Fahad Nazer, the spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s embassy in the U.S., was in the hot seat. After providing background on U.S.-Saudi ties during a Zoom panel last Friday, Nazer faced an uncomfortable question from the moderator: would the murder of Jamal Khashoggi damage bilateral relations?
Nazer flatly rejected the possibility, stating, “We in Saudi Arabia saw the murder as a horrible crime,” and assuring his audience that “the people who committed this crime… are doing long prison sentences as we speak.” Nazer rejected the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment, released earlier this year, that specifically blames Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) for the assassination of Khashoggi. Instead, Nazer repeatedly trumpeted MBS’s “Vision 2030” reforms, expounding on his green power agenda, business-friendly attitude, and investment in arts and tourism, all while casting the monarchy’s role in the devastating war in Yemen as a “war of necessity.”
While Nazer’s whitewashing of MBS’s deplorable actions might be unsurprising, his audience for this talk was anything but. Nazer wasn’t speaking with Beltway pundits, Members of Congress, or even the press–he was talking to students from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
What was Nazer even doing speaking to students at a small public university, far away from the limelight of D.C.? In short, he was doing his part in a Saudi campaign to build grassroots support in the U.S. for a Gulf monarchy.
The event on Friday was just the latest installment in a now year-and-a-half old Saudi campaign to woo Main Street America, which has included stops at dozens of other venues, including the Wyoming Global Business Forum, the Maine World Affairs Council, and the Greater Des Moines Partnership. At events like these, Saudi officials like Nazer and the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, promote the benefits of the U.S.-Saudi partnership and reforms like Vision 2030, while glossing over or outright ignoring Saudi transgressions, including the murder of Khashoggi and the thousands of civilians killed in Saudi airstrikes in Yemen.
But these events aren’t just a creation of the Saudi embassy itself: they’re also the product of an immense influence campaign directed by the Saudi lobby in the U.S. As detailed in a forthcoming report on the Saudi lobby from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, where we work, Saudi Arabia has launched a massive campaign in at least 22 states to influence the hearts and minds of middle America.
Much of this work has been done by just one firm: Larson Shannahan Slifka Group, also known as LS2, an Iowa-based public relations firm that reported more than 1,700 political activities on the Saudi’s behalf in just 2020. In recent months, Larson has farmed some of this work out to subcontractors, signing deals with other PR firms with specialized state-level expertise. One of these firms is Arena Strategy, a “grassroots mobilization, public affairs and public relations consulting firm” headquartered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a key player in promoting last Friday’s forum at UW-Green Bay.
Arena Strategy’s founder, Mark Graul, has spearheaded these efforts since signing a $7,500 per month contract with LS2 in December 2020. Graul has strong ties to Republicans in Wisconsin: he previously aided legislative leadership in Madison and directed President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in the state. According to Arena Strategy’s agreement with Larson, the firm’s activities are aimed at “informing the public, government officials, and the media about the importance of fostering and promoting strong relations between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
And, as the UW-Green Bay event indicates, Arena Strategies has been working diligently to build grassroots ties for Saudi Arabia across the Badger State. In emails to contacts at government offices and business groups like the Wisconsin Technology Council, the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, and Brown County, the firm has advertised Saudi initiatives like the NEOM Line, a planned smart city built with the support of MBS. The two professors who moderated last Friday’s talk were also contacted by Arena Strategies, as was the host of “Fresh Take,” a radio show in the Appleton, WI area, securing an interview for Nazer in February.
To be sure, there’s nothing unusual or illegal about a foreign lobby promoting business opportunities or reaching out to the American public. What makes this Saudi campaign unique isn’t what they’re saying, it’s what they’re not saying. The Saudi lobby has sought to build an astroturfed network of support in the states, wooing local entrepreneurs and trusted public officials with glossy pamphlets on MBS’s futuristic initiatives, while eliding the less attractive parts of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, from the war in Yemen to the killing of Khashoggi.
Additionally, these events have also been used by the Saudi lobby to rebuild influence on Capitol Hill, without informing Members of Congress of the Saudi lobby’s role in organizing them. The Kingdom’s lobbying firms in D.C. have repeatedly promoted these forums to Members of Congress as proof of constituent engagement and support for the U.S.-Saudi alliance, neglecting to mention that these very events were organized by other firms working for the Saudis. Perhaps it should come as no surprise if in the next weeks an email lands in Senator Ron Johnson’s (R-WI) inbox describing the “overwhelmingly positive feedback” Nazer received at his forum in Green Bay, as has happened after past events with Saudi representatives.
What should be done about this astroturfed public relations campaign? Congress can start by strengthening the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). As we at the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative have documented, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have proposed measures to update this decades-old law for the 21st century. Requiring more frequent filings and disclosure notifications and updating the electronic FARA system – ideas which all have bipartisan backing – would enable journalists and public officials to better track foreign lobby activities.
Additionally, it’s imperative that the public and Members of Congress know when an event they’re watching or hearing about was orchestrated by registered foreign agents working for a foreign power. Without this transparency the public and policymakers can be too easily duped into believing there is real support in middle America for the Saudi monarchy, when in reality, this is little more than a mirage.