Human rights, Middle East, Top Stories

EXCLUSIVE: Mercury lobbies for release of jailed Saudi royals

A top Washington lobbying firm representing the interests of senior Saudi officials arrested on corruption and treason charges over the past four years is turning its attention to Washington in hopes of getting Congress and the Joe Biden administration to demand their release.

Mercury Public Affairs has invited several members of Congress to join counterparts from Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Parliament on a proposed panel in Europe this September, Foreign Lobby Report has learned. The event would highlight the plight of what Mercury portrays as political detainees arrested as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s consolidation of power, including members of the royal family, business figures and human rights activists.

Mercury declined to comment about the engagement. But a five-page briefing document filed with the US Department of Justice this week sheds some light on its work. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires foreign agents to disclose so-called information materials shared with two or more people, suggesting the document was shared with US policymakers.

The detentions are part of a “crackdown by the de facto ruler crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has consolidated his reign with the imprisonment of prominent clerics and activists as well as princes and business elites,” according to Mercury. The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Many of the detained officials were arrested in early November 2017 when Saudi authorities rounded up nearly 400 of the kingdom’s most powerful people, among them royal princes, business tycoons and government ministers, and detained them in the five-star Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Most of them were released after reportedly paying more than $100 billion in what critics dubbed a “shakedown” by the crown prince.

Senior political detainees who remain in detention include the following figures specifically named in the Mercury document:

  • Former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who had been next in line to succeed King Salman before he was stripped of all his positions in June 2017;
  • Crown Prince Mohammed’s uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the only surviving full brother of King Salman;
  • Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a former governor of Riyadh province, and his associate Faisal al-Jarba;
  • Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman and his father Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Mohammed, both businessmen;
  • Former Planning Minister Adel al-Fakieh; and
  • Prince Khalid bin Talal, who was reportedly arrested for opposing the government’s decision to remove the power of arrest from the Islamic religious police.

In a section entitled “what we are asking for,” the document lists four priorities:

  • “Proof of life for those detained”:
  • “Clarification on the specific charges for those still held;”
  • “The release of individuals who are not being charged with a crime”; and
  • “The release of frozen assets held illegally.”

Public records show Mercury registered with the US Department of Justice back in March to provide “strategic consulting, public relations and lobbying services” on behalf of a law firm identified as MGT of DE. George Tucker (bio), a managing director in Mercury’s London office who previously served as a top British diplomat in Kenya, and Toby Denselow (bio), a vice president in the London office, are registered as foreign agents on the account. Mercury has previously lobbied for Qatar and Turkey, both regional rivals of Saudi Arabia.

The US outreach comes as advocacy groups have been urging the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress to press Saudi Arabia on the detainee issue after former President Donald Trump largely shielded Riyadh from criticism. Biden vowed during the presidential campaign to make Prince Mohammed a “pariah” but his administration has declined to sanction him for the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi while hosting the crown prince’s younger brother Prince Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defense minister, earlier this month.


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

According to Mercury’s initial registration with the Department of Justice, MGT of DE represents Abdullah Dhari M. al-Jarba and his family. Faisal al-Jarba was detained in Jordan and handed over to the Saudis in June 2018. The ultimate beneficiaries of Mercury’s lobbying and the exact identity of the MGT of DE law firm however remain unknown.

“The new wrinkle here is you’ve had non-profit advocacy organizations working on this issue for some time. But this is the first case of a high-powered, for-profit Washington lobbying firm getting involved,” said a Washington expert working on Middle East issues. “Let me put it this way: Mercury wouldn’t be doing this for a paltry sum. Which raises questions of, where’s the funding coming from?”

Several Middle East watchers said they suspect Mohammed bin Nayef (also known by his initials MBN) and other royal family members who have fallen out with the crown prince are behind the effort.

“I think there’s a lot more opposition in the royal family to MBS [Crown Prince Mohammed] than is commonly accepted,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who is now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “He has stolen from many of them, significant amounts of money; he has put the kingdom into a war [in Yemen] that it cannot win, which is costing it a fortune.”

Riedel said the US intelligence community has been discreetly pushing for bin Nayef’s release for the past two years because of his cooperation battling al-Qaeda and other terrorism threats as interior minister after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He said the timing of Mercury’s lobbying makes perfect sense as the case for his release is likely to get a “far more receptive audience” from the Biden administration than under President Trump.

“MBN has a very significant fan club in the American intelligence and security establishment, including people at the top like [CIA Director] Bill Burns who know what he’s done in the past, and recognize that we have a deep obligation to this guy,” Riedel said. “The Biden approach has been to try to avoid a public falling out with the kingdom and work in private. Getting MBN released would show that that strategy has at least accomplished one objective.”

Adding to the opacity, Mercury Public Affairs registered with the US Department of Justice as a subcontractor to its London affiliate, Mercury International UK, rather than for MGT of DE itself. As a result, the terms of Mercury’s contract with the law firm, including fees, remain hidden.

Regardless of who’s behind the effort, human rights advocates welcome any attempt to shine spotlight on Saudi detainees. These include Prince Salman Al Saud and his father, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Muhammed, who were arrested in 2018 and haven’t been heard of since November 2020.

“Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman has abandoned none of his brutal tactics, including brazenly disappearing royal opponents like Princes Salman and Abdulaziz, since President Biden’s election,” Abdullah Alaoudh, the director of research for the Gulf at Washington advocacy group DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), said in a statement last month demanding that Saudi Arabia disclose their whereabouts. “The lawless abduction and mistreatment of these men show that the Crown Prince believes himself to be absolutely immune from any demands for accountability from the Biden administration, given its repeated reassurances of support for him.” 

Update: This story was updated on July 20 with comment from Bruce Riedel.