Saudis Win Hearts by Lining Pockets

Exclusive: By achieving an odd-couple alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia has cleared away U.S. political resistance to the massive arms build-up that President Trump just embraced, reports Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall (This is the fourth in a series on foreign lobbying.)

Families of the victims and survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have asked the Department of Justice to open “an immediate national security investigation” into a “massive Saudi-funded foreign agent offensive” to “delude Congress” into “shield[ing] the Kingdom from any inquiry into the involvement of its agents in supporting the September 11th attacks.”

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then Saudi ambassador to the United States, meeting with President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, on Aug. 27, 2002. (White House photo)

The complaint marks what is perhaps the most frontal public assault on Saudi influence peddling in Washington since 1981, when pro-Israel critics blasted Riyadh’s successful campaign to win congressional approval for its controversial purchase of AWACS surveillance planes.

The families’ complaint targets Saudi Arabia’s lavishly funded attempts to water down the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). Passed into law last fall, against opposition from the Obama administration, the act gives Americans the right to sue foreign governments that provide “material support” to terrorist groups.

The complaint asserts that after the law passed, “the Kingdom went on a foreign agent spending spree, hiring . . . more than 100 foreign agents to work on its behalf to wage an assault on JASTA. No expense has been spared in the Kingdom’s unparalleled campaign to build a state of the art and nationwide lobbying and propaganda apparatus for the sole purpose of bending U.S. legislative process to its will.”

It also claims that Saudi Arabia and its lobbyists have potentially committed “widespread criminal violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act” by, among other things, concealing their role in mobilizing veterans under false pretenses to back repeal of the law.

According to The Hill, the Saudi government now employs 14 lobbying firms, at an estimated cost of well over $1.3 million a month, more than it spent in all of 2000. Their hired guns include Podesta Group, co-founded by Tony Podesta, one of the Democratic Party’s top fundraisers, and his brother John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s national campaign chairman in 2016; BGR Group, whose name partners include the former head of the Republican Party; and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi.

Besides supporting specific legislative goals like rolling back JASTA, Saudi Arabia cultivates allies in Washington to “keep the focus on what a great ally it is in the Middle East, not on issues like what women are and aren’t allowed to do there,” said a spokeswoman the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.

Saudi Arabia’s agents go to great lengths to play down the country’s human rights abuses, including its many beheadings and cruel floggings of dissidents. According to Lee Fang,

“When Nimr al-Nimr, a peaceful government critic, was executed in January (2016), the Podesta Group helped the regime shape media coverage, providing a quote to the New York Times to smear Nimr as a ‘terrorist.’ Other American consultants working for the Saudi Embassy used social media and other efforts to attack Nimr and justify the execution. . . .

“The influence also extends to promotion of Saudi Arabia’s controversial role in the Middle East, including the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen and the country’s failure to address private financiers of radical Islamic groups such as ISIS.”

Taking Care of Friends

Saudi Arabia manages to exert influence, particularly over the Executive Branch, for a number of economic and geopolitical reasons apart from lobbying. No president can afford to overlook its immense importance as a market for U.S. arms makers or its ability to influence the world price of oil.

Saudi King Salman bids farewell to President Barack Obama at Erga Palace after a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Successive administrations have curried favor with the monarchy to reward its conservative influence in a region that has long been rocked by fiery ideologues like Nasser, Arafat and Khomeini. Saudi Arabia is also valued as an ally in other regions, for example its off-the-books financial support for the Afghan mujahedeen and Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s.

More recently, Saudi Arabia has won strong support from the Obama and Trump administrations for organizing a coalition of Sunni Arab states to oppose the expansion of Iran’s influence in the Middle East. In the name of containing Iran, Washington has kept quiet about Saudi responsibility for killing thousands of civilians in Yemen, and putting millions there at risk of starvation.

In its quest for influence, however, Saudi Arabia takes no chances and spares no expense. Since the 1940s, when their country became an oil superpower, the Saudis have handed out vast sums of cash on a bipartisan basis to powerful and soon-to-be powerful Americans.

When Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was nominated for president in 1992, Saudi business tycoons donated $3.5 million to endow the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas. That November, the King of Saudi Arabia called to congratulate President-elect Clinton — and gave another $20 million to the university.

Years later, as Hillary Clinton was mulling her future campaign for president, the Saudi kingdom donated more than $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. Kuwait and other Gulf interests chipped in many millions on top, no doubt solely because of their shared commitment to fighting AIDS.

Republicans have fared even better. Rich Saudis close to the royal family reportedly invested $80 million in Carlyle Group, the world’s largest private equity firm, after it hired former President H. W. Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker as senior advisers.

Earlier, a billionaire Saudi banker raised eyebrows by rescuing Harken Energy after it appointed George W. Bush to its board of directors. Deals like these made the relationship between the Bush family and the royal family almost legendary, particularly after George W. Bush turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s support for radical Islamists, even after 9/11.

The Bushes and the Clintons were far from unique. In the words of former CIA officer Robert Baer, “finding a high-ranking former U.S. government official who isn’t at least tangentially bound to Saudi Arabia is like searching for a teetotaler at a Phi Gam toga party. . . . Aware that government bureaucrats can’t retire comfortably on a federal pension, the Saudis put out the message: You play the game — keep your mouth shut about the kingdom — and we’ll take care of you, find you a job, fund a chair at a university for you, maybe even present you with a Lexus and a town house in Georgetown.”

One of Saudi Arabia’s most influential ambassadors to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, reportedly told an associate, “If the reputation . . . builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you’d be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office.”

The Arab Lobby vs. the Israel Lobby

Recalling that quote, Alan Dershowitz, the pugnacious Harvard law professor and champion of Israel, once commented, “Yes Virginia, there is a big bad lobby that distorts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East way out of proportion to its actual support by the American public. . . . But the offending lobby is not AIPAC, which supports Israel, but rather the Arab lobby, which opposes the Jewish state.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own “red line” on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

Yet for all its funding, the Saudi (or broader Arab) Lobby doesn’t compare in clout to the Israel Lobby. Its most significant victory — narrowly winning congressional support for Riyadh’s purchase of AWACS surveillance planes in 1981 — was achieved more by lobbying from President Reagan and aerospace contractors than from the desert kingdom’s hired help.

Saudi Arabia’s failure to head off passage of JASTA last year highlights its limited ability to defeat grassroots coalitions that threaten its interests. For all its funding, the pro-Arab lobby has no significant public support in the United States. Arab-Americans are politically much less well organized — or focused on Mideast issues — than their counterparts (including Christian Zionists) in the pro-Israel lobby.

In addition, Americans are much less sympathetic to the Saudi national story of desert Bedouins striking it rich with oil, than to the Israeli story of Holocaust survivors establishing the Middle East’s “only democracy” and making the desert bloom.

However, the old game of comparing the clout of these rival lobbies is no longer relevant. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states today enjoy relatively strong support from Democratic and Republican legislators alike because they have become de facto allies of Israel, pursuing a common campaign of isolating Iran and destabilizing the Assad regime in Syria.

In October 2013, during the height of the impassioned debate over Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu told the U.N. General Assembly, “The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy. And this affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes.”

Reports soon emerged of sub rosa meetings between Israeli security officials and the powerful Saudi princes Bandar bin Sultan and Turki al-Faisal, both former heads of Saudi intelligence and ambassadors to the United States. Such meetings reportedly produced secret strategic agreements between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as joint propaganda campaigns in the United States.

Israel’s staunch supporters in the United States quickly followed Netanyahu’s lead and applauded Saudi Arabia as a great friend.

Soon after the Prime Minister’s U.N. speech, for instance, journalist Robert Parry observed that “American neocons are rallying to the new Israeli-Saudi alliance by demanding that President Barack Obama engage more aggressively against the two countries’ foes in the Middle East, thus ‘bolstering Israeli and Saudi confidence,’ as the Washington Post’s deputy editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl declared.”

Neoconservatives ranging from Max Boot to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board hammered away at that theme, publishing a steady stream of articles calling on the United States to join Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to “stop the new Persian Empire.”

President Trump takes part in ceremony for signing agreement on weapons sales in Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017. (Screen shot from

One manifestation of the new alliance is the fact that U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia soared 280 percent from the five-year period 2005-10 to 2011-16. Such massive arming of Riyadh simply would not have been possible without the support of pro-Israel members of Congress.

Defenders of the Israel and Saudi lobbies will claim that they are not subverting the U.S. political system but rather supporting U.S. national interests by promoting the containment of Iran, which they misleadingly brand the world’s “chief sponsor of terrorism.”

In truth, however, the policies they endorse have little genuine public support and have proven dangerous and fabulously expensive to Americans.

The failure to press for a lasting solution to the plight of Palestinians continues to fuel anti-Americanism in the Middle East and other parts of the world. The destabilization of Syria has produced millions of desperate refugees and provided haven for thousands of hardened Islamist fighters. The war in Yemen, supported by Washington in the name of resisting Iran, has become one of the world’s great humanitarian crises.

The Israeli-Saudi ongoing proxy wars with Iran create obstacles to achieving peaceful settlements in the theaters of America two biggest recent wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington’s silence on the human rights violations of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states makes a mockery of its universal moral claims. And the failure to squarely address Saudi Arabia’s contributions to the growth of Islamist militancy heightens the insecurity of all nations threatened by misguided jihadists.

Reversing these disastrous policies will require years of continued debate and political organizing. But it will also require public exposure and genuine discussion of the malign influence of foreign money and propaganda on the U.S. political system, not just the current focus on alleged Russian activities.

[This is the fourth in a series on foreign lobbying. The previous installments were “The Open Secret of Foreign Lobbying”; “How China Lobby Shaped America”; and “Israel Pays the Political Piper.” Next: The Turkish Lobby.]

Jonathan Marshall is a regular contributor to

24 comments for “Saudis Win Hearts by Lining Pockets

  1. May 22, 2017 at 22:00

    But on the other hand, I have it on good authority that the Saudis hid all their women as well as their camels before Trump arrived in the desert kingdom. They weren’t taking any chances – they know he likes foreign women too. Yeh, I know – Marla is from Georgia but for Trump that’s a foreign country…he gets it confused with the place in the Caucasus – you know, where that despot with the thick mustache was born…

  2. akech
    May 22, 2017 at 19:31

    Listen to what other people are saying and please, cogitate!

    Where does the US Treasury spend its money and why?
    The USA and its allies are engaged in the destruction of country after country including its their own people. USA and its allies are not involved in job creation for their people; additionally, they are involved in loading the rest world with debts. American young people are loaded with massive college debts with no proper jobs to pay for it! How are these war activities and debts being rationalized? Do American public agree with following assertions from to the founder of Ali Baba on globalization and its potential benefits ? _________________________________________
    When Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and sprayed its people with chemical weapons (1980-1988), everybody was either silent or cheered Saddam and sold it more ammunition to continue the war. It was not until Hussein attacked Kuwait that the west turned against their darling . Can you relate to the way Iranians and Syrians point of views?
    This may be a dramatization of the sale of $110 billion arms to Saudi Arabia and the Wall Street angle:

  3. ranney
    May 22, 2017 at 17:21

    Mr. Marshall, your series has been illuminating, but I hope you plan to top it off with a quick run down of American “lobbying” in foreign countries. You could start with Libya where we funded NGOs to start protests against the ruling government and ended up bombing the place into oblivion. Or you could start with Iraq and the embargos on food and medicine we put in place that resulted in the deaths of 500,000 children under age 5 (up to age 5 was all the UN would count, or maybe had records for). Madeline Albright said the deaths were “worth it”. Of course after that we simply went ahead and bombed that country to smithereens and we are still doing it. Is “shock and awe” a form of lobbying by another name? I think a case can be made for that.
    Next, you could talk about Ukraine and the $5 Billion we spent on NGOs (according to Victoria Nuland) to get the people to protest the government. Either we didn’t know we were funding Nazis or we just didn’t care, and we all know what happened next. We now can guess when the bombs are going to start to fall on that country – though maybe not, because the “real prize”, as some famous cold warrior said, is Russia. And Ukraine is the doorway to that.
    There’s lots of examples of US “lobbying” to choose from – we’ve been doing that for more than 100 years, but I’d make it easy on yourself and only tackle the last 70 years, or maybe just the last 40 years. That should make it fairly easy. The point being that not Russia, or China or Arabia can hold a tiny match, let alone a candle, to our “lobbying” in other country’s affairs. I wonder if the MSM will ever bother to mention that?
    As George Orwell said “Omission is the most powerful form of lie”.

    • May 23, 2017 at 11:59

      I hope someone creates a kind of alternative Wikipedia to document these facts. Wikipedia, currently, has the look/feel of a CIA dominated operation. At any rate, Marshall is doing a great job and I hope he takes you advice.

  4. Danny Weil
    May 22, 2017 at 17:16

    Good article but Bob should do a piece on BCCI and the Safari Club. This is the origin of all of this, or one can say it began with FDR. The Saudis are as bad if not worse than the Zionists. Now they both work together with the neo cons to remake the Middle East to assure their dictatorships prevail. They won’t. Saudi Arabia is a tinderbox. They also control a huge amount of US intelligence gathering and off the book wars.

    • May 23, 2017 at 11:57

      Good comment. But the Saudi Kingdom is in no danger of dissolving. They are a police state with a lot of money and therefore able to hire the most effective thugs in the world to maintain it and their rule guaranteed by Israeli and U.S. (and other Western) intel agencies. Only if there is an internal revolt by the security services is there any hope for regime change in the KSA and even then I’m not sure.

      • Anon
        May 24, 2017 at 07:33

        Yet the instability of KSA could dissolve it if the oil was embargoed.

        Israel can be embargoed on all fronts, and offered by Russia to Isis and AlQaeda to split it from KSA.

  5. John P
    May 22, 2017 at 17:11

    I wonder if this is all a scam, rather like that when Israel armed Iran, and the US Iraq and then they let both go at it in the hope they would reduce each other to has beens. I just look at who gains the most out of all this mess and keep coming to the conclusion that its the Yinon plan with Iran and Saudi Arabia knocking each other out. The US military establishment gains. Perhaps, dangerously, it’ll be the Russians helping Iran, or rather the unpopularity of the royals which will level Saudi Arabia with an internal revolt. The Israelis meanwhile sit their smiling abetting which ever side is losing. :-)

  6. May 22, 2017 at 17:05

    Excellent article, Jonathan Marshall, again showing that it’s all image which matters over principle in this corrupt age. Truth decay! The Duran has an excellent article, too, that contrasts Saudi Arabia with Iran on 10 major issues, well worth reading, and one can see the vast difference between the two, shows how modern Iran has become while Saudi Arabia has advanced only in wealth for its rulers.

  7. May 22, 2017 at 14:41

    I believe America is a captured country, or should I say a corrupted country? It is controlled by the deep state, the establishment, or whatever one wants to call them? The Saudis appear to have an inordinate amount of influence as does Israel.

    • Danny Weil
      May 22, 2017 at 17:17

      Yes, a consortium of banks, oil companies, the Saudis and the Zionist work hand in hand with intelligence agencies all over the world and the Praetorian Guards for the one percent.

  8. Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
    May 22, 2017 at 12:26

    If American voters were smart, lobbies can spend all the money they want but will not defeat the voters!! Americans do NOT want to face the real sad reality which is the near complete ignorance and passivity they have. Please read a book called Victims

    A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character

    • Danny Weil
      May 22, 2017 at 17:21

      Americans are not the smartest bulb in the light fixture that is for sure. Most would rather be entertained than educated. All of this is part of the rancid floundering of Empire

    • May 23, 2017 at 11:52

      Americans are in desperate straights not so much economically, but socially. While American culture has tended towards resenting learning. Socially, if I express my superior knowledge in public this creates enormous resentment whether it is on Facebook, on sites that allow comments. Why? Because Americans are insecure and not sure where they belong. We lack a coherent mythological framework which in normal for most human cultures. Our strength is that we are multi-cultural society in many ways but the other side is that we lack a common framework for agreement. Part of the reason for this has been deliberately engineered through advertising, marketing, public relations and propaganda (we have now and have had since WWI the most sophisticated and intensely focused system in the world). Thus intelligent conversation about issues is impossible. Only a constantly shifting system of tribal mythology influences people. I think most Americans are in denial not only about politics but about culture and personal lives. We are desperately looking for certainty of dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” and thus the popularity of super-hero movies which should tell you all you need to know about the state of our culture. Americans are in pain, depressed, anxious and so on so this situation is in transition.

      To protect ourselves, therefore, we must be in a continuing state of denial until life forces us into finding a new basis of meaning.

  9. mike k
    May 22, 2017 at 11:53

    The criminals in the US congress are close friends of foreign Mafiosi. The high levels of government, finance, industry, etc. are only “high” in the sense that they are high up in the criminal conspiracies that pretend to be our government. Criminals have taken over our entire society. The more money people have the deeper they are in crime. The best thieves run our society. Crime pays. Try to dislodge them, and they will try to kill you.

  10. Drew Hunkins
    May 22, 2017 at 11:22

    The sale of any Washington military hardware and weaponry to the Saudi monarchy is an indirect and not so circuitous path to simply handing over weaponry to al-Qeada, Daesh, al-Nusra, ISIS or whatever else the violent Sunni extremists are being referred to at the moment by the Zio-Washington dominated militarist Western mass media.

    If any power faction in the world desires that the Syrian civil war rage for another decade or perhaps also desires an all out war on Iran, Washington providing guns and ammo to the silver-spoon scion Bin Salman is the surest way to keep a constant flow of pools of blood marinating the ground in the Middle East.

    Isn’t it fascinating the way our Western militarist establishment press operates: Assad, Jong Un, Rouhani, Putin, and Maduro are all held out as the devil personified but ask a U.S. citizen who Bin Salman is or what he stands for and you’ll likely get a blank stare.

    • Danny Weil
      May 22, 2017 at 17:18

      Right, all the organizations you mention came out of the Wahai sects used in Afghanistan and set up by Bin Laden. The Saudis are behind the deaths of millions.

  11. john wilson
    May 22, 2017 at 11:22

    Its all about dollars. What Trump says or thinks is irrelevant he’s just done a multi billion dollar deal with the people who count, who don’t care whether he likes Muslims or not. There’s no morality in international relations, just dollars and support for wars. Talking about getting rid of ISIS between Trump and the Saudi’s is farcical and just for show. Everyone knows the Saudi’s finance, arm and support the Jihads. The whole thing about red carpets, gold medals, endless handshakes and wax like smiles is for the media and public consumption. The curious thing is they actually think the public gives a damn. I doubt there is a soul on the planet who doesn’t think what absolute rsoles these people are!!

  12. tom
    May 22, 2017 at 11:17

    They do what they want in total disregard to law.
    This is Organized Crime. Nothing Else.

    • Danny Weil
      May 22, 2017 at 17:18

      “The history of the world is the history of organized crime.” Votlaire

    • Sam F
      May 24, 2017 at 07:21

      Yes, this government by organized crime is the effect of economic concentrations which did not exist when the Constitution was written: the ancient crimes of history repeated in the new domain of economic power. The Constitution did not protect the institutions of democracy, elections and mass media, from such influence, and now they are completely owned by oligarchy. In addition, we have information power controlled by oligarchy, by mass media, search engines, and secret agencies. These can in principle be regulated to restore democracy.

      Jefferson was quite right that “the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants” in every generation, for this is the only language of the tyrant. This is long overdue

      We must find the ways, not only to educate citizens morally and politically, but primarily to organize to destroy oligarchy and its economic power over elections, mass media, and public information. We succeed only when we have secured amendments and laws to protect these tools of democracy from oligarchy. We must call out those who create divisions and promote one group, theory, or candidate over another. We must create progressive political parties that truly represent their supporters and form coalitions to elect candidates.

  13. exiled off mainstreet
    May 22, 2017 at 11:10

    As is indicated, Israel and the Saudis work in tandem to block civilization in the middle east and threaten it elsewhere.

  14. Joe Tedesky
    May 22, 2017 at 11:01

    While American tax dollars go to fund this insanity, the Saudi – Israeli money lobbies to turn democracy on its head.

    • Danny Weil
      May 22, 2017 at 17:20

      Yes, and Ivanka got one hundred million this trip alone for her fight for Women Entrepeneurship that you know the Saudis just love. she got a kick back from the one hundred million that the Saudis got from Trump. America is truly a family business.

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