The Saudi Embassy in Washington has hired a former top lobbyist for the conservative Heritage Foundation for a short-term legislative push before Joe Biden is expected to be sworn in as president.
The $25,000-per-month contract with Off Hill Strategies was effective Oct. 19 and lasts through Jan. 18, 2021, right before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. The firm is tasked with providing “federal legislative advocacy and related services to support the Embassy’s congressional outreach efforts and further advance bilateral ties between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States.”
Biden has promised to end the cozy relationship Riyadh has enjoyed with President Donald Trump, calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during a primary debate last year. He has vowed to stop US arms sales for use in the Saudi-led war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and to try to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
“Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil,” Biden said last month.
To get its point of view across amid bipartisan furor over the October 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the civilian death toll in Yemen, the Saudi embassy last year began targeting state lawmakers and other influencers in the US heartland. Last fall the embassy also hired a firm close to the Congressional Black Caucus, which is enjoying unprecedented power with a record-breaking number of African-Americans in Congress and atop key committees.
Off Hill Strategies is the embassy’s first hire of 2020. It joins 11 other lobbying and public relations shops currently registered as foreign agents for the Saudi Embassy under the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The firm is led by the husband and wife team of Frederick “Tripp” Baird and Jennifer Baird, both of whom are registered to lobby on the account.
Tripp Baird played a key role in setting up the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, Heritage Action for America. He has deep ties to Republicans in the Senate, having served as floor assistant to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and later legislative director to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). Jennifer Baird was a former Republican staffer on the Senate Judiciary and House Energy and Commerce committees.
Baird declined to comment about the exact nature of his work for the Saudis. But his past connections hint at some of the priorities during the lame duck and the early days of the new Congress starting Jan. 3.
While largely focused on domestic issues, Heritage Action for America has taken a hawkish stance on Iran and lobbied last year to continue arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The only mention of Saudi Arabia on its web site is a December 2019 blog post endorsing that year’s annual defense authorization bill in part because it “backs Saudi Arabia’s efforts to defend against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.”
Not to be outdone, US human rights groups focused on Saudi Arabia have also been ramping up their activities.
Freedom Forward, a human rights group led by former Amnesty International Middle East advocacy director Sunjeev Bery, recently registered its first lobbyist, US human rights advocate Bethany Alhaidari, who is fighting her Saudi ex-husband in US court for custody of their five-year-old daughter.
The Freedom Initiative, the organization started by US citizen Mohamed Soltan, a former political prisoner in Egypt, hired its first lobbying firm in August to “advocate for political prisoners in MENA.”
And the newly launched Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the brainchild of the late Khashoggi, has made Saudi Arabia one of its three priority countries along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. A little over a month after the group’s September launch, Executive Director Sarah Leah Whitson testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission last week in the latest sign that Saudi Arabia faces an uphill fight on Capitol Hill.
“There’s a lot the United States can do to end its own role in supporting and enabling this abusive government, and to uphold its own responsibility not to commit, or contribute to, human rights abuses,” she said. “The heartening news is that President-elect Joe Biden has clearly and unequivocally promised to end US military and diplomatic support for Saudi Arabia, as he has promised to reassess US interests in the region and ensure they align with American values and international human rights.”