Saudi Arabia’s vaunted brigade of American influencers aren't likely to be of much help as the country tries to contain the fallout from the disappearance of a dissident journalist, according to a former senior adviser to President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“This is a government-to-government discussion,” said Jason Osborne, who co-founded a foreign government lobbying firm in 2017. “I don’t think there's anything that a lobbyist could do to smooth this out.”
A trio of high-profile lobbying firms cut ties with the Middle Eastern power in the wake of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and reported murder during an Oct. 2 visit to a Saudi diplomatic facility in Turkey. Saudi Arabia’s public response to the scandal — days of blanket denials and cover stories that U.S. lawmakers aren't buying — didn’t make things any easier on the unofficial envoys who remained on the oil-rich monarchy’s payroll.
“We haven't talked to them, and, quite frankly, I don't know what we could do for them at this point,” Osborne, a partner at Twin Rocks Global LLC, told the Washington Examiner. “It's very difficult to represent a client if you don't know what the message is.”
That difficulty also extends to formal diplomats. Prince Khalid bin Salman flew home last week, and there are unconfirmed reports that he may return to his post as Saudi ambassador to the United States. He was the target of criticism before his departure, as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told reporters that the Saudi diplomat had offered unbelievable explanations for why the Saudis couldn’t provide video confirmation that Khashoggi left their Istanbul consulate in good health.
[Opinion: Saudis claim 'rogue killers' got Jamal Khashoggi; they might as well say a dog ate him]
“These things take on a very large role in terms of people's opinion of how to react to a particular nation,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., warned last week.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Riyadh for Tuesday meetings, as anger over Khashoggi’s fate threatens to upend the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Turkish officials reportedly have evidence that he was murdered and his body dismembered by a 15-person team.
“We're trying to find out what went on,” Trump said Tuesday. “We're all looking at it together. But Turkey and Saudi Arabia are looking at it very strongly, and it depends whether or not the king or the crown prince knew about it in my opinion, number one what happened but whether or not they knew about it. If they knew about it, that would be bad.”
Saudi Arabia is reportedly planning to confess that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate while maintaining that his death was an accident. But that admission won’t do much to rehabilitate the country's public image.
“Because that raises even more issues, I would think,” Osborne said. “It’s not just killing the guy. If you interrogated him to the point where he died, then what techniques did you use?”
The controversy has eroded some of Saudi Arabia’s traditional nodes of influence in D.C. The Harbour Group announced that it would end an $80,000 per-month contract with Saudi Arabia last week. Two more firms — the Glover Park Group and BGR Group — followed suit; they were being paid $150,000 and $80,000 per month, respectively, according to Politico.
The government’s research money also appears to be less of a boon to D.C. think tanks than it once was. The Brookings Institution will no longer receive funding from the monarchy, “effective immediately.” The Middle East Institute told Yahoo News that the nonprofit organization's board of governors “will review the situation and make the appropriate board-policy decisions” at a meeting next week.
“It's pretty obvious that folks are running scared on them,” Osborne said.
The Saudis found lobbyist reserves in Southfive Strategies, according to public documents first reported by the Daily Beast. That company and others who meet with U.S. officials on Saudi Arabia’s behalf might be more useful in assessing the damage than anything else.
“It's gathering intel, at this point,” Osborne predicted of what that lobbying firm would do. “How close to the edge is everybody? Are there folks at the Pentagon that are under a lot of pressure — from the Hill, from the White House, from internally — to put a hold on anything related to the Saudi government?”
Osborne said he’s not interested in working with Saudi Arabia at this point.
“I'd have to have a very good reason to take them,” he told the Washington Examiner. “And money is not a very good reason. I mean, money is nice, but, I'd have to hear their side of the story and what are they doing about it.”