In the Trump era, Saudi Arabia no longer needs to outsource its lobbying to think-tanks

In the Trump era, Saudi Arabia no longer needs to outsource its lobbying to think-tanks
Comment: closure of pro-Saudi Washington think-tank Arabia Foundation show there is little need for such institutions when personal relationships are the best means of swaying US policy, writes Courtney Freer.
5 min read
07 Aug, 2019
Saudi Arabia's efforts to improve its international image has faced a number of setbacks [Getty]

Last week was certainly eventful for the Saudi PR machine.

On Thursday, Facebook announced that it had suspended over 350 accounts and pages with some 1.4 million followers after it was discovered that they were linked to the Saudi government.

Facebook revealed that over $100,000 was spent on advertisements linked to these accounts.

Earlier that week, Ali Shihabi had confirmed the abrupt closure of the pro-Saudi DC-based think-tank Arabia Foundation that he helped to found, "due to ongoing differences among our donors that made continued operations difficult". 

Since Shihabi's statement was first issued, details have emerged about a lawsuit from former employee Ola Salem who alleges slander and defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional emotional distress, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment, among a series of other charges.

Regardless of the reasons behind the closure, news of the lawsuit has undoubtedly brought unwanted scrutiny on Shihabi and the institution. But it also suggests a broader change and perhaps a shift away from the kingdom approach to lobbying.

The closure of the Arabia Foundation hardly signals the end of think-tanks linked to Gulf governments, however. GCC member states including the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and even Oman are known to make contributions to numerous centres of Middle Eastern studies in Washington. However, these think-tanks differ significantly from the now-defunct Arabia Foundation in that they produce independent research and host events with scholars representing a variety of viewpoints.

Saudi spending on lobbying efforts hardly seems necessary with President Donald Trump and his special advisor Jared Kushner continuing to defend Saudi Arabia in the face of a series of PR disasters.

To be sure, Arabia Foundation was always considered a Saudi propaganda machine, with its most high profile scholar speaking publicly about his personal links with MbS, showing the extent to which those connected to the foundation were, at the very least, also connected to those in political power.

One of the most damning charges in the lawsuit from former employee Ola Salem was that Ali Shihabi allegedly lied about the fact that the institution was funded by the Saudi government. In the aftermath of the foundation's closure, then, the extent of government links to the think-tank could be revealed.

Redundant lobbying

Saudi spending on lobbying efforts through Arabia Foundation hardly seems necessary when it has succeeded in fully coopting the Trump administration.

Today, President Donald Trump and his special advisor Jared Kushner continue to defend Saudi Arabia in the face of a series of PR disasters, including the 2017 kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, a diplomatic feud with Canada over a tweet, an ongoing and largely unsuccessful war in Yemen, the imprisonment of Saudi royals and political activists alike, and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October.

President Trump has also repeatedly praised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS); at the G20 summit in June, he said that MbS was doing a "spectacular job" and is "a friend of mine".

In a further show of support for the Saudis, the Senate last week voted not to overturn arms sales worth $8.1 billion to the kingdom after the House of Representatives vetoed these arms sales last month. This move came after President Trump's declaration of an emergency in May to bypass Congress to provide further arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to "the malign influence" of Iran in the Gulf.

In the aftermath of Arabia Foundation's closure, it has been therefore posited that Riyadh simply does not see the utility of spending on PR initiatives of that type, since it is private relationships that have done the most to secure their interests in DC, perhaps signalling the increasingly top-down and personal nature of relations between Saudi Arabia (and the United Arab Emirates) and the Trump Administration. 

The role of Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba has demonstrated the impact that personal relationships can have, especially when it comes to infiltrating the Trump Administration. Indeed, he was said to have facilitated the meeting between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Jared Kushner that aided their relationship and in turn helped to facilitate ties between Kushner and MbS.

Ambassador Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, who assumed her post as envoy in DC in July and whose father served as ambassador to the United States from 1983 until 2005, has an opportunity to continue strengthening relationships with the Trump Administration without institutions like the Arabia Foundation. 

In this realpolitik world, there is little need for a government-linked think-tank to produce research to justify decisions of policymakers.

There are also other means of shoring up positive international press and moving forward with MbS's ambitious domestic reform plans. Indeed, just days after the announcement about Arabia Foundation, Saudi Arabia announced that it would allow women to travel and apply for passports without male guardians; this new legislation also grants women the right to register births, marriages, and divorces.

This huge change has deservedly garnered considerable positive press but it may also help distract from the fact that many of the Saudi women who advocated such measures remain imprisoned inside the kingdom.

The Trump administration appears far more willing to trust leaders who can offer them stability and security, regardless of how unpopular their domestic or foreign policies may be.

In this realpolitik world, there is little need for a government-linked think-tank to produce research to justify decisions of policymakers; instead, personal relationships and guarantees are the most valuable means of swaying policy in the Trump era.

Dr Courtney Freer is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics and a research officer for the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.