“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with. … We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” said professional golfer Phil Mickelson of the Saudi dictatorship, which is financing LIV, an upstart golf league and a rival of the PGA Tour. In an interview last November, Mickelson explained that the league is nothing more than “sportswashing” by a repressive government.
“Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?” Mickelson posed at the time, claiming that the opportunity was too good to pass up. Ten months later, Mickelson has in some ways become the face of LIV Golf. He’s played in every LIV tournament this summer, including an event held at one of former President Donald Trump’s golf courses. He’s suffered hecklers and expressed his “empathy” for 9/11 victims who wrote a letter to Mickelson and other LIV golfers explaining: “When you partner with the Saudis, you become complicit with their whitewash, and help give them the reputational cover they so desperately crave — and are willing to pay handsomely to manufacture.”
Through LIV Golf, the Saudi dictatorship has made Mickelson the highest-paid athlete in the world, with an estimated $138 million in earnings in the past 12 months. In that time, he didn’t win a single golf tournament.
In working with Saudi Arabia despite understanding the regime’s myriad transgressions, Mickelson is far from alone. His most prominent peer, President Joe Biden, famously called the Saudi government a “pariah” on the campaign trail in 2019 and this summer shared a fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, as he agreed to sell the kingdom billions of dollars’ worth of weapons.
There was a moment when the Saudi foothold in the U.S. — for years supported by an extraordinarily well-financed lobbying and influence operation — appeared to be in trouble. Starting in October 2018, the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the behest of MBS sent just about every facet of Saudi influence reeling. Some countries suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and more issued travel bans against those suspected of the killing. Several lobbying and public relations firms stopped working for the Saudis. Some think tanks pledged to stop taking Saudi money. Prominent American universities that had taken tens of millions of dollars from the Saudi monarchy put those ties under review. Even the sports and entertainment world spoke out against the Saudi regime’s brutality.
But in professional sports as in politics, these initial outcries and severed ties have been quieted and mended in the nearly four years since Khashoggi’s murder. Just like Biden and Mickelson, many of the people and organizations that once treated Saudi Arabia’s rulers like pariahs are now welcoming them with open arms.
When several lobbying and public relations firms terminated their contracts with Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s murder, the kingdom doubled down on the firms that remained on its payroll. In just the first six weeks after Khashoggi was killed, Qorvis Communications, the long-serving PR agency for the kingdom in America, received nearly $18 million from the Saudi government, according to a filing the firm made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.
Qorvis was the same firm that helped Saudi Arabia resurrect its reputation after it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks hailed from the country. In just the first year after 9/11, Qorvis received $14 million to provide communications services to increase awareness of “the Kingdom’s commitment to the war against terrorism and to peace in the Middle East,” according to the agency’s FARA filing.
Since then, a Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft analysis of FARA filings found that Qorvis has received more than $100 million from the Saudi government, with huge surges in spending during or after critical moments in U.S.-Saudi relations. These include massive payments in 2003, when Qorvis received more than $11 million from the Saudis as the U.S. went to war in Iraq, and in 2015, the year after Saudi Arabia began its U.S.-backed war in Yemen, when Qorvis received over $10 million from the Saudi Embassy.
After Khashoggi’s murder, Qorvis and other firms that remained on the Saudi payroll delivered mightily for the kingdom, helping the Saudis, particularly MBS, avoid nearly all punishments for Khashoggi’s murder. Congress passed bills that would have ended U.S. support for the disastrous war in Yemen and multiple bills that would have blocked arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But Trump — whom the Saudi regime had long wooed — vetoed every piece of legislation that would have held Saudi leaders accountable for Khashoggi’s murder. The Saudi lobby’s efforts in Congress helped ensure that none of the vetoes would be overridden.
Some of the lobbying and PR firms that dropped Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s murder are now once again taking its money and aiding the kingdom’s resurgence in the U.S.
The Saudi lobby also took the battle for influence in America beyond the Beltway, launching a faux-grassroots campaign that would ultimately touch more than half of all U.S. states. The effort was spearheaded by a public relations firm based in Des Moines, Iowa, called Larson Shannahan Slifka Group, which contacted thousands of small media outlets, local politicians, nonprofits, small businesses, religious organizations, and even high school students on behalf of the Saudi Embassy. The campaign helped the Saudi ambassador and other officials spread a message across the U.S. that the kingdom had deep ties with American businesses and was in the midst of improvements to its human rights record.
And some of the lobbying and PR firms that dropped Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s murder are now once again taking its money and aiding the kingdom’s resurgence in the U.S.
Richard Hohlt, a Trump appointee and longtime lobbyist, terminated his contract with the Saudi government a month after Khashoggi’s death, telling the Center for Public Integrity, “I am currently in the process of reevaluating my representation, my participation, and retirement.” Six months later, Hohlt reported in a FARA filing that he was once again working for the Saudi government. According to his most recent filing from June, Hohlt continues to advise the Saudi Embassy. In the six-month period the filing covers, he received $498,000 for his work.
Like Hohlt, BGR Group also terminated its contracts to represent the Saudi Embassy and the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court — the organization formerly headed by Saud al-Qahtani, whom the U.S. intelligence community named as one of Khashoggi’s killers — shortly after Khashoggi’s murder. But in June, the group once again began representing a Saudi government-funded client: the Muslim World League.
Less than two weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, the Middle East Institute told BuzzFeed News that its “Board of Governors has decided to decline any funding from the Saudi government and to keep the matter under active review pending the outcome of the investigation into the case of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.” But according to the Middle East Institute’s public disclosures, since Khashoggi’s murder the think tank has received more than $600,000 from Aramco Services, whose parent company, Saudi Aramco, is the state-run oil company.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies returned a Saudi grant in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. This June, the director of the Middle East Program at the center explained that while he was confident that returning the Saudi money after the murder of Khashoggi was “the right thing to do,” he was “less sure that continued disengagement is the right decision going forward.” He went on to applaud Biden’s June trip to the kingdom. Like the Middle East Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ public financial disclosures show that Saudi Aramco has continued to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to the organization since Khashoggi’s murder.
Academic institutions — which have collectively received more than $2.6 billion from the Saudi government, according to Department of Education records — were similarly rattled by the public outcry over Khashoggi’s heinous killing. While many of the top recipients of Saudi money publicly announced that they were reviewing their arrangements with the kingdom following Khashoggi’s murder, none actually cut ties. This included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which hosted MBS in March 2018, just six months before he ordered Khashoggi’s death.
After a review of its Saudi funding, MIT revealed that it would maintain its arrangements with the kingdom after all. The university has since accepted nearly $17 million from Saudi Arabia, according to an analysis of Department of Education records.
MIT was certainly not alone: American higher education institutions have collectively taken more than $440 million from Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s murder, according to Department of Education records.
As academic and policy institutions examined their embrace of Saudi influence, another branch of the U.S. elite reconsidered its relationship with the kingdom.
“Hollywood Warms to Saudi Arabia’s Money Again,” proclaimed a November 2021 Hollywood Reporter article, which chronicled the film and entertainment industry’s initial shunning of MBS following Khashoggi’s murder — until late 2021, when Saudi Arabia hosted the Red Sea International Film Festival. The event brought serious celebrity firepower back to the kingdom, featuring performances from top-tier music acts like Justin Bieber and Jason Derulo.
As Politico’s Hailey Fuchs reported last month, a PR firm working for the Saudi government pitched the idea of hosting a Golden Globes-like event in Saudi Arabia, broadcasting a week of “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah from the kingdom, or even creating a Saudi partnership with music festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella.
Bryan Lanza, a partner at the PR firm Mercury Public Affairs — which has lobbied for the release of rival Saudi royals whom MBS has imprisoned — told Politico that these partnerships between foreign governments and celebrities have become increasingly common. “Celebrities will make more money pitching a foreign government than making a film these days,” Lanza said.
While many celebrities have been eager to take Saudi money, so too have a number of sports stars and leagues. World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., commonly known by its shorthand, WWE, has a 10-year deal — allegedly worth nearly half a billion dollars — to host wrestling events in Saudi Arabia. In 2020, the Formula 1 car racing series signed a 15-year deal in which the kingdom agreed to pay a whopping $65 million for every Grand Prix race held there.
“Celebrities will make more money pitching a foreign government than making a film these days.”
The controversy surrounding this Saudi “sportswashing” operation — on which the Saudis have reportedly spent more than $1.5 billion already — is perhaps best personified by the headline-grabbing LIV Golf series that Mickelson, the golf star, at once criticized and embraced. Prior to an LIV Golf event in Oregon this June, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat representing the state, said, “It’s just a page out of the autocrats’ playbook covering up injustices by misusing athletics in hopes of normalizing their abuses.”
LIV Golf was aided in its startup by the subsidiary of a big PR firm that is also on the Saudi payroll, indicating that none of these ventures are an island. As the Saudis’ long-serving spin masters, Qorvis Communications, and more than two dozen other firms showed in their FARA filings, the groups are in regular contact with political, media, sports, entertainment, and business interests across the U.S. Qorvis, in its own words, “[c]oordinated outreach events to connect with think tanks, academic institutions, businesses and other members of the U.S. public regarding matters potentially affecting the interests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
As this Saudi lobby influence operation offers lucrative paydays to those willing to ignore the regime’s transgressions, within Saudi Arabia, critics of MBS’s dictatorial reign continue to fight for their lives.
While Saudi lobbyists tout the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S. as a “global champion for women’s rights,” defenders of women’s rights within Saudi Arabia face stiff prison sentences. Earlier this month, a Leeds University doctoral candidate was sentenced to 34 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for retweeting posts by dissidents, including an activist who advocated for driving rights for women in the kingdom. Similarly, as Saudi lobbyists claim advancements in the rule of law in the kingdom, the rate of executions there has doubled since last year, and MBS’s political rivals and critics are allegedly tortured in Saudi prisons.
As Khalid Aljabri — who has two siblings detained as political prisoners in Saudi Arabia — explained, Biden’s trip to the kingdom “gifted MBS the legitimacy he craves and validated his transnational repression strategy.”
Biden did not hand his gift to MBS alone. It was made possible by the lobbyists, PR firms, think tanks, colleges, and the movie, music, and sports stars who have all taken Saudi money and helped whitewash Saudi Arabia’s wrongdoing.
While these groups cash Saudi paychecks, the many victims of MBS’s tyrannical rule continue to pay the price. As Mickelson prepared to tee off at an LIV event in late July, a heckler in the crowd yelled: “You work for the Saudi royal family!”