POLITICS
09/02/2015 01:40 pm ET

How Wealthy Arab Gulf States Shape The Washington Influence Game

With million-dollar investments on K Street, Arab autocrats make it difficult for those they dislike to get a hearing in D.C.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- The United Arab Emirates spent more than $12 million on lobbying and public relations here in 2014.

That cash secured representation from several of Washington's best-known power player firms. Through them, the UAE expanded its network of trusted contacts and sympathizers throughout the machinery of the U.S. government. And in the process, it shattered its previous record of spending in D.C., according to an extensive analysis by the Middle East-focused news outlet Al-Monitor. "The UAE spending spree has soared to new heights over the past few years as the Gulf power has gotten bolder," the outlet reported on Aug. 3.

Such spending has become de rigeur for the UAE and fellow regimes in the Middle East. Al-Monitor's examination of their spending shows that between them, these governments are almost uniformly increasing their stakes in the game of influencing U.S. policy.

The Huffington Post combed through foreign disclosure records to identify the D.C. firms that have recently been on the payroll of Sunni Gulf states. The examination revealed a who's who of power players, among them DLA Piper, Akin Gump, The Camstoll Group, Kemp Goldberg Partners, Hill & Knowlton, Karv Communications, Edelman and the Glover Park Group.

Other firms include Hogan Lovells (where former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman represents the UAE), Joe Trippi & Associates, Qorvis, Sorini, Sanitas, Squire Patton Boggs, Just Consulting, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, Lewis Baach, Friedlander Group, The Harbour Group, Potomac Square, Levick Strategic Communications, Levant Suez, Portland PR and Gallagher Group -- a list that encompasses the bulk of K Street power in Washington.

All were hired by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain or Kuwait at some point in the last three years, HuffPost has found.

The Gulf states use these firms to air their worries about what they see as the chief threats to their rule -- homegrown activists and Iranian muscle -- and to keep U.S. support flowing. They're also employing the firms to gain political protection for their broad range of business interests, which include manufacturing chips for U.S. military technology and supporting state-linked airlines currently under attack by their U.S. competitors. 

But the Gulf states aren't simply bolstering the chance that their concerns will be heard by decision-makers in the executive branch or on the Hill. These Sunni Arab autocracies are ensuring that their perspective -- the view that status quo stability, even if that involves repression, is the chief priority in the Middle East, and that Shiite Iran is a disruptive influence that should almost never be trusted -- has the best chance of getting a hearing, according to longtime observers of the lobbying world. 

That's because powerful lobbyists who have big-ticket contracts with these Gulf governments inevitably become less likely to consider taking on clients with divergent opinions.

One high-profile former lobbyist with experience at some of K Street's largest operations explained why, requesting anonymity to be able to speak freely.

"The first roadblock would be the originating attorney or lobbyist. If you bring in $100k a month [on a] contract, you are going to be pretty defensive about any new matters that could even come close to pissing off a contract of that size," the former lobbyist told HuffPost in an email.

Even if others in the firm eventually win the debate, he continued, the question of the potential new client would then have to be raised with the standing client.

"That's never a fun thing to undergo," he wrote, and it's unlikely that firms would even raise the prospect of representing an entity their valuable clients dislike unless the two share some kind of narrow interest.

So were a firm to have a lucrative contract with, say, Saudi Arabia, it's simply more likely to seek new business with folks Riyadh approves of -- or even with entities that are connected to Riyadh, like state-owned companies.

The rule, the former lobbyist told HuffPost, is "take the low-lying fruit and avoid the tough ask/conflict."

That kind of thinking makes it nearly impossible for many of Washington's most effective lobbying firms to consider working with clients like domestic dissidents in the Arab Gulf states, even if they somehow could pay for such representation.

This logic is not legally required, according to Lydia Dennett, who tracks foreign influence in the U.S. for the Project On Government Oversight. But it appears to make a difference by making clear to opponents of the Gulf regimes (and, for that matter, other big foreign spenders) that they are unlikely to find an in on K Street. A POGO analysis of foreign influence between 2009 and 2012 unearthed no instances of lobbying firms dealing with conflicts between standing clients and potential new ones, Dennett told HuffPost in an email.

Groups that want to see U.S. policy force greater progress on human rights in the Gulf are well aware that the cards are stacked against them.

Kate Kizer, the government relations officer at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, described the situation she faces when advocating in Washington for steps the Bahraini government dislikes.

"Relative to its size, Bahrain has punched above its weight in the PR & lobbying game; some estimates have their spending on public relations at more than $32M since the uprising in 2011," Kizer told HuffPost. She said the lobbying and public relations that Bahrain purchased appeared to have won its government triumphs even though it has yet to meet promises about integrating popular dissent following protests it brutally crushed in 2011.

Kizer pointed specifically to the Obama administration's June announcement that it would once again sell Bahrain heavy weaponry and weapons that can be used to suppress public protests. Al-Monitor called that development and recent U.S. pledges to further arm Bahrain against Iranian influence signs that Washington had "turn[ed] [the] page on Bahrain's crackdown."

For critics of Gulf policy who can't match the investments that make such victories possible, the focus turns to making effective arguments, Kizer said. That includes showing U.S. officials that the human rights situation in the region remains appalling, a strain for Gulf citizens that drives some to extremism and poses a risk for their countries' futures.

"Throwing money at these issues is not going to make them go away," Kizer wrote in an email to HuffPost. "As advocates for human rights and democracy, which have always been cornerstones of American values, we believe that policies built around these ideals will always win in the end."

Matt Ramos and Dayana Morales Gomez contributed reporting.

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