contracts for Broidy’s private security firm, Circinus. One deal with the UAE, for $200 million, has already been sealed, while a Saudi one is in the works. At this point, who knows whether any of this was illegal, but in the world of Washington influence peddling, what’s legal is often as scandalous as what’s not.
The Lobbying Courtship
If such deep connections between Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration sometimes seem to surface out of nowhere, they all too often stem from an extraordinarily influential, if largely unpublicized, Saudi lobbying and public relations campaign.
Following the November election, the Saudis wasted no time in adding more firepower to their already robust influence operation in this country. In the less than three months before Trump was sworn in as president in January 2017, the Saudis inked contracts with three new firms: a Republican-oriented one, the McKeon Group (whose namesake, Howard “Buck” McKeon, is the recently retired chairman of the House Armed Services Committee); the CGCN Group, a firm well connected to conservative Republicans whose clientele also includes Boeing, which sells bombs to Saudi Arabia; and an outfit associated with the Democrats, the Podesta Group, which later dissolved after revelations about its work with Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Russian banks under sanction.
Before Trump even made it to Riyadh that May, according to an analysis of Foreign Agents Registration Act records, the Saudis signed contracts with six more public relations firms and then added two more immediately after severing diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June. All told, in just the first year of the Trump administration, the Saudis spent more than a million dollars monthly on more than two dozen registered lobbying and public relations outfits. The UAE was not far behind, boasting 18 registered lobbying and public relations firms in 2017, including more than $10 million dollars that year alone that went to just one of them, the Camstoll Group.
All this lobbying firepower gave those two countries an unparalleled ability to steer U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East. Among other avenues of influence, their campaign included a steady stream of propaganda flowing to policymakers about the war in Yemen.
Large foreign lobbies of this sort also enjoy an even more direct path to influence through campaign contributions. While it’s illegal for foreign nationals to make such contributions in U.S. elections, there’s an easy workaround for that — just hire lobbyists to do it for you. Such firms and figures have, in the past, admitted to serving as middlemen in this fashion and are known to have sometimes given handsomely. For example, a study by Maplight and the International Business Times found that registered lobbyists working at just four firms hired by the Saudis gave more than half a million dollars to federal candidates in the 2016 elections.
Another important avenue of influence for the Saudis and Emiratis: their financial contributions to Washington’s think tanks. The full extent of their reach in this area is hard to grasp because think tanks and other non-profits aren’t required to disclose their donors and many choose not to do so. However, an eye-opening New York Times exposé in 2014 revealed an expansive list of think tanks that received money from the Saudis or Emiratis, including the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Middle East Institute. In the age of Trump, it’s a reasonable bet that it has only gotten worse.
A War Alliance?
There is more at stake in Washington’s present web of ties to those two lands than just business. The uncritical embrace of such reckless, extreme, and undemocratic regimes by President Trump and many members of Congress has far-reaching implications for the future of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has asserted that Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “makes Hitler look good” and has suggested military action against Iran on a number of occasions. Add to this the prince’s successful efforts to keep the Trump administration on board in supporting his war in Yemen, plus Riyadh’s political interference in Qatar and Lebanon, and there is a real danger that Trump’s uncritical embrace of the Saudi regime could spark a regional war. The indiscriminate killing of Yemenis by the Saudi coalition, with the help of U.S. weapons, has already contributed to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, while reportedly making the al-Qaeda franchise in Yemen “stronger than ever.”
There is much concern in official Washington about Trump’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards longstanding U.S. alliances, but in the case of Saudi Arabia, a major change of course would undoubtedly be advisable. The least we can do is help make sure that the people of Yemen don’t fear for their lives at their own weddings.
Ben Freeman is the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiativeat the Center for International Policy (CIP).
William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, runs CIP’s Arms and Security Project and is the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.