Illustration by Paul Ryding for HuffPost
Saudi government officials killed Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi and then cut up his body with a bone saw, leaving his remains in a still unknown location, a little over a year ago. Their boss, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will soon host some of the richest and most powerful people in the world to talk about how great his country is at an event dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” and he can still count President Donald Trump as a friend, even after the CIA concluded that he likely ordered the murder.
Despite global uproar last year, justice has been at best delayed in the Khashoggi case. “Though little progress has been made until now, it does not have to remain this way,” Khashoggi’s fiancée at the time of his death, Hatice Cengiz, wrote in the Post in late September. “I continue to hope the United States decides to stand for what is right. In the meantime, I will continue seeking justice for Jamal — and hope that people and governments the world over will join me in my quest.”
Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, the prince colloquially known as MBS, have used that borrowed time to shore up their image on the world stage. High-profile backing from Trump has helped.
But it’s the less flashy work that has counted even more. It’s people like the ones below ― let’s call them the Saudi Seven ― who Cengiz and human rights groups will have to confront if there’s any hope for accountability. Khashoggi’s murder “goes beyond religion, language or geography,” she wrote. “It is a matter of humanity.” These are the people who have made it possible so far for Saudi Arabia to remain a member of the international community in relatively good standing — instead of a government shunned for the brutal murder, within another country’s borders, of a citizen who sought refuge abroad.
The Lobbyist: Brad Klapper, At Qorvis
On April 18, 2018, Brad Klapper ended a career of more than a decade in journalism and became a paid agent for the government of Saudi Arabia.
Klapper left his job as a national security editor at The Associated Press to become a senior vice president for media relations at the lobbying firm Qorvis, which the Saudis hired after 15 of their citizens helped to kill more than 3,000 people on September 11, 2001. Within months, Klapper was helping the Saudis respond to their biggest public relations problem since the 9/11 attacks: the murder of a fellow journalist, Khashoggi.
Qorvis is likely the most important node in Saudi Arabia’s sprawling network of influence in the United States. The firm stuck with the kingdom even as, particularly following the Khashoggi killing, similar companies have said they will no longer represent Riyadh, and it’s been rewarded for it. The company earned close to $19 million from the Saudis in the six months after the murder, an amount lobbying expert Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy said is more than half of what the Saudis normally spend across all their agents in a whole year. Qorvis also gained three new contracts linked to Saudi government money in the spring of 2019.
At a challenging time for the company and its client, Klapper is a rare and valuable asset: Someone who influential journalists, lawmakers and government officials know from long experience, which makes them likely to treat outreach from him differently than that from other Saudi mouthpieces. He spent 13 years at the outlet that revealed the Saudis ― and Qorvis ― were secretly paying U.S. veterans to lobby against a bill supported by the families of 9/11 victims, after all.
“The Saudis have amassed quite the collection of folks who’ve gone through the revolving door in all the places of power in D.C.,” Freeman said. “Having folks like that on your payroll really opens a lot of doors that wouldn’t be open for the Saudis and can really transcend having a toxic reputation which I think the Saudis do now.”
Former elected officials seeking roles like Klapper’s have to wait one year before they can lobby their erstwhile colleagues, a period during which the relationship can adjust to a new normal. There aren’t similar regulations for the press ― though the ethical dilemmas for reporters leaving the industry are clear, especially when it comes to working for a client accused of orchestrating the murder of a Washington Post employee.
“If you’re a journalist and you’re seen as somebody who’s working for a reputable outlet and doing objective work and you cross over to work for a foreign dictatorship doing work that is not objective, I think it’s worth having a cooling-off period so people know what you’re doing: this is somebody who’s working to push a Saudi agenda,” Freeman said.
Klapper and Qorvis did not respond to requests for comment.
The Banker: John Flint, Formerly At HSBC
The story about Saudi Arabia that the crown prince wants the world to focus on has little to do with human rights or journalists. It’s that the kingdom is trying, he would say successfully, to make its economy less reliant on selling oil and therefore better prepared for the future. This narrative is aimed at winning investment from the world’s wealthiest people ― and it relies heavily on institutions they trust. Chief among the Saudis’ allies in the world of global finance is HSBC, the British bank, and at the centre of its support to the kingdom over the past year is a man named John Flint.
“HSBC has arguably become Saudi Arabia’s most important bank as the kingdom tries to turn the page on the killing of Mr. Khashoggi,” The Wall Street Journal reported in April. The story noted that the bank is Saudi Arabia’s biggest foreign investor in financial services and some of its former employees now hold powerful jobs in the government.
Flint was HSBC’s chief executive until this past August. He followed the lead of other top bankers in skipping a marquee conference in Saudi Arabia soon after Khashoggi’s murder. But he was clear that he didn’t want the relationship to end: “I understand the emotion around the story but it is very difficult to think about disengaging from Saudi Arabia, given its importance to global energy markets,” Flint said weeks after the murder. He returned to Saudi Arabia in April and publicly praised the kingdom’s financial policies.
Keeping HSBC and other powerful banks like Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup close helps MBS argue all is well and his country and his economy aren’t going to be derailed by one pesky assassination. And the benefits flow both ways: those companies ensure they’re well-positioned to compete for the potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in fees they could earn off Saudi manoeuvres like privatising a segment of the state-owned oil company Aramco.
So the relationship persists, even as officials like Flint come and go, a vital bulwark against the campaign to isolate the kingdom over its atrocities.
“Our participation reflects 70 years presence in Saudi Arabia,” Rob Sherman, a spokesman for HSBC, wrote in an email to HuffPost. “Through our shareholding in [the Saudi British Bank] and our partnership in HSBC Saudi Arabia, we are the biggest international bank, employing more than 4,000 staff to support our customers as the country implements its economic reform and social development agenda.”
HuffPost attempts to contact Flint were unsuccessful.
The Evangelical: Joel Rosenberg, Author
On September 10, MBS sat down with a nine-member Christian delegation that included Johnnie Moore of Trump’s evangelical advisory board and the U.S. government commission on religious freedom; Christian media executive Wayne Pederson; and former GOP gubernatorial candidate John Kenneth Blackwell. He had met with a similar group within the year. A large portion of the credit, it appeared, went to the headliner: Joel Rosenberg, a prolific author writing primarily for a Christian readership who runs an Israel-focused nonprofit called the Joshua Fund.
In a press release, Rosenberg said the group was “stunned” to hear only two American elected officials had visited the kingdom in the past year and called out MBS’ critics. “While there are challenges in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, we urge more congressional leadership to come here, see the sweeping and positive reforms that the crown prince is making, and ask him candid questions directly, rather than sniping at him from Washington.” he said.
Khashoggi went unmentioned in the statement. So did the Saudis’ brutal military campaign in Yemen.
Unlikely friends like Rosenberg have become key to MBS’ pitch that he is an essential reformer for Saudi Arabia. The prince has prioritized reducing the kingdom’s decadeslong support for a hardline interpretation of Islam that international observers see as linked to terrorism and he’s suggested he’s a fan of religious tolerance ― shifts that nicely align with his geostrategic interest in strengthening ties with the U.S. and courting Israel in the Saudi squabble with Iran.
“The Saudis have our number as far as the Americans and know that the evangelical community is politically salient, coherent, very important for the current administration and important for Republicans since the 1980s,” said Annelle Sheline, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute who studies how Arab monarchies treat religion.
For MBS, who wants to tweak the Saudi posture in the world for reasons that include his kick to move past oil, testimonies from Rosenberg and those in his network are part of a long game. They’re not going to result in some groundswell of evangelical enthusiasm for the kingdom, particularly given the way MBS’ talk of the need for changing the practice of Islam can be interpreted as justifying American suspicions that many Muslims are just a few mental leaps from radicalization ― but they provide a new shield against international criticism.
“Until MBS took over, there was awareness within the Saudi political establishment that their major audience was other Muslims around the world, so there was the importance of maintaining the image of Saudi Arabia as this perfect Islamic society, whereas MBS is far less concerned,” with that logic, Sheline said. “He’s aware of the economic constraints that the kingdom faces and ... although Saudi has pursued religious soft power among other Muslims, MBS knows that that doesn’t pay the bills.”
Evidence of that turn doesn’t exist just in stage-managed photo opportunities; it’s in policy choices like making clear that the struggle of the Palestinians is low on MBS’ list of priorities and arresting scores of clerics.
And the hypocrisy of it isn’t hard to find either: as it speaks of religious diversity, the Saudi government continues to mistreat the sizeable minority of its citizens who follows the Shia branch of Islam (not least because they’re seen as agents of largely Shia Iran), to work with fundamentalists claiming to wage war in the name of Allah in Yemen and to criminalise the public practice of any religion but Islam.
But it sells.
Larry Ross, who accompanied Rosenberg on the trip, told HuffPost the group went as “ambassadors of reconciliation in the name of Jesus” and pressed MBS on “hard, direct questions,” starting with the Khashoggi matter. The prince updated them on the status of the Saudis’ investigation, Ross said.
“As a result of what we heard and observed, our delegation came away with a better understanding of how to pray for the crown prince and his majesty, the king, and their nation at this critical juncture,” Ross wrote in a follow-up email. “That includes wisdom and courage in tough decisions that need to be made to protect the safety and security of the Saudi people and residents of the kingdom, especially in the wake of horrific drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities two days after our delegation departed Jeddah for home.”
The Saudi government did not pay for the delegation’s trip, he said.
The Spin Doctor: Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, Editor-In-Chief Of Al Arabiya English
Media coverage of Saudi Arabia is a longtime fixation for MBS. It’s part of what he sought to gain control over in his infamous shakedown of Saudi elites at his capital’s Ritz Carlton hotel and it’s the issue his former aide Saud al-Qahtani, who the kingdom’s own prosecutors say was involved in plotting the Khashoggi killing, spent much of his time trying to influence. So as the Saudi leadership has sought to defuse international criticism, it’s invested in getting out its version of events and its arguments for why the world should forget Khashoggi or the question of punishment for Riyadh.
Although lobbyists and business partners are key to the Saudis’ global strategy, messaging is perhaps most vital at home and in its immediate neighborhood, where the killing of one of the best-known Arab journalists resonated widely. The kingdom’s “primary regional spin artist” is the state-funded television channel Al Arabiya, Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch told HuffPost in an email. That operation gained a powerful face just months after Khashoggi’s murder: Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Saudi pundit who spent some time working at think tanks in Washington and has now become the editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya English.
Under Alyahya and his colleagues, Al Arabiya is following MBS’ lead in redefining and reasserting Saudi identity by rallying Saudis and their sympathisers to see the Khashoggi moment not as a chance to challenge tyranny but as a time to stand defiant in defence of the regime. That involves promoting the Saudis’ investigation of the murder, which a top United Nations expert has deemed insufficient, and material like a statement this week from Khashoggi’s son expressing loyalty to MBS. And it includes public fights with journalists who are skeptical of Saudi narratives, like Alyahya’s recently suggesting New York Times correspondent Farnaz Fassihi was unfairly soft on the kingdom’s regional rival Iran.
“The post-Khashoggi regional propaganda strategy in my opinion has not been to try to launder Saudi Arabia’s image, but rather to portray all negative press attention as a conspiracy against Saudi Arabia and make Saudi the victim and target of unfair Western attacks,” Coogle wrote. “It’s part of an appeal to nationalism.”
Alyahya did not respond to requests for comment.
The Consultant: Horacio Rozanski, President And CEO Of Booz Allen Hamilton
MBS’ talk of redrawing the Saudi economy is a siren song for the bevy of large companies that claim expertise in just that kind of ambitious overhaul. Consulting firms have gained unprecedented power in Saudi Arabia since his rise to power. The most overlooked of them is the one with the most pull in Washington: Booz Allen Hamilton, the giant firm that’s known as one of the biggest contractors for the U.S. government and a key force in national security.
Although consulting firm McKinsey & Company has drawn fire for inspiring and helping implement the prince’s economic policies, Booz Allen under president Horacio Rozanski has quietly provided key support for some of the most aggressive and controversial parts of MBS’ agenda. That includes posting “dozens” of U.S. military veterans in the kingdom, according to The New York Times, training Saudis in cyber skills that experts believe could be used for offensive operations and advising on the Saudi humanitarian effort in Yemen, which aid groups see as designed to justify the kingdom’s continued bombing of the country.
The relationship continued after the Khashoggi killing ― adding to the veneer of normalcy MBS needed.
“Given the Kingdom’s recent actions, your firms’ continued business relationships with this government appear to be inconsistent not only with American values but with your stated principles,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote to the heads of Booz Allen, McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group the month after the murder, requesting details on their work in Saudi Arabia.
Consulting firms and not-for-profit organisations working with the Saudis have become adept at compartmentalising their work and avoiding feelings of responsibility for repression, by emphasising that they aren’t the final decision-makers, wrote Calvert Jones, a University of Maryland professor who’s studied the consulting industry in the region, in an email.
They often assess that the downsides of those relationships aren’t that large relative to the gains even after incidents like the Khashoggi killing.
“I don’t see ethical and [public relations] costs as being all that significant a balance to this aspect of the calculus, because of the larger strategic relationship” that has continued between the kingdom and the West, she added.
“Consistent with U.S. foreign policy, we have worked in Saudi Arabia and the region for decades,” a Booz Allen spokesman told HuffPost via email. “Much of that work has been performed under contract by the U.S. government, supporting our national interests. Like many other U.S. companies, we have also worked directly with Saudi Arabia on a range of transformation and modernisation projects to bring greater stability to the region and promote the growth of a more vibrant, educated and empowered society. In our most recent quarterly financial filing, we reported that our entire global commercial business represents about 3 percent of our total revenue. A minority of that comes from business in the Middle East. In any region and with any client, we will decline any work that is inconsistent with our values.”
The spokesman did not respond to a query about whether the firm responded to Warren’s letter.
The Ally: Xi Jinping, President Of China
Less than six months after the Khashoggi killing, MBS played at a being as a global statesman with a trip through Pakistan, India and ultimately China. It was a signal that he still had friends ― and none of those pals matter quite as much as President Xi Jinping. By securing a warm and very public Chinese reception, the Saudi prince triggered the anxieties of officials in America and its allies who have historically been worried about losing partners like Saudi Arabia to U.S. competitors like China and Russia. At the same time, he underscored to important friends in the business world that he could withstand Western pressure should it come, reminding them that it’s Beijing, not Washington, that is the biggest source of Saudi income.
“The Asia trip cast MBS in a different light and demonstrated that key world powers are perfectly willing to do business with him rather than treat him as a pariah,” James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told The Diplomat.
Perhaps because of the importance of that message amid global calls to punish him as a serial violator of human rights, the prince repaid his hosts with an extraordinary gift: an outright endorsement of China’s own tyranny.
“China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security,” MBS said, per Chinese television. That’s code for Beijing’s policy of holding nearly 2 million of its own citizens in internment camps for the crime of being born to Muslim families ― and that’s a blessing for that approach from the man set to inherit one of the most important jobs in the Muslim world, the position of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
The unsavory alliance has a simple ideological foundation: Neither MBS nor Xi is particularly interested in seeing regular human beings, their own citizens or those of other nations, as worthy of basic dignity. Each is happy to reinforce the other’s conviction that governments are within their rights to suddenly and without due process round up those within their power, whether they’re royal family members or ethnic and religious minorities. And it’s all the better if they can couch that approach in language that’s been internationally accepted as legitimizing all kinds of violence and injustice over the last two decades.
“China is Saudi Arabia’s model for economic growth — economic liberalization with domestic repression,” Dorsey said.
China’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
The Politician: Mitch McConnell, Senator From Kentucky
The war in Yemen had already left Congress torn over Saudi Arabia before Khashoggi’s murder, with many Democrats and some Republicans loudly saying the kingdom’s repeated war crimes in a campaign it was carrying out with American support showed a rethink was essential. At the end of last year came a double whammy for the Saudis’ defenders on Capitol Hill: the shocking and gruesome treatment of Khashoggi, and the flip in control of the House. Suddenly, Democrats, who by that point had become unanimously opposed to continued U.S. assistance in Yemen and interested in other penalties for Riyadh, had the ability to get their proposals through one chamber.
The hurdle was, and remains, the GOP-controlled Senate. There, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has historically been friendly to the kingdom and hawkish toward its nemesis Iran. He has the added consideration of Trump, who’s been clear that he is interested in neither downgrading American ties with MBS nor considering legislation that could (as has already been the case four times) force him into embarrassing vetoes on behalf of an unpopular foreign country.
McConnell has yielded to pressure on some Saudi-related legislation (just as Trump’s administration gave in to Khashoggi concerns to some degree by imposing human rights sanctions on a small group of Saudis). But today he and his Republican lieutenants on the Senate’s foreign relations and armed services committee, Senators Jim Risch of Idaho and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, have stymied proposals to pressure MBS by cutting off some military backing and forcing greater transparency into and penalties for the writer’s assassination.
“There’s a trio of tyranny in the U.S. Senate when it comes to accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the disastrous war in Yemen,” Kate Kizer, the policy director at the peace group Win Without War, told HuffPost. “Senators McConnell, Inhofe and Risch have done all they can to shield Trump’s Saudi patron … With the president’s lawlessness becoming more blatant by the day, these three senators should see the writing on the wall.”
As lawmakers soon try to finalise must-pass defence spending legislation by reconciling ideas from the House and the Senate, it’ll become clear whether McConnell and his allies think it’s time for them to have that change of heart yet.
Spokespeople for McConnell, Risch and Inhofe did not respond to requests for comment.