President Donald Trump is boning up on policy and protocol ahead of an international trip that begins Friday in Saudi Arabia, but he’s already emerged as a peripheral and perhaps unwitting player in a power struggle between two Saudi princes seeking to succeed the aging King Salman.
In March, Trump raised eyebrows among royal court watchers in Washington and Middle Eastern capitals by holding an Oval Office meeting and unexpected formal lunch with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the chief rival to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef for the crown.
This month, in his own move to position himself with Trump’s administration, the ministry run by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef quietly signed a $5.4-million one year contract with SPG, a boutique Washington lobbying firm with ties to Trump’s team.
The hefty contract, filed with the Department of Justice and reviewed by POLITICO, calls for SPG to provide “public relations and media engagement as well as public affairs counsel” to the Saudi Ministry of the Interior. While Saudi Arabia deploys an army of well-paid lobbyists and p.r. consultants in Washington, the SPG contract appears to represent the first time in recent years that the Interior Ministry has retained a lobbying firm.
The two princes, known as MBS and MBN, respectively, have been quietly jockeying for position to succeed the 81-year-old king, who is widely believed to be in declining health.
The quiet power struggle between MBN and MBS has high-stakes in the Middle East and around the world. That’s true as well in Washington, where Trump is struggling with the art of diplomacy, and where the princes’ oil-rich kingdom has long been viewed as a critical but sometimes uneasy ally in the fight against extremism.
Since taking office, Trump has quieted his campaign trail criticism of the Saudis, as his administration weighs more than $100 billion in arms sales to the country and signals continued support for its intervention in Yemen, despite humanitarian concerns.
Trump is scheduled to meet in Riyadh in the coming days with King Salman, as well as with both MBN, who is the King’s nephew and is the first in line for the crown, and MBS, who is the King’s son and is the No. 2 in the order of succession.
Experts say that Trump — who is coming off a string of embarrassing diplomatic and intelligence faux pas, including last week’s disclosure of classified information to Russian officials — should be careful to heed diplomatic protocol in Riyadh to avoid being seen as expressing a preference between the two princes.
“Any perceived efforts to play favorites will redound to our detriment, because the Saudis as a whole — even the ones who like us — will say, ‘What the hell are you doing meddling in our process, about which you know nothing?’” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In the foreign policy community, there are already questions about whether Trump may have crossed that line by holding such a high-profile White House meeting with MBS in March, said Henderson and Joseph W. Westphal, who was U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia under former President Barack Obama until January.
“I don’t think that was necessarily his intention,” Westphal said of Trump. “He is new at all of this, and I think he was probably trying to signal a warm welcome, but it was unusual and it could definitely signal to people back in Saudi Arabia that there is an extra effort being made there.”
Henderson said that may have been precisely the intention of MBS’s allies.
“The thought was that the king was trying to have his favored son recognized as being his heir apparent, and that Trump almost confirmed his status, but Saudi succession politics are more complicated than that,” Henderson said.
The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
To be sure, Obama also met last year in the White House with MBS, but it was a lower-profile meeting, and he had previously met with MBN.
Westphal said Obama’s team was very careful “to show no bias or preference in any way” between MBS and MBN.
While both princes are seen as strong U.S. allies, they are very different characters whose approaches and background could present their own benefits and drawbacks.
MBN, 57, in his capacity as interior minister, runs the Saudi internal security forces, and has come to be seen in Washington as a reliable partner in U.S. counter-terrorism efforts over more than a decade.
MBS, 31, as the defense minister and head of an economic development council since 2015, has quickly carved out a reputation as a bold but impulsive reformer intent on modernizing Saudi Arabia.
He has made waves in Riyadh with efforts to bring economic austerity (which recently were partly reversed), as well as maneuvers seen as trying to jump the line of succession. MBS and his allies recently have made several quiet but unmistakable moves in Riyadh and Washington.
Several of MBS’s allies recently were appointed to influential posts, including his younger brother Prince Khaled bin Salman, who late last month was tapped as the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
And in a high-profile interview with The Washington Post last month, MBS praised Trump as “a president who will bring America back to the right track” — a none-too-veiled shot at Obama, whose nuclear diplomacy with Iran irked the Saudis.
By contrast, MBN, who survived a 2009 assassination attempt while attempting to secure the surrender of an al Qaeda leader, mostly has kept a lower profile. That’s why the lobbying contract with SPG (which stands for Sonoran Policy Group) could be a significant move.
The Saudi embassy did not respond to requests for comment about the contract.
SPG issued a statement praising MBN and his work at the Interior Ministry as “a moderating force in a region increasingly under attack from radical elements” and “a reminder of the vital importance of the United States-Saudi relationship.”
SPG is among a handful of firms with ties to Trump that this year have burst onto Washington’s lucrative foreign lobbying scene, which has long been dominated by more established players who have long cultivated ties to politicians across the aisle.
SPG in recent months has hired several political and intelligence operatives, some with connections to Trump world, including Robin Townley, who briefly served as the National Security Council’s Africa Director under Trump.
MBS’s allies have worked with more established lobbying firms, including the Podesta Group and BGR. Those firms helped arrange a breakfast in Washington for a key Saudi general involved in the country’s offensive in Yemen, which is overseen by MBS in his capacity as defense minister.
Representatives from the Podesta Group and BGR did not respond to requests for comment about their work, but according to Justice Department filings, a Saudi government entity called the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court is spending a total of nearly $2.2 million per year to retain the two firms.
The center also has a $1.2 million contract with Squire Patton Boggs, LLP.
More than a dozen Washington firms have done work for various Saudi government entities in recent months, making the kingdom among the biggest-spending foreign governments on K Street.
At one point last year, the Saudis were spending more than $250,000 per month in an unsuccessful effort to defeat legislation allowing the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to sue the kingdom. The bill passed despite the lobbying blitz after Congress overrode Obama’s veto.
Westphal, the former U.S. ambassador, said the Interior Ministry’s hiring of SPG is likely an effort by MBN to ensure that his country’s relationship with the U.S. remains strong in the Trump era.
“Part of it is so that they know how to approach the new administration, which is a lot different than the previous administration,” Westphal said, adding “I could tell that (MBN) was a little concerned” about the turnover. “In my farewell with MBN, he said I think it’s really important that we continue this relationship given everything that’s going on in the Middle East, and I hope that the next administration is willing to do that.”