Three years ago, as an editor for Al Jazeera America’s website, I was assigned to work on an op-ed criticizing Saudi Arabia. The piece, by Georgetown Law Professor Arjun Sethi, excoriated the Saudi monarchy for sentencing fifty dissidents to be executed on a single day. I wrote the blunt headline, “Saudi Arabia uses terrorism as an excuse for human rights abuses,” and I chose the art, a photo from earlier that year of Barack Obama enthusiastically shaking hands with King Salman. Neither I nor my immediate supervisor nor Sethi thought we were doing anything especially brave by running this story. Our editorial mission at AJAM was “to give voice to the voiceless.” The victims of Saudi repression certainly seemed like they could use a voice.
Not long after the article ran, our editor called the opinion team into a small office and informed us that someone in Doha was displeased, and that he had been instructed to avoid running op-eds about any of the Gulf states in the future. We weren’t naive about our Qatari benefactors, but up until that point we had enjoyed the editorial independence we insisted upon (“we’re not RT,” I used to tell skeptical friends), and now we were furious. Grim rumors circulated throughout the newsroom for a few hours, and then, after some tense meetings with senior management, our editor told us not to worry. We were free to cover whatever.
The next day, one of my colleagues in New York related all this to another colleague in Doha, who, it quickly emerged, was unable to access the article. We started emailing acquaintances around the world and determined that someone had geoblocked the article everywhere except the United States. News of this move was quickly leaked to the Intercept, which published a humiliating account of Al Jazeera censoring its own op-ed and took the unusual step of republishing the article so that international audiences could read it. Doha’s response was comical: “After hearing from users from different locations across the world that several of our web pages were unavailable, we have begun investigating what the source of the problem may be and we hope to have it resolved shortly.”
Sethi, meanwhile, immediately became the target of a Saudi bot army, receiving thousands of tweets from Saudi accounts that attacked his work, his South Asian heritage, and his Sikh faith. “If they did this to me living thousands of miles away,” he remembers thinking at the time, “imagine what they do to activists at home.”
Eventually the furor died down and global access to the article was quietly restored. A few weeks later, we learned that Al Jazeera America would be shuttered after two and a half years, billions of dollars squandered trying to break into the US media market, and a series of embarrassing scandals that attracted far more attention than this one.1 Most of that money was spent on a cable news channel that hardly anyone watched, but some fraction of it went to the web team, which meant that a few dozen writers and editors would lose their jobs, too.
It’s true that I never technically worked for AJAM, since they outsourced my hiring to a DC-based temp agency for a few months to keep me at-will, a situation that was supposed to be rectified the week they announced they were shutting down. It’s also true that early on in my pseudo-employment, the majority of my colleagues were relocated from the West Village to a cluster of tiny, asbestos-plagued offices near Penn Station for no apparent reason. Still, I was making a decent living paying writers decent rates to afflict the comfortable. It could have been a lot worse.
Yet even before the Saudi incident, all of us had endured the taunts of some of our peers who couldn’t get over the absurdity of our working for a theocratic monarchy that relies heavily on slave labor and routinely funds terrorism and extremism. What I told myself at the time was that we were simply redistributing some small bit of Qatar’s wealth to journalism, a beleaguered industry that relies on investments from plenty of other questionable sources. As long as we could publish what we wanted, without fear of interference from Doha, on balance we were doing some good, or so I thought.
The criticism of my and my colleagues’ complicity did make a certain amount of sense to me, though. It also made me self-conscious and kept me humble. We would sometimes laugh about the hubris of thinking that a news channel with an Arabic name had any chance of success with American audiences, but if nothing else, it meant we knew who paid our bills and so did everyone else. In the nearly three years since the site’s collapse, newsroom after newsroom has shuttered, and billionaires and venture capitalists have destroyed what Facebook couldn’t. Under these precarious conditions, what journalist wouldn’t at least consider working for a Gulf monarchy?
Earlier this year, I got into an online spat with a neoconservative writer who called me “an unemployed Jewish guy whose last job had him on the payroll of Qatar.” There were various objections one could raise to this comment, but what I found most interesting was that the writer in question is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution, which maintains a research center in Doha paid for by a $14.8 million donation from Qatar, and which has also taken millions in donations from the United Arab Emirates.
That writer is hardly unusual among his peers in DC in accepting money from Gulf autocrats. The financial sway of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors has long been pervasive in Washington. While that influence has been deep-seated, it is far less transparent than it was at AJAM, where ownership was unambiguous. For decades, the Gulf monarchies have quietly wielded a kind of soft power in the nation’s capital—donating to nonprofits, investing in presidential foundations, and bankrolling armies of lobbyists. But in the wake of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul this past fall, Washington suddenly seemed, for the first time, willing to openly discuss it.
Consider the Washington Post, which employed Khashoggi as a columnist and which has reacted furiously to the killing. In the weeks that followed, the Post told Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers that he would lose his regular gig as a contributing writer unless he agreed to stop lobbying for the Saudis. This raised a few awkward questions: why was the Post paying a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia to write for them in the first place; why did it take the murder of one of their own journalists (as opposed to tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, say, or those aforementioned executed Saudi dissidents) for them to reconsider this; and why do they continue to publish Rogers and other lobbyists for interests no less contemptible than the Saudi government?
Or consider David Rothkopf, the former CEO of Foreign Policy magazine, who recently registered as a lobbyist for the UAE and regularly appears on MSNBC and the Daily Beast without disclosing that fact. Or Rothkopf’s good friend, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who in April gave a friendly interview to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. In the first paragraph of that piece, Goldberg declared that MBS “has made all the right enemies,” a statement that reads somewhat differently after Khashoggi’s murder. Or New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who just over a year ago wrote a fawning column about MBS that he has only semi-apologized for since MBS dismembered his friend. Or former Secretary of State James Baker, who recently defended the US–Saudi relationship in a Times op-ed that ended by disclosing the following:
James A. Baker III, the 61st secretary of state, is a senior partner in the law firm Baker Botts, which has an affiliation with lawyers practicing in Saudi Arabia and represented members of the Saudi royal family in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, is a contributor to the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Center for Energy Studies.
Gulf influence over journalists, experts, and policymakers in Washington is so widespread that it’s almost impossible for anyone there to grapple with what happened to Khashoggi without implicating themselves in some way. And this is to say nothing of Saudi Arabia’s financial relationships with the Bush, Clinton, and Trump families, or the lack of accountability for the kingdom’s likely role in killing three thousand Americans on September 11.
Still, the discussions that have taken place in editorial offices and boardrooms, at think tanks and NGOs, should be taken seriously, as incomplete or tentative as it may be. It’s not a minor thing that sixty-three senators voted last week to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, defying both the Trump White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And no less a hawk than Senator Lindsey Graham has straightforwardly pinned the Khashoggi killing on MBS.
And yet it’s worth pausing at the sheer strangeness of this moment. In the weeks since Khashoggi’s murder, the speed and the intensity of the renunciations have been as striking as the renunciations themselves. The institutions that have benefited from Gulf money and funneled Gulf-friendly perspectives to the American public have been vocal in their outrage. This spectacle has to be seen as a form of institutional self-flagellation.
But it’s hard not to read these gestures as shallow and perfunctory, performed with the knowledge that the news cycle will move on quickly, which in fact it has. The longer the public spends thinking about what it means that some of the world’s most repressive and inhumane countries have effectively subsidized American intellectual and political life, the less credibility and power their beneficiaries will have in the future. Apologizing loudly is expected to serve as a substitute for meaningful change.
The wave of detailed coverage Saudi influence has received in mainstream outlets like the Post and the New York Times is insufficient not only because it seems designed to go away, but because it doesn’t tell anything close to the full story. Saudi Arabia is only the largest and most prominent of the Gulf monarchies, and it has plenty of ways to make its will felt through neighbors and allies like the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Israel. The incident at AJAM was, if anything, too obvious an example. The Center for American Progress, the most powerful Democratic Party-aligned think tank, still lists a donation of at least half a million dollars from the embassy of the UAE on its website. The UAE’s hedonistic ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, continues to be one of the most influential players in Washington, socializing with everyone from Jared Kushner to General David Petraeus and at least until recently championing MBS as a reformer. Otaiba has played an active role in steering analysis from DC think tanks, including the Middle East Institute (which received roughly $20 million from the UAE over the course of 2016 and 2017), the Atlantic Council, and the Center for a New American Security.2
The problem extends well beyond the Middle East; if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that foreign governments ranging from China to Russia to Turkey see Washington as an open-air market for purchasing influence. Anyone who has followed the details of the Mueller investigation knows that Russia is just one country among many that laundered money through corrupt K Street lobbyists like Paul Manafort with impunity, at least until the 2016 election made it impossible to ignore. And while Mueller may claim a few scalps, most of the people engaged in Manafort’s line of work will live to shill another day. None of the post-Khashoggi reckoning has suggested any deep commitment to addressing the corrupting effects of foreign money on the national political debate. Any soul-searching has been superficial at best.
The hagiographic media response to former US President George H. W. Bush’s death this past weekend has revealed how little has changed. Bush waged a major war in large part on behalf of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, replete with civilian casualties and war crimes that the public has mostly been encouraged to forget. The Bush family’s relationship with the Saudi monarchy is much longer and deeper than Donald Trump’s, and throughout his political career Bush was a beneficiary of Riyadh’s largesse. Yet the same Beltway gatekeepers who have ridiculed Trump for his friendliness with MBS in the wake of the Khashoggi murder haven’t applied their reconsideration to the President who arguably did the most to build the US-Saudi relationship. It is striking that a columnist could get rebuked for being on the Saudi payroll, while the estimated $1.5 billion that has been funneled from Saudi Arabia to the forty-first President, his cabinet officials, and other close associates never comes up in any of Bush’s obituaries.3
Meanwhile, at least one more digital newsroom has just slashed its entire editorial staff in the past week. The young writers and editors who worked there will scramble to find funding for their work wherever they can, all the while taunted by the class of seasoned grifters in Washington who long ago made their peace with their own paymasters. Those who would challenge this arrangement will always struggle to stay afloat, while those who are satisfied with it will never have to struggle at all.