The power moves by the Saudi kingdom at home and in Lebanon were made easier by buying influence in powerful circles of Washington, DC, says The Intercept’s Ryan Grim
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Saudi royal family is making a purge, arresting dozens of high ranking elites in the business community and the royal family. Meanwhile, it’s widely believed the Saudis have also just orchestrated the resignation of its close ally, Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri. But while the focus right now is on Riyadh, what about Washington? Under President Trump, the U.S. and Saudi agendas have drawn even closer, and it’s unlikely the Saudi kingdom would have made these moves without the White House’s blessing. And one reason Washington and the Saudis are so close is because a lot of Saudi money is poured into Washington. Along with the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis have poured millions of dollars into Washington think tanks. And my next guest argues that that money has bought some influence in D.C. that has helped to make this power grab possible. Ryan Grim is the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for Intercept. Welcome, Ryan. You write for The Intercept that this power grab in Saudi Arabia is a moment of reckoning for the Washington foreign policy establishment. Can you explain why? RYAN GRIM: For a couple of years now, the kind of conventional wisdom around Washington – fueled by this UAE and Saudi money – has been that Mohammed bin-Salman, this now 32-year-old crown prince, was the hope for the future; kind of like the modernizer, the reformer. Like, this is the guy that’s going to lead Saudi Arabia into a liberalized, more moderate version of Islam. And the problems that the U.S. has had with Saudi Arabia’s funding of extremism and on and on, some of the propaganda that’s been used to kind of push that line is … you may have seen the thing about, “Well, now women are going to be able to drive.” It actually wasn’t that simple. They’re studying the issue. You can’t just rush into something as crazy as women driving overnight. But in general, the idea was that this guy was a reformer. And this line was sold with millions and millions and millions of dollars from United Arab Emirates and from Saudi Arabia propping up all these think tanks around Washington. So now that the veil is off, so to speak, people here in Washington are going to be put to the test. They’ve always said, “Look, yes, we get money from a variety of different sources, but our sources of funding have nothing to do with our work product, our intellectual product. We are independent actors.” And so, now we’re going to find out. AARON MATÉ: One of those think tanks that got a fair amount of money which you exposed in The Intercept a few months ago is the Middle East Institute. They got $20 million from Gulf States. Can you explain that story? RYAN GRIM: That’s a big check right there, and that was just over two years, so this isn’t like a $20 million over 10 years or 20 years commitment, and this is from one country. This from United Arab Emirates. And the United Arab Emirates has taken an outsized role relative to its size in the region here in Washington. Their ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, is effectively the ambassador for a number of different countries from the region there. They kind of all route their diplomacy through him. In fact, his main PR firm, known as The Harvard Group, is now also Saudi Arabia’s PR firm, which is very odd. Because even among allies, you don’t necessarily share a PR group because this PR group has … they’re in there for all of your private conversations about your strategy over the next couple of years. And by virtue of that alliance now, Otaiba and the UAE knows exactly what the Saudis are going to do. That’s only a problem if Saudi is completely comfortable just following the UAE’s strategy in Washington. And so, yes. They kicked in a $20 million commitment, and what’s even kind of more interesting on the side is where the money came from. They were offsets from arms sales. In other words, when a country buys arms from the United States, that’s money going out of the country. So they’ve set up this regime where the weapons maker has to promise to invest a little bit of money back in the United Arab Emirates, and those are called offsets. And so there’s an added irony that UAE took that offset money and pumped it right back into Washington buying influence among these think tanks that then go and promote more arms sales. AARON MATÉ: You know, speaking of ironies and promoting arms sales, if I recall it right – and correct me if I’m wrong – but your colleague, Zaid Jilani, at The Intercept, didn’t he previously report that the UAE gave a $250,000 check to a group called The Center for American Security if they wrote a paper that also promoted a military deal that would have been advantageous to the UAE? RYAN GRIM: Well, the way these things work is it’s very rarely written down in that quid pro quo fashion, but you do see the money changing hands and then the reports getting written in a way that’s favorable to the people that are writing the checks. But nobody wants to say out loud that that’s what’s happening here. And that’s why this moment is so interesting because you would have thought that the narrative would have been tested by the tens of thousands of people dying in Yemen, and the millions who are starving to death based on a war led by this same guy, Mohammed bin-Salman that they’re calling a reformer and a modernizer. It hasn’t. And so now when you have him rounding up some of these billionaires that people in Washington know – Prince Alwaleed, one of the largest stakeholders in Fox News’ parent company and Twitter and Citibank – these are people who are very well known around the globe in the kind of Davos set. And so now, that Davos set that has been talking about Mohammed bin-Salman as a reformer has to ask which side they’re on. AARON MATÉ: Right. You write in your latest piece in The Intercept that the Washington foreign policy establishment has basically struck a bargain with the UAE and the Saudis in which the UAE and Saudis will pour millions of dollars into Washington, and in return the D.C. establishment will pretend like these Gulf States are modern and trying reform. Can you talk about that dynamic as it pertains to journalists? Because there are many prominent reporters who have been writing favorably of both these governments in recent years. RYAN GRIM: And this is a place where they’re not funding … well, that’s not entirely true. The UAE funded foreign policy’s website for a very long time. If you’d go there – I’m not breaking news here – but if you’d go there, it would say “This newsletter is funded by the Embassy of the UAE.” So in some respects, there was an actual exchange of money. But there’s also the cultural exchange. So when Otaiba first came to Washington as ambassador, he very wisely said, “What is the UAE’s biggest threat here?” Well, it would be kind of some Muslim baiting by Fox News. So he … Bret Baier at the time was Fox News’ chief national security correspondent. And maybe it’s a coincidence, but he and Baier became very good friends, and Otaiba developed a keen interest in the same charity that Bret Baier had long been interested in. The UAE ended up making $150 million contribution to this hospital that Bret Baier had been raising money for. And then a couple of years later, Baier and Otaiba headlined a gala together where they raised this record setting $12 million, a million of which came from the UAE’s foreign minister, for instance. A couple of weeks later, Bret Baier’s interviewing the UAE foreign minister without disclosing that the million dollars had exchanged hands and wound up at Baier’s preferred charity. But at that gala, for instance, were all of the notable journalists, save the ones that couldn’t make it, in Washington. Otaiba’s very good at … he’s charming, he throws these legendary dinner parties in town, he regularly funds luncheons and other kind of capital of the D.C. society. And by doing so, you kind of tangentially just wind up creating a lot of personal relationships with reporters. And he’s also helped reporters get to the region so that they can see firsthand for themselves what’s going on there, but the firsthand tour is very much guided by … They’re not going to migrant labor camps, I would imagine. AARON MATÉ: Finally, Ron, one thing I’m struck by in your reporting on the UAE and Saudi Arabia and their influence in Washington is how bipartisan this is. So for example, you have Richard Clarke, who famously spoke out about the Bush administration’s inability to prevent the 9/11 attacks, and also criticized Saudi Arabia, where the majority of the hijackers came from. But you report that he recently went to the Saudi embassy and got a check for half a million dollars. RYAN GRIM: Just walked … walked right out with it. Contribution to the Middle East Institute; this is not his own money. But he now has a consulting company that does a lot of business with the UAE. So some of it is, some of this money changing hands is winding up in his hands. And he’s the guy that is associated with his rock-ribbed integrity following the attacks of 9/11. So you’re right, it’s bipartisan and it’s pervasive. And the combination of the war in Yemen and now this, this rapid consolidation of power and roundup of any and all either critics or anybody else who’s not a full-throated supporter of him certainly calls into question how committed he is to reform. And how vociferously people in Washington ask those questions now is going to suggest whether or not they are independent of their money sources. AARON MATÉ: Well, we await to see. Ryan Grim, Washington D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. His latest piece is “Saudi Arabia’s government purge and how Washington corruption enabled it.” Thanks, Ryan. RYAN GRIM: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.