Rep. Ed Royce, a senior Republican who, at the time, chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee, gave a speech on the House floor in November 2017 imploring his fellow lawmakers to maintain support for the Saudi Arabian-led war in Yemen. Royce warned that foreign adversaries — namely, Iran — could gain a foothold in Yemen through the Houthi rebels.
“Part of the problem here is the leaders of the Houthi militia were indoctrinated in Qom, in Iran, as part of an Iranian attempt to construct a Hezbollah-like proxy in Yemen,” warned Royce, suggesting that the rebels in Yemen were merely Iranian cutouts, something experts dispute.
The inflammatory line had been scripted by a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia — like much of Royce’s impassioned speech.
The inflammatory line had been scripted by a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia — like much of Royce’s impassioned speech. “During the 1990s, the leaders of the Houthi militia were indoctrinated in the Iranian city of Qom as part of an Iranian attempt to construct a Hezbollah-like proxy in Yemen,” says a set of lobbyist talking points obtained by The Intercept.
Royce had received talking points earlier that day from a lobbyist retained by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, according to federal disclosure forms, in order to undermine congressional opposition to the Yemen war.
Now, that congressional opposition is coming to a head. On Thursday, the Senate is scheduled to attempt to override President Donald Trump’s veto of the War Powers Act resolution calling for an end to U.S. support for the war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and its chief ally in the war, the United Arab Emirates, have spent tens of millions of dollars to maintain continued military support from policymakers in Washington, D.C. The lobby money is spent on an array of influence-peddling tactics — some of which have been disclosed, but many of which are carried out behind closed doors.
The talking points provided to Royce are among the many hidden ways in which Saudi money has quietly influenced the debate.
“The fact that Rep. Royce is repeating word for word talking points from wealthy law firm Hogan Lovells, not his own unique thought and hearing what his constituents have to say, speaks to the very stifling our democracy suffers from,” said Heather Purcell, a spokesperson for Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who introduced the bill Royce was speaking against.
On November 13, 2017, Khanna and a bipartisan group of lawmakers began the debate to invoke the War Powers Act to bring an end to U.S. military support for the war. Disclosures show that Saudi’s lobbying apparatus moved swiftly into action.
Elizabeth Gore, a Democratic lobbyist retained by the Saudi government, contacted the offices of House Foreign Affairs ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the second most powerful Democrat in the House, to discuss the resolution.
That same day, on the Republican side, Ari Fridman, a lobbyist with the law firm Hogan Lovells, which has long represented the Saudi government, emailed Republican staffers with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Gore and Fridman did not respond to requests for comment.)
“On behalf of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, please see the attached fact sheet in advance of today’s floor debate on H.Res. 599, Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives with respect to United State’s policy towards Yemen, and for other purposes,” wrote Fridman.
The attached set of talking points suggested lines of attack to defeat the Khanna resolution. “The Gentleman from California (Rep. Ro Khanna) has stated that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are de facto allies of AQAP,” reads one of the bulleted statements on the document, referring to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. “This is absolutely false.” But independent reports closely back up Khanna’s argument. The Associated Press, in a major investigation last year, found that Saudi Arabia’s military had negotiated secret payouts to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and had even gone as far to recruit Al Qaeda fighters into its coalition against the Houthis.
The lobbyist document lists ways in which to portray the rebel Houthi movement as puppets of Iran, with warnings that any military drawback would facilitate the expansion of dangerous extremist groups.
Later that afternoon, Khanna took the floor to defend his legislation. Royce, then chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, presided over the podium across the aisle to oppose him.
The video from the debate shows Royce recycling many of the lobbyist-provided talking points verbatim during his remarks. (Royce did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.)
“Mr. Speaker, part of the complexity here in this tragedy is that Iran does want to turn the Houthis into a Yemeni version of Hezbollah, thereby turning Yemen into a second Lebanon, where a militia is constantly holding the government hostage,” intoned Royce.
The talking points declare: “Iran wants to turn the Houthis into a Yemeni version of Hezbollah, thereby turning Yemen into a second Lebanon, where a militia is constantly holding the government hostage.”
The Houthis, Royce continued, “are a minority in Yemen, but Iran uses them to exploit divisions between Yemeni society,” a nearly word-for-word repetition of the talking points that read, “The Houthis are a minority in Yemen, and Iran uses them to exploit divisions within Yemen’s society.”
At another point, Royce said that “the Houthis’ slogan is derived from Iran’s own anti-U.S. slogans,” perfectly repeating the very same phrase from the Saudi lobbyist talking points.
The verbatim repetition goes on for several minutes.
The talking points from the Saudi lobbyist were disclosed to the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Foreign lobbyists are required to disclose their communications to Congress, though few have followed the letter of the law until a recent crackdown on FARA enforcement.
While slick talking points about Iranian influence may serve as an effective way for the lobbyists to mobilize political support for a war that has killed tens of thousands and placed over 230,000 at risk of famine, they hardly paint an accurate picture of the conflict.
Saudi Arabia has carefully exploited U.S. and Israeli fears of Iranian power in conflicts around the region. Experts, however, have questioned the degree to which Tehran has shaped the war in Yemen and its ties to Houthi militants.
While political and military leaders in Iran have vocally supported the Houthi rebellion against Yemen’s government, critics challenge the extent to which the rebels rely on financial or military support from Iranian operatives as alleged by Saudi Arabia.
The Atlantic Council, which typically takes a relatively hawkish line on foreign policy, noted in a 2017 report that more “recent evidence from interviews with Houthis suggests that Iran does not enjoy command and control over them,” citing several instances in which Houthi leaders ignored demands from Iran. The think tank added that while Houthis “generally admitted to some limited Iranian backing,” alleged flights connecting the two countries to bring weapons and advisers to the region “never materialized as the war broke out in earnest, putting the airport out of action.”
The Houthi rebellion, however, displaced the previous Saudi-backed government, a turn of events that provoked Saudi Arabia and the UAE to lead a brutal aerial bombardment of the country and a naval blockade of the country’s ports since 2015. For much of the conflict, the U.S. government has provided logistical support, training, and mid-air refueling for coalition warplanes.
Recently leaked documents show that the war has continued in large part through the ongoing weapons transfers from Western military powers, which provide vital munitions and parts needed to maintain the conflict. The vast Saudi spending on military arms comes as the nation has continued to pour money into its lobbying apparatus. As The Intercept previously reported, Saudi Arabia embraced a new surge of lobbying efforts to shape the Trump administration over the last two and a half years, employing as many as 145 registered lobbyists.
Royce, for his part, retired from the House in January. Just weeks after leaving Congress, he joined the lobbying division of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a law firm currently on a $125,000 per month retainer with Saudi Arabia. The law firm lobbies on a range of issues, but recent disclosures show that Brownstein does work to maintain congressional support for the war in Yemen.