Prominent members of Washington’s influence industry are distancing themselves from the government of Saudi Arabia as it faces withering criticism over its alleged involvement in the likely murder of a prominent journalist in a Saudi diplomatic facility in Turkey.
But not everyone is cutting ties. In fact, at least one new lobbying firm has signed on to promote the Kingdom’s interests in D.C.
Just two days after the Turkish government announced an investigation into Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Muslim World League inked a public relations contract with the Washington firm Southfive Strategies, according to public records. The firm will work as a subcontractor for the Saudi-American Public Relations Affairs Committee, a firm run by Saudi national and D.C. resident Salman Al-Ansari that has done extensive U.S. public affairs work in support of the Saudi position on world affairs.
The terms of the contract appear to have been worked out before Khashoggi’s disappearance, with work dating back to late September. But Southfive president Jason Epstein, the former director of legislative affairs for the Jewish service organization B'nai B'rith International, officially signed the contract on October 9, days after the Turkish government’s announcement. The contract was filed with the Department of Justice on October 10.
Under the contract, Southfive will receive a $38,000 retainer for 30 days of work.
The MWL was founded by and received early financial support from the Saudi government. It is now officially independent of the state though the group is still run by the Kingdom’s former Justice Minister, Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa.
While Southfive’s client is not an official arm of the Saudi government, the manner in which it registered its services with DOJ indicates that the firm is effectively promoting Saudi interests. Under U.S. law, “foreign agents” include domestic lobbyists and public relations professionals whose work principally benefits the political interests of a foreign government or political party, even if such entities aren’t the actual clients.
Southfive’s contract says the firm “will provide consulting services to the [MWL] relating to the strengthening of a conference promoting interfaith dialogue and cultural rapprochement.” Epstein did not respond to additional questions about his firm’s work.
That’s a different conference than the international investment meeting in Riyadh this month, from which a number of participants have withdrawn, citing the Saudi government’s alleged role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. But since Southfive signed onto the account, the MWL has sought to defend the Saudi government from charges that it was complicit in that killing.
“The Muslim World League condemned the accusations leveled against Saudi Arabia and the attempts to target its international leadership through the threat of economic sanctions, political pressure and repeated false accusations,” the MWL said in a statement on Monday.
The statement didn’t mention Khashoggi, but it was clearly an allusion to the firestorm that his disappearance has unleashed. Prominent news organizations in particular have sought to distance themselves from the Saudi government and its upcoming Future Investment Initiative conference, often dubbed “Davos in the Desert.”
But the Kingdom has also lost some serious lobbying muscle to the controversy. Last week, the Harbour Group, one of the ten lobbying firms representing the Saudi government in Washington, canceled an $80,000-per-month contract over the Khashoggi affair.
Even as the Kingdom’s business and lobbying associates eye the door, it has managed to maintain at least rhetorical support among high-level U.S. government officials. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, for instance, announced on Monday that his plans to attend the investment conference in Riyadh have not changed.