WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia is paying influential lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts nearly $6 million a year to engage U.S. officials and promote the Middle East nation, even after three Washington firms cut ties with the kingdom following the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Among those still in Saudi Arabia's corner are high-profile Washington attorney Ted Olson and a lobbying firm headed by the former Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, according to records filed with the Justice Department that provide details of agreements with the country's embassy and other arms of its government.
More defections are possible as pressure mounts on Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Khashoggi, who vanished two weeks ago while visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up paperwork he needed to get married. But at least one U.S. lobbyist said that keeping a commitment to a client is especially important during difficult times.
The Harbour Group, the BGR Group and The Glover Park Group all announced over the last week that they would no longer represent Saudi Arabia, ending one-year agreements to represent the kingdom collectively worth $3.7 million. Glover Park's deal was slated to end Dec. 31. BGR's contract would have expired in February, while the Harbour Group's engagement with the Saudis was supposed to run through April.
The departures reverberated as indicators of how serious a reputational problem the Saudis were facing in the United States and around the world. Palpable unease has set in among several of Saudi Arabia's usually vociferous proxies in Washington. Normally outspoken Saudi-paid lobbyists and pundits, with a few exceptions, have been notably quiet about the affair.
The silence appears to be indicative of confusion about how to proceed in the absence of hard facts about exactly what happened to Khashoggi and who might be responsible. It also suggests a lack of direction from Riyadh, which called its ambassador to Washington home last week amid questions in diplomatic circles about whether he will return.
Agents of foreign governments are required to register with the Justice Department so there is a public record of their activities. The Saudis are spending heavily as a bitter political dispute simmers in the Middle East that pits the kingdom and three other Arab nations against Qatar over claims the small, gas-rich monarchy was funding terrorism.
The diplomatic clash has spilled into the Khashoggi case. The Qatar-funded satellite network Al-Jazeera has extensively focused on the story while Saudi media have called his disappearance a plot ginned up by Qatar.
Among the firms with the biggest contracts is the MSL Group, a global company that provides "public relations and other assistance" to Saudi Arabia for a monthly retainer of $279,500, according to the disclosure records. The firm engages with U.S. lawmakers, administration officials, think tanks, the media and others "regarding policy matters potentially affecting" Saudi Arabia's interests.
Company spokesman Michael Echter said the MSL Group "is very concerned about the developing situation" regarding Khashoggi's disappearance and is monitoring it closely.
"We take the situation very seriously and will make appropriate decisions once all the facts are known," Echter said.
The firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has no plans to alter its $125,000-a-month contract to represent the Saudi Embassy, according to a person familiar with the arrangement. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
The three-page agreement doesn't describe the services the firm will perform, except to note that specific issues "will be communicated on a regular basis" from the Saudi Embassy to the firm. The managing partner of Brownstein Hyatt's Washington office is Marc Lampkin, a fundraiser for President Donald Trump and a former aide to Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Saudi officials inked an agreement in late August with Olson, a partner in the Washington office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to fight bipartisan legislation that would allow the U.S. to bring lawsuits against OPEC members for antitrust violations. Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, agreed to pay a flat fee of $250,000 for a legal analysis of the bill and other literature outlining opposition to the legislation.
The Saudis could have expanded the scope of the agreement by retaining Olson, the U.S. solicitor general during the George W. Bush administration, for $100,000 a month. It's unclear if they did so. The firm didn't return calls seeking comment.
The McKeon Group, headed by former Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon earns $50,000 a month for a "comprehensive government relations strategy and plan of execution," according to the June 5 letter describing the terms of the engagement. The McKeon Group didn't respond to a request for comment.
McKeon, a California Republican, served in Congress for 22 years before retiring in January 2015.
Not all the contracts had strictly political overtones. Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority, a government body that runs the kingdom's Olympic committee, brought aboard the Los Angeles firm Churchill Ripley in February for a monthly fee of $22,000. One of the goals, according to a draft proposal, is to prepare Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, one of the authority's top officials, for high-level meetings and form partnerships that "enhance the position of the kingdom."
Churchill Ripley didn't return a telephone call.