Saudi Arabia is in the market for a better reputation in Washington, D.C.
In September alone, foreign lobbying disclosure documents show the Saudi government signing deals with PR powerhouse Edelman and lobbying leviathan the Podesta Group, according to recent disclosures.
Edelman, the largest privately owned public relations agency in the world, is known for helping clients win favorable media coverage on mainstream outlets. The Podesta Group is a lobbying firm founded by Tony Podesta, a major fundraiser for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
The new signings are the latest in a year-long hiring spree by the Persian Gulf state as it further builds up its already formidable political arsenal inside the Beltway. The Saudi Arabian Royal Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
In March, the Saudi Royal Embassy retained two influential lobbying firms, DLA Piper and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. DLA Piper, for instance, employs a small army of former government officials, including retired U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and George Mitchell. Also in March, the embassy retained two firms that specialize in analyzing big data for political clients, Targeted Victory and Zignal Labs.
Saudi Arabia’s political operation already includes former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who chairs one of the largest Republican Super PACs in the country, as well as the public relations firm MSLGROUP/Qorvis, and Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company that funds several influential American political groups, including the American Petroleum Institute. Aramco’s U.S. subsidiary, Saudi Refining, is a registered agent of the Saudi government. The government also finances a number of think tanks and universities, and has made contributions to prominent American nonprofits, including the Clinton Foundation.
The Podesta Group contract is with the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court. The contract, filed in the Justice Department’s foreign lobbying database, says that the firm will provide “public relations” work for the center.
“It is our company policy not to comment further on our work for clients beyond what is required by law and to direct reporters and other interested parties to our clients for any additional information,” said Missi Tessier, a spokesperson for the Podesta Group, when reached for more information about the relationship.
Edelman’s contract calls for the firm to “engage with opinion influencers, establish media engagement opportunities for [sic] principal, and assist in opinion editorial placement” on behalf of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority.
The Saudi regime is currently facing yet another public relations crisis as the Kingdom moves to execute Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the young nephew of a government critic.
The nation also faces international outcry over the widespread killing of civilians in Yemen. Since March, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition that includes the U.S., U.K., Egypt and several Persian Gulf nations to support the Yemeni government in its war against the Houthi rebels. The Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly attacked schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets, including recent reports of a wedding party that was bombed, killing over 100 people.
Last week, I spoke to a number of lawmakers about Saudi human rights abuses, but found them extremely reluctant to criticize the Kingdom. Disclosures reveal that the lobbying firms that have worked for Saudi Arabia for years communicate frequently with senior members of Congress. Beyond entrenched military and economic ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States, the Kingdom appears to be working to maintain its political clout.
Photo caption: Saudi King Salman meets with President Obama in January.