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Saudi Arabia hires new crop of lobbyists with Joe Biden poised to roll back Trump-era relationship

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on a hiring spree for lobbyists as President-elect Joe Biden, who has signaled that he will take a tougher stance with the nation, prepares to take office.

With the potential for a more turbulent relationship with the U.S., Saudi Arabia has been hiring some lobbyists with ties to Republican congressional leaders.

These lobbyists will potentially have more success engaging with GOP lawmakers in the new Congress instead of Democrats or Biden’s administration. Republicans made gains in the House of Representatives during the 2020 election and could have a slight edge in the Senate if they win one of the seats up for grabs in two Georgia runoffs set for early next month.

Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations last year during the Democratic primary that he would scale back U.S. support for Saudi Arabia on key issues.

“I would end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Biden said at the time. “It is past time to restore a sense of balance, perspective, and fidelity to our values in our relationships in the Middle East. President Trump has issued Saudi Arabia a dangerous blank check,” he added.

The kingdom is governed in large part by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. NBC News reported in 2018 that he ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, something the crown prince has denied. The president, at the time, stood by Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s death. The two nations had signed a nearly $110 billion arms deal a year earlier.

The government of Saudi Arabia finished 2018 spending more than $30 million on lobbying activities, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. So far in 2020, the spending has been at $5 million.

A representative from the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

One of the recent hires came through the Larson Shannahan Slifka Group, an Iowa-based public affairs shop that signed a lucrative contract with the Saudi Embassy last year. Also known as the LS2group, the embassy agreed in 2019 to pay it $1.5 million for one year.

New records show LS2 recently brought on Arena Strategy Group, for actions that will “include informing the public, government officials, and the media about the importance of fostering and promoting strong relations between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” a foreign lobbying report says.

The contract started Dec.1, weeks after Biden was declared president-elect, and will include government relations work, the document said. The contract is worth about $5,000 each month.

Arena’s government affairs efforts are led by Mark Graul, a Republican political strategist who was Wisconsin state director for President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. He also was chief of staff for former Rep. Mark Green, R-Wis., when Green was in Congress. Green went on to become the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development under Trump, only to resign earlier this year.

Graul did not return a request for comment.

Saudi Arabia’s D.C. embassy also recently hired Off Hill Strategies for the period spanning the final stretch of the election through the transition period.

The firm is a boutique lobbying shop founded by Tripp Baird, who was once director of government relations at the conservative organization Heritage Action for America. The contract started in late October while Biden was ahead of Trump in almost all of the national polls. It also notes the $25,000-per-month agreement goes until Jan. 18, two days before Biden is set to be inaugurated.

The focus of Off Hill’s lobbying efforts, according to its contract, is to “support the Embassy’s Congressional outreach efforts and further advance bilateral ties between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America.” A separate lobbying disclosure report shows that Off Hill was helping Saudi Arabia with “gathering information regarding the end-of-year omnibus legislation.”

Baird did not return a request for comment.

In another instance, the Saudis turned to a leading public relations firm to support the development of an expensive city development intended to bolster the nation’s growing international ambitions.

According to a filing, an executive at public relations juggernaut Edelman emailed a leader of a massive Saudi land development known as Neom to detail their agreement. Jere Sullivan, the firm’s vice chairman of global public affairs, told Neom that Edelman would provide strategic counsel, media relations, stakeholder identification and engagement, as well as content development.

The agreement, according to the email, is set to last from mid-November into February and is expected to cost up to $75,000 each month.

Neom, according to the foreign lobbying disclosure report for Edelman, is “wholly owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is a sovereign wealth of the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As such its activities are supervised, directed, controlled, financed and subsidized by the PIF.”

The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the Neom project is backed by MBS and the project for the Saudi city-state is worth $500 billion. The Journal reported at the time that by 2030, MBS is hoping this newly developed region will be one of the global hubs for technology, with the Saudi leadership believing it could replace the U.S. tech hub of Silicon Valley. Its anticipated timeline of completion coincides with Biden’s first term as president and would carry beyond 2024.

Neom’s website says that it is a “region in northwest Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea being built from the ground up as a living laboratory” and that it will “provide a plethora of unique development opportunities, as its strategic coastal Red Sea location is notable for its proximity to international markets and trade routes.”

The group says it expects it to complete the project in the next seven to 10 years.

Sullivan declined to comment.


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