Business & trade, Media wars, Middle East, New in Lobbying, US states

Saudis reach out directly to US states amid bipartisan blowback in Washington

Saudi Arabia is reaching out directly to a growing number of US states in a bid to deepen political and economic ties across the country amid lingering bipartisan criticism in Washington.

This past week two new PR professionals registered as foreign agents of the Royal Saudi Embassy in Washington, expanding the Saudi influence campaign to Wisconsin and Arizona. This brings to nine the number of states where the embassy has established a PR foothold over the past year, according to a Foreign Lobby Report review of Department of Justice lobbying records.

The two new registrants are part of an expanding network of individuals and small firms working as subcontractors or consultants for the Iowa-based Larson Shannahan Slifka Group (LS2 Group), which the Saudi embassy hired in November 2019 for $126,500 per month. The contract calls on the company to provide media outreach and engagement efforts “across select media markets throughout the US” along with “local community engagement.”

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under its transformative Vision 2030 program, is committed to diversifying its economy while continuing to expand their 75
years of partnership with the United States,” former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a Saudi lobbyist with Hogan Lovells, wrote in a recent email to congressional staff highlighting the Saudi outreach to states. “These dual goals are predicated on strengthening the Kingdom’s economic ties with the US and specifically with American businesses in all 50 states.”

Lobbying filing indicate that LS2 Group has hired no fewer than three subcontractors and six consultants over the past year to help with that mission. These include the two new registrants: In Green Bay, Mark Graul‘s Arena Strategy Group signed a $5,000-a-month contract with LS2 on Dec. 1. LS2 also registered Kyle Moyer of Scottsdale as a consultant this month for a $5,000 fee.

The SL2 Group’s Larson said he wasn’t authorized to speak about his work for his client. The Saudi Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Saudi agents all share deep ties to local and state politicians and business groups. LS2 Group Partner Charles Larson, who is a registered agent for the Saudi Embassy, is himself a former member of the Iowa House and Senate and a former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. Graul served as Wisconsin state director for President George W. Bush‘s 2004 re-election campaign, while Moyer handled campaigns in Arizona before launching his public affairs firm Kyle Moyer & Company in 2004.

LS2’s other hired guns on the Saudi account include:

  • South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Dan Lederman;
  • Former Georgia House Majority Leader Jerry Keen;
  • Anne Hathaway of Hathaway Strategies, a former Republican National Committee chief of staff and campaign manager for Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.);
  • Crystal Canney, a former communications director for Sen. Angus King (I-Maine);
  • Kathleen Summers-Grice, a political consultant who has worked on several Republican campaigns in New England;
  • Emily Bir, a former deputy press secretary for the Republican-led Michigan state Senate; and
  • David Cunningham of Summit Information Services in Colorado, whose company biography says he has been involved in federal, state and local politics for over 20 years.

At least three of them — Larson, Lederman and Summers-Grice — previously worked on Saudi Arabia’s 2016 nationwide campaign to build opposition to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which allowed victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks to sue the kingdom. That campaign failed, with 97 senators voting to overturn President Barack Obama‘s veto of the law.

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This time around LS2 Group and its allies have managed to score multiple interviews in local media and appearances in front of local business groups for Saudi officials including the new Saudi ambassador, Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud, embassy spokesman Fahad Nazer and Abdulrahman Bakir, the Vice President for Investment Attraction & Development at the Saudi Ministry of Investment’s US office. There they are able to focus on Saudi priorities such as tourism, trade and investment and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman‘s Vision 2030 plan to move the Saudi economy away from its over-reliance on oil revenue.

Date of agreement
Nov. 1, 2019
Alexandria, Va.
Nov. 7, 2019
North Carolina
June 28, 2020
Nov. 25, 2019
South Dakota
Nov. 26, 2019
June 15, 2020
Sept. 16, 2020
Sept. 16, 2020
Dec. 1, 2020
Nov. 26, 2019
Nov. 22, 2019
Dec. 1, 2020
* Unclear if monthly or one-time fee
** Unclear if extended past Oct. 31, 2020
Source: US Department of Justice / Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)

“Saudi Arabia has faced a decade long lull in foreign direct investment,” said Karen Young, a Saudi expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Attracting new FDI is an absolute priority for the current government.”

That focus was on display at a series of virtual events across the US this summer as Saudi Arabia marked the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the US. A July 16 Zoom meeting hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Des Moines International Trade Council, for example allowed Princess Reema to make the case that the kingdom is giving women more rights and “making great strides in diversifying their economy under Vision 2030, and there is ample opportunity for Iowa businesses in Saudi Arabia,” according to a summary distributed by Bir, the LS2 consultant in Michigan.

For the Saudis, those conversations are a welcome change from the discussion in Washington, which is dominated by lingering criticism of the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and the civilian death toll in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. President Donald Trump helped shield Riyadh from much of the congressional blowback, but President-elect Joe Biden has called for a reassessment of bilateral ties.

“People tend to focus on what the Saudi lobby is doing in DC, but they’ve long been active at the state and local level outside of DC too,” said Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the progressive Center for International Policy. “Given that Biden won’t be the royal family apologist that Trump was, it’s not surprising that the Saudi lobby is looking to expand its influence outside of Washington right now.”

Even at the state level, the Saudis haven’t been able to escape controversy.

Lederman’s involvement has led some South Dakota Republicans to call on him to resign from his position as party chairman. And in Maine, Summer-Grice’s work for LS2 became an issue in a Republican congressional primary in which a campaign manager for one of the candidates worked for her firm, Eaton River Strategies.

Meanwhile relations with Washington remain a key focus of Saudi influence operations, even at the state and local level, as evidenced by Coleman’s reporting back to home-sate senators on Capitol Hill.