Saudi Spokesperson Is a Sign of Revolving Door in Foreign Lobbying

A former registered foreign agent and political consultant for the government of Saudi Arabia has been hired as the spokesperson for the Middle Eastern government’s embassy in Washington, DC.

Fahad Nazer, who was announced as the embassy’s new spokesperson on Jan. 23, consulted the Saudi government on public relations since November 2016 and kept a $7,000 a month retainer, according to foreign lobbying documents available through the Center for Responsive Politics.

To date, he received $175,000 from the Saudi embassy for his work as a consultant.

Since 2017, Saudi Arabia spent more than $27.4 million on lobbying the US, according to data from CRP’s Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

“His vast knowledge of Saudi Arabia’s political and socio-economic landscapes will undoubtedly help him to tell the story of the Kingdom in the United States,” Prince Khalid bin Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, said in a press release.

While working for the Saudis, Nazer worked as an analyst for the consulting firm JTG, Inc. He also served as a fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations and wrote articles for foreign policy think tanks such as the Middle East Institute and the Hoover Institution.

Prior to his work on the Washington, DC think tank circuit, Nazer was a political analyst for his current employer — the Saudi embassy. During his time as a consultant, Nazer advised the Saudi government on “proposed ideas for improving the image of Saudi Arabia in the United States” and submitted a plan on behalf of the Kingdom for “social media engagement.”

By moving from a position with the Saudi embassy to the world of think tank academia and back, Nazer’s case is indicative of the revolving door between think tanks and foreign governments in Washington, DC.

“It’s not uncommon for foreign governments, which are embroiled in very high-profile issues of international relations, to pull all the stops,” said Joshua Rosenstein, a FARA lawyer at the law firm Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock.

Such a revolving door between think tanks, foreign governments and consulting firms is common, Rosenstein added.

Before and during his time as a paid agent of the Saudis, Nazer wrote articles favorable to Saudi Arabia in US and international media such as the New York Times, CNN and Foreign Policy.

Nazer is also a longtime columnist for Arab News, an English-language Saudi newspaper owned by the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a publishing company with close ties to the Saudi government.

While a registered foreign agent, Nazer was required to disclose his ties to the Saudi government in articles or during speaking engagements. Articles from that time describe him as a “political consultant to the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington.”

In an initial supplemental statement, Nazer maintained his independence from the Saudi government, writing: “Although these activities could potentially benefit the foreign principal [the Saudi embassy], it is important to note that these are the sorts of activities in which I have been engaged as a scholar on Saudi Arabia for many years and prior to my representation of the foreign principal.”

Yet Rosenstein questioned why the Saudis would hire a supposedly independent scholar as a consultant and later a spokesperson.

“If the Saudis liked him enough to bring him in-house, it certainly raises a question at least about whether and to what extent he was producing work product at their direction,” Rosenstein said.

In his duties as a consultant, Nazer drafted a letter to Congress for the Saudis on the “adverse ramifications” of reducing US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, though he said the letter was not delivered to lawmakers.

Nazer wrote a policy paper on this very subject for the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University. At the time of the paper’s publication in December, the Senate had debated and ultimately passed a largely symbolic bill that directed President Donald Trump to end US military support for the Saudis in Yemen.

In the paper, Nazer defended Saudi policy in Yemen and cautioned against ending US support. He argued that due to Yemen’s longstanding instability, Saudi Arabia holds little fault for a conflict widely considered the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster. Nazer goes on to blame the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebel group for Saudi airstrikes that have killed vast numbers of civilians because the Houthis operate in heavily populated areas.

Saudi Arabia has received widespread international condemnation for its execution of the war in Yemen. Saudi airstrikes supported by the US have targeted hospitals, funerals and a school bus full of children, and a Saudi blockade of Yemen has purportedly caused mass starvation and outbreak of disease.

The war in Yemen has seen 14 million people driven to the brink of starvation, potentially 85,000 children killed by hunger and 10,000 cases of cholera developing per week.

In the most recent supplemental statement on his consulting activities this past November, at the height of the controversy over Saudi Arabia’s murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Nazer wrote that in the previous 6 months he was keeping the Saudi embassy “abreast of news articles and important events at think tanks in Washington.”

Given Saudi Arabia’s increasing reputation as a global pariah among US lawmakers due to Khashoggi’s death and Yemen, hiring a pro-Saudi scholar as a spokesperson makes sense, according to Rosenstein.

“If they really believed there was a think tank scholar, who understood their issues through his independent scholarship, whose public writings independent of their control were in line with their desired messaging, it is not surprising to me at all… that this might be an avenue that they would pursue,” Rosenstein said.