WASHINGTON — For years, they have been one of the most formidable lobbying forces in town: the elite band of former members of Congress, former diplomats and power brokers who have helped Middle Eastern nations navigate diplomatic waters here on delicate issues like arms deals, terrorism, oil and trade restrictions.
Just last year, three of the biggest names in the lobbying club — Tony Podesta, Robert L. Livingston and Toby Moffett — pulled off a coup for one of their clients, Egypt. They met with dozens of lawmakers and helped stall a Senate bill that called on Egypt to curtail human rights abuses. Ultimately, those abuses helped bring the government down.
Mr. Moffett, a former congressman from Connecticut, told his old colleagues that the bill "would be viewed as an insult" by an important ally. "We were just saying to them, 'Don't do this now to our friends in Egypt,' " he recounted.
Now the Washington lobbyists for Arab nations find themselves in a precarious spot, as they try to stay a step ahead of the fast-changing events without being seen as aiding despots and dictators. In Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and other countries in the region, leaders have relied increasingly on Washington's top lobbyists and lawyers, paying them tens of millions of dollars. Some consultants are tacking toward a more progressive stance in light of pro-democracy protests, while others are dropping their clients altogether because of the tumult.
In Tunisia, where the earliest revolts energized the regional upheaval in January, the Washington Media Group, a public relations and communications firm, ended its $420,000 image-building contract with Tunis on Jan. 6, soon after reports emerged of violent government crackdowns on demonstrators.
"We basically decided on principle that we couldn't work for a country that was using snipers on rooftops to pick off its citizens," said Gregory L. Vistica, the firm's president, who first announced the decision on Facebook.
Others have stayed the course, at least for now. Mr. Moffett, Mr. Livingston and Mr. Podesta, who have a joint, multimillion-dollar contract with Egypt, have stepped up the pace of their meetings and phone conferences with Egyptian Embassy officials after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. One of the chief aims, the lobbyists say, is to help the military officials now running the country move toward elections that will be regarded as free and fair outside Egypt.
"What we have done for them in the past is what we will continue to do for them in the future — everything in our power to build good relations between the Egypt of today and the United States," said Mr. Livingston, a former Louisiana congressman who is one of Egypt's lobbyists.
At the same time, Mr. Livingston acknowledged that he was closely watching the situation in the region. "Is there a danger that the whole area might become Islamist and radical and totally opposed to the interests of the United States?" he asked. "Certainly there's that risk."
At Qorvis, a global public relations firm that has represented numerous countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Cyprus, executives from the firm's Washington office were visiting the Middle East this week with a business-as-usual attitude.
"Our clients are facing some challenges now," Seth Thomas Pietras, senior vice president of Qorvis Geopolitical Solutions, said in a telephone interview from Dubai. "But our long-term goals — to bridge the differences between our clients and the United States — haven't changed. We stand by them."
As a rule, leaders in the Middle East have paid consultants generously, even by Washington lobbying standards, with monthly retainers commonly reaching $50,000 or more, according to federal filings.
(Price breaks are available, however: the law firm of White & Case promised Libya "a special 15 percent discount off of our standard rates" in light of the "significant relationship" it hoped to forge with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's country in 2008, according to the contract.)
The United Arab Emirates spent $5.3 million in 2009 for lobbying American officials — second only to the Cayman Islands, which has lobbied to retain its status as a tax haven, according to an analysis by Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit research group. Working through DLA Piper and other Washington-based firms, the U.A.E. has sought greater access to American nuclear technology.
Morocco spent more than $3 million on Washington lobbyists, much of it aimed at gaining an edge in its border dispute with Algeria, while Algeria countered by spending $600,000 itself.
Turkey, which shares some interests with the Middle East countries, spent nearly $1.7 million in 2009 to lobby American officials on Turkish and Middle Eastern policy through the firms of Richard A. Gephardt, a former House leader, Mr. Livingston and other prominent lobbyists.
And Saudi Arabia, one of the most powerful foreign interests here, spent about $1.5 million in 2009 on Washington firms, and it has a $600,000 annual contract with Hogan Lovells aimed partly at fighting legislation and litigation that would challenge OPEC's influence over oil prices.
"These kinds of regimes have a lot of money at their disposal, and that's a great attraction," said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists.
Still, he said, "a number of lobbyists will stay away from international clients — period." To work with dictators in Middle Eastern nations with policies that many American find unsavory, he said, "you have to have a strong stomach."
Mr. Livingston, the former congressman lobbying for Egypt, has also done work for Libya in seeking to resolve legal claims arising from Libya's role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and normalize the country's relations with the United States.
But he said he reached a tipping point in 2009 when Libya welcomed back with open arms a bomber convicted in the Pan Am case and when Colonel Qaddafi threatened to pitch a tent in New Jersey next to a Jewish yeshiva while visiting the United Nations.
"Those two incidents were just more than we could handle," Mr. Livingston said. Soon after, his firm ended its work for Libya — with "no regrets," he said.
Other major Washington firms, including White & Case and Blank Rome, a legal and lobbying shop, have also ended their work for Libya, which spent about $850,000 on United States lobbying in 2009. It is not clear from federal records which Washington firms, if any, are still working with Colonel Qaddafi's government; none have been publicly admitting it.
As demonstrations were taking place in Egypt last month, Mr. Moffett said a friend suggested to him that his lobbying work for the Mubarak government put him "on the wrong side of the Egyptian thing."
Mr. Moffett demurred. "I don't feel that way at all," he said. "We feel honored to be on the scene while all this is happening."
The Arab lobby in the United States is a collection of formal and informal groups and professional lobbyists paid directly by Arab governments that lobby the public and government of the United States on behalf of Arab interests. and/or on behalf of Arab-American rights in the United States.
Isaiah L. Kenen, the founder of American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs or "AZCPA" (which became American Israel Public Affairs Committee or "AIPAC"), wrote of the Arab lobby's roots in the 1950s "petro-diplomatic complex" that comprised the "oil industry, missionaries, and diplomats." In 1951 King Saud of Saudi Arabia asked U.S. diplomats to finance a pro-Arab lobby to counter AZCPA. According to Mitchell Bard in his book "The Arab Lobby", the approach has not changed since the days of King Saud; the basic message is that the Saudis and the Gulf States have the oil and will supply it to America and its allies on the condition that America keeps the Arab ruling families in power. The subsidiary clause is that the Arab oil states will also purchase arms ($100 billion worth over the last 50 years) to keep themselves in power and able to produce oil.
In a recurring interaction that Mitchell Bard labels "blackmail" from time to time the United States criticized the oil states for denying human rights to their own citizens, sponsoring militant who attack Israel, spreading extremist forms of Islam around the world, and supporting terrorism in many countries, but this criticism in rapidly reigned in by threatening to cut off the oil supply.
The National Association of Arab-Americans ("NAAA"), founded in 1972, was a political advocacy group whose goals were "to strengthen U.S. relations with Arab countries and to promote an evenhanded American policy based on justice and peace for all parties in the Middle East." In the early 1970s there was growing anti-Arab sentiment related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the 1973 oil embargo, leading to government investigations, executive orders, and legislative provisions to combat terrorism. These especially impacted on Arab American rights and activism. The response was the creation of groups like the, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab American Institute.
For many years these groups worked together on the Palestinian issue, including through newspaper, direct mail and advertising campaigns against U.S. loan guarantees to Israel and states' purchase of Israel bonds, condemnation of Israeli human rights and calls for the U.S. government to pressure Israel, as well pro-Palestinian protests and letter-writing campaigns. They also offered testimony to congress and criticized Israel's congressional and organizational supporters, sought to pass pro-Palestinian resolutions in state and national party platforms; offering pro-Palestinian testimony before Congress and attempted to sue Israel in U.S. courts. After the Palestine Liberation Organization had reached an agreement with Israel, there was some division among the groups, however they continue to lobby for Palestinians.
Formal Arab lobby.
Many of the players in the Arab lobby are paid directly by Arab governments, the New York Times describes them as an "elite band of former members of Congress, former diplomats and power brokers who have helped Middle Eastern nations navigate diplomatic waters here on delicate issues like arms deals, terrorism, oil and trade restrictions." Powerful lobbyists working on behalf of the Arab lobby include Bob Livingston, Tony Podesta, and Toby Moffett. Arab governments have paid "tens of millions of dollars" to "top" lobbying firms that work to influence the American government. This includes the Saudi Arabia lobby, Egypt lobby and the Libya lobby.
In the wake of 9/11, Saudi Arabia hired the lobbying firms Patton Boggs and Qorvis, paying $14 million dollars a year.
Lobby fees paid by Arab governments to individual firms "commonly" reach levels of $50,000 and above. In 2009 alone the United Arab Emirates spent $5.3 million. The Emirates were seeking nuclear technology. In 2009 Morocco spent $3 million and Algeria spent $600,000 on Washington, D.C. lobbyists, and Turkey spent $1.7 million. According to Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, "“These kinds of regimes have a lot of money at their disposal, and that’s a great attraction.”
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) was started in 1980 by United States Senator James Abourezk. It is the largest Arab-American grassroots civil rights organization in the United States. Former US Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar is the current president. ADC is at the forefront in addressing anti-Arabism - discrimination and bias against Arab Americans. It also advocates what it calls a more balanced US policy towards the Middle East.
The Arab American Institute ("AAI"), founded in 1985 by James Zogby, is a non-profit, membership organization and advocacy group based in Washington D.C. that focuses on the issues and interests of Arab-Americans nationwide. The organization seeks to increase the visibility of Arab-American involvement as voters and candidates in the American political system. It issues "Action Alerts" and encourages individual lobbying and participation in an annual national lobby day. It has promoted actively professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
According to ProPublica, 4 of the top 10 governments lobbying in Washington are Arab, in terms of spending. The United Arab Emirates places first, having spent $10,914,002 in 2007 and 2008. Iraq, Morocco and Saudi Arabi also each spent over $3 million, and the non-Arab, middle Eastern nation of Turkey also spent over $3 million.
Informal Arab lobby.
According to Mitchell Bard, author of 2010 book The Arab Lobby, the informal Arab lobby includes tens of millions of dollars donated to American Universities for Islamic studies, because these funds flow only to universities that teach courses and hire scholars whose work meets with the approval of the oil states, courses are not offered and research is not pursued on the ideology or structure radical Islam, Arab anti-Americanism, or Arab anti-Semitism, instead, courses are taught and studies pursued on such themes as Zionism as an illegitimate political movement, or form of European imperialism, and Jewishness is a largely mythological and invented history.
Power of lobby.
Mitchell Bard, author of 2010 book The Arab Lobby and a former editor of the "Near East Report", a weekly newsletter published by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, writes that "from the beginning, the Arab lobby has faced not only a disadvantage in electoral politics but also in organization." Academics Ali A. Mazrui and Nabeel A. Khoury have also written about the virtual non-existence of an Arab lobby in America.
In a 2007 State Department Foreign Press Center Briefing James Zogby of the Arab American Institute denied Arab Americans lobby for Arab governments. He told an audience: "There are many Arab lobbies. Each Arab government hires lobbyists to do their work for them. And we Arab Americans are not an Arab lobby. I think that the thing in the Jewish community that's interesting is that the Jewish community is supportive of Israel and the Israeli Government works very closely with elements in the American Jewish community around a convergence of ideas and issues and interests, and that has created the sense of an Israel lobby." Zogby also said "The reality about Arab Americans is that we are emerging as a political group."
Researchers Sherri Replogle and Khalil Marrar write: "While pro-Arab lobbying pales in comparison to those of the pro-Israel lobby, the end of the Cold-War, the current war on terrorism, and clear American and international support for the two-state solution as manifested by public opinion polls, policymakers' statements, and United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1397 and 1515, provide the pro-Arab lobby with a crucial opportunity to realize its vision of Palestinian statehood."
In 2010 lobbyists paid by the government of Egypt succeeded in preventing the Senate form passing a bill calling on Egypt to curtail human rights abuses.