Saudis scramble for Washington allies

Saudis scramble for Washington allies

Saudi Arabia is intensifying its outreach to Capitol Hill, fighting scrutiny on two fronts amid allegations that the kingdom has ties to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In recent days, Americans working for the Arab kingdom have scheduled meetings with congressional offices and circulated two documents praising the work Riyadh has done to fight terrorism.

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The push is part of an effort to counteract what supporters of Saudi Arabia consider to be pervasive skepticism about its support for the U.S.’s fight against terrorism, due in part to the emotions surrounding 9/11 and mounting criticism from prominent members of Congress.

Saudi Arabia’s critics are “delving into conspiracy theory territory,” one consultant hired by the kingdom told The Hill.

“The effort here is to display how the Saudis are working lockstep with the U.S. on the financial, operational and ideological fronts in countering extremism and fighting terror,” the consultant said.

“It is to show to the broader public and to the pundits and to the media here in D.C. and the broader U.S. public that it is truly a joint effort between the Saudis and the Americans.”

The messaging will be tested on Tuesday, when a House subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on the U.S. and Saudi efforts to combat terrorism.

“We will have a hearing and find out one way or the other if the Saudi government — members of the Saudi government — helped in any way in the 9/11 attack,” Rep. Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeTexas New Members 2019 Cook shifts two House GOP seats closer to Dem column Five races to watch in the Texas runoffs MORE (R-Texas), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, told the conservative Center for Security Policy in an interview published this weekend.

“I’m not saying they did, but we’re going to find out — and also whether the Saudi government has had any relationship with terrorist financing since then.”

The flurry of activity is partly the result of a broader, sustained friction between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, something that has been exacerbated by President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a regional foe.

“The kingdom certainly has an image or a PR problem in the West in general, but specifically in the United States,” said Fahad Nazer, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a think tank that has received funding from the Saudi embassy.

“I think there are Saudis who think they need to do a better job of contesting this narrative.”

In recent months, that pushback has translated to the foreign minister and U.S. ambassador conducting interviews and writing op-eds for major publications like The New York Times, Newsweek and The Huffington Post. 

Now the pressure is cresting, especially on Capitol Hill.   

On one hand, the Obama administration is nearing a decision on whether to release 28 secret pages from a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 terror attacks, which are said to detail relationships between high-level members of the Saudi government and the al Qaeda hijackers.  

Riyadh has long denied allegations that it in any way supported terrorists, even though most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.

The kingdom has pushed for release of the 28 pages, if only to quiet the simmering scrutiny from its critics. Still, it expects a blowback if and when the pages are released.

Secondly — and more worryingly for the Saudis — the Senate this month moved with unexpected speed to easily advance legislation that would allow victims of terrorist attacks to sue nation-states that supported the perpetrators. The bill appears designed with Saudi Arabia and its alleged connections to 9/11 in mind.

The legislation, called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), is pending in the House Judiciary Committee. Panel Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteHouse GOP probe into FBI, DOJ comes to an end Murkowski to reintroduce bill to help abused Native American women FBI hits GOP chairman over push to clear sensitive transcripts by Christmas Eve MORE (R-Va.) is a supporter of the bill, and action is anticipated this summer. Staffers for the committee have already met with representatives from Saudi Arabia, as well as with the State Department and families of victims of 9/11, a committee aide said.

Poe is a co-sponsor of the bill, and his hearing on Tuesday is likely to give a clearer picture of how much support the bill has in the House, even though his Foreign Affairs subcommittee does not have jurisdiction over it.

Senior Saudi leaders have warned the bill would undermine investor confidence and could force the kingdom to sell off U.S. assets.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, which it says would degrade sovereign immunity protections. In doing so, Obama has gone toe-to-toe with Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDem senators debate whether to retweet Cardi B video criticizing Trump over shutdown William Barr's only 'flaw' is that he was nominated by Trump Cardi B expresses solidarity with federal workers not getting paid MORE (N.Y.), the likely next Senate Democratic leader and a sponsor of the legislation.

Saudi Arabia’s allies are pushing back on both the release of the 28 pages and the terrorism bill with a pair of memos that have been circulated around Washington.

The first, a 34-page analysis of the 28 pages, acts as a prebuttal to the pages’ release, claiming any loose ends were subsequently chased down and came up empty. Indeed, the 9/11 Commission report — which came out two years after the separate congressional analysis containing the classified 28 pages — investigated the matter and “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al Qaeda.

However, that assertion “does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda,” the report added.

In addition, Saudi Arabia last week began circulating a hefty 104-page volume with color photos describing its efforts to defeat “the men, the money and the mindset” that supports terrorism. The white paper, which was published shortly after the Senate passed JASTA, devotes multiple pages to the kingdom’s efforts to halt the financing of terrorism, including through charity groups.

Saudi Arabia employs eight different lobbying, legal and consulting firms in Washington.

The messaging efforts have been derided by lawyers representing family members of 9/11 victims, who accuse Riyadh of “whitewashing” history with its messaging.

But there are some indications that the effort is having a moderating effect on Saudi Arabia’s critics on Capitol Hill.

Poe’s hearing was originally titled “Terrorism and the Saudi Royal Family” but has since been relabeled “The U.S.-Saudi Arabia Counterterrorism Relationship.” A spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry about the title change.