Perhaps former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) Ned Walker said it best when he told the Washington Post, “Let’s face it, we got a lot of money out of Saudi Arabia.” Walker meant “we” as in the U.S. government, but he easily could have used it to refer to former State Department officials who benefit financially after retirement. Some do it directly—and in public view, because of stringent reporting requirements—while most, including Walker, choose a less noticeable trough.
In researching my new book, Dangerous Diplomacy, I discovered that Saudi cash has created a circle of sympathizers and both direct and indirect lobbyists—which is precisely the intended effect. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador the United States, was quoted in the Washington Post as having said, “If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you’d be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office.”
Among the first former Foggy Bottom officials to work directly for the House of Saud was former assistant secretary for Congressional Affairs Frederick Dutton, starting in 1975. According to a 1995 public filing (mandated for all paid foreign agents), Dutton earns some $200,000 per year. Providing mostly legal services, Dutton also flacks for the House of Saud and even lobbies on the royal family’s behalf from time to time. One of his successors as head of Congressional Affairs, Linwood Holton, also went to work for the Saudis, starting in 1977. Rounding out the current team of retired State officials now directly employed by the Saudis is Peter Thomas Madigan, deputy assistant secretary for Legislative Affairs in the first Bush administration.
Most of the Saudi money, though, goes indirectly to former State officials, most commonly by means of think tanks. This approach pays dividends in many ways: Foggy Bottom retirees get to have their cake—without the public realizing they’re eating it—and the Saudis get to have “indirect” lobbyists, who promote the Saudi agenda under the cover of the think tank label. Three organizations in particular are the primary beneficiaries of Saudi petrodollars, and all are populated with former State officials: the Meridian International Center, the Middle East Policy Council, and the Middle East Institute.
After a long and “distinguished” career in the Foreign Service, Walter Cutler took the reins at the Meridian International Center. He had served as ambassador to Zaire and Tunisia, and twice in Saudi Arabia, and he stayed close to the Saudis after leaving State. Cutler told the Washington Post that the Saudis had been “very supportive of the center.”
The Middle East Policy Council, which also receives significant Saudi funding, counts among its ranks former ambassadors—career Foreign Service members all—Charles Freeman, Frank Carlucci, and Hermann Eilts.
The Middle East Institute, officially on the Saudi payroll, receives some $200,000 of its annual $1.5 million budget from the Saudi government, and an unknown amount from Saudi individuals—often a meaningless distinction since most of the “individuals” with money to donate are members of the royal family, which constitutes the government. MEI’s chairman is Wyche Fowler, who was ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1996–2001, and its president is Ned Walker, who has served as both deputy chief of Mission in Riyadh and ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Also at MEI: David Mack, former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and deputy assistant secretary for NEA; Richard Parker, former ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon, and Morocco; William Eagleton, former ambassador to Syria; Joseph C. Wilson, career FSO and former deputy chief of Mission in Baghdad; David Ransom, former ambassador to Bahrain and former deputy chief of Mission in Yemen, UAE, and Syria; and Michael Sterner, former ambassador to UAE and deputy assistant secretary of NEA.
The money, the favors, and State’s affinity for Saudi elites over the decades have all helped contribute to the “special relationship” between State and the House of Saud. Notes Hudson Institute senior fellow Laurent Murawiec, “This is a relationship that has been cemented by forty years of money, power, and political favors that goes much deeper than most people realize.”
This column is adapted from the book “Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America’s Security.”