Atlantic Council Gives Saudi Agent Prime Perch to Peddle Influence in Washington

Conflicts of interest, Middle Eastern money, and a failure to disclose

Amir Handjani
Amir Handjani / RAK Petroleum

A registered foreign agent for Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund recently authored a piece for Foreign Policy magazine lavishing praise on the Gulf monarchy without disclosing his financial relationship to the government.

A May piece by Amir Handjani, then a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, bears the headline, "Saudi Arabia Has Big Plans in India." The piece touts the Saudi regime's investments on the Indian subcontinent, arguing that they fit "nicely in a growing Asian portfolio" and are symbolic of a larger Saudi attempt to balance its longstanding relationship with Pakistan with greater engagement in India.

Left unsaid was that Handjani was a registered foreign agent for the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, which is wholly owned by the Saudi monarchy, according to forms filed with the Department of Justice. KARV Communications, which employed Handjani as a senior adviser, has a contract with the fund that covers public relations advice and outreach to U.S. media.

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Contacted by the Washington Free Beacon, Foreign Policy editor in chief Jonathan Tepperman said the publication has a "conflict-of-interest policy" and was aware that Handjani had a relationship with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. "We should have disclosed this connection," he said. They have since amended the story with an update indicating that "Foreign Policy should have disclosed to readers that the author was consulting for Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, work that required him to register as a foreign agent. We regret our oversight."

"We require disclosure of all potential conflicts, and if we deem the conflict to be material, then we either disclose it or decide not to run the piece," Tepperman said.

Handjani did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

A 2014 New York Times exposé revealed how foreign governments often deploy financial support for American think tanks and media to influence American opinion, leading many such organizations to institute additional transparency requirements. The Handjani article suggests that loopholes persist for those willing to skirt the law.

The Foreign Agent Registration Act requires those working on behalf of foreign principals to register with the Justice Department and to disclose their work on behalf of their foreign clients—whom they've contacted, any gifts they've received, and how they're being compensated.

Handjani registered as a foreign agent of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund in February, and while disclosures from his firm, KARV Communications, noted "emails and phone calls with Foreign Policy magazine" between April 23 and April 25, 2019, neither disclosed Handjani's authorship of an op-ed. Nor did KARV Communications file the op-ed with the Justice Department in supplemental filings.

"The law requires that public articles reveal the foreign agent status of the author if written in the course of that representation," said Trevor Potter, founder and president of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney with Caplin & Drysdale. "The whole point of FARA is to ensure that American readers know that the information they are receiving was paid for by a foreign entity with its own agenda."

The forms Handjani and his firm filed with the Department of Justice did disclose that the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, in addition to delivering monthly payments of as much as to $228,000, also sent a foosball table for the KARV offices.

Handjani's Foreign Policy piece focuses on Saudi Aramco's energy investments. Aramco, the world's most profitable company, recently announced plans to go public and claims that much of the profits will flow to the country's sovereign wealth fund.

An October report from the Free Beacon revealed that Handjani has also worked as an adviser to Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi, "the ruler" of Ras al Khaimah, one of the United Arab Emirates. Emails read in open court in the U.K. in August of 2019 showed Qasimi's top advisers consulting with Handjani and others about how to target their foes. The emails surfaced during a lawsuit between an Iranian-American businessman and Ras al Khaimah's sovereign wealth fund, which is itself represented by Handjani's firm.

Through an attorney, Handjani demanded that the Free Beacon publicly apologize for the piece, noting that he is "a board member of the prestigious Atlantic Council where he has also served as resident fellow and a non-resident fellow."

Handjani, who is no longer a fellow—resident or nonresident—at the Atlantic Council but remains a member of the influential think tank's board of directors, is a frequent contributor to media outlets from Al-Monitor to the Lawfare blog and POLITICO Magazine and has appeared on several panels alongside Atlantic Council scholars.

A spokesman for the Atlantic Council told the Washington Free Beacon, "We encourage staff, fellows, and board members to use their affiliation in the media. When individuals publish comments on issues where they have an outside interest, or where they are taking a personal stance, we ask they disclose that or not use their Atlantic Council affiliation."

His views on Saudi Arabia seem to have evolved. In a 2017 piece in Al-Monitor, written before Handjani registered as a foreign agent for the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, he took a markedly different tone toward the regime, arguing that its policies in the broader Middle East had been "miserable failures"—and specifically chastising the government for "confronting Iran."

Handjani is a prolific donor to the Atlantic Council, where his personal foundation has given $200,000 to the organization's Future of Iran Initiative since 2016 and where he himself donated between $100,000 and $250,000 last year, according to public filings. He also serves as president of PG International Commodity Trading, which conducts sanctions-exempt trade with Iran on behalf of Cargill International, according to public documents.

Handjani did not disclose his financial relationship with the Future of Iran Initiative when he coauthored a piece with its director, Barbara Slavin, in POLITICO Magazine in September of 2017.

"You see a lot of business people being able to use their think tank affiliation to obscure the fact that they might have a business interest in the policies they're advocating, which is why we'd like to see much more transparency," said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Military Reform Program at the Project on Government Oversight.

The New York Times piece revealed how foreign governments have used think tanks to shape American policy by funding programs at organizations from the Atlantic Council to the Brookings Institution to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Scholars there said they had at times found their views muzzled when those views were at odds with the donors to their organizations.

The Atlantic Council moved to disclose its donors when President Barack Obama tapped its former board chairman, Chuck Hagel, to be his secretary of defense in 2013. Other institutions have in recent years also begun to disclose their corporate donors, who are offered special access to think tank scholars and events.