In the wake of the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a host of people in President Donald Trump’s orbit have taken heat for their connections to the government of Saudi Arabia—widely suspected to be behind Khashoggi’s dismemberment and death.
But Obama World isn’t without close connections to the kingdom. A company helmed by Jim Jones, then-President Barack Obama’s first National Security Adviser, has a contract with the Saudi government to advise on industrial matters, The Daily Beast has learned. Jones’ company, Jones Group International, had, until March of this year, a second contract with the kingdom related to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s military overhaul. It’s another sign of the deep reach of Saudi money into the Washington elite.
A spokesperson for Ironhand Security, a subsidiary of Jones’ firm Jones Group International, confirmed the existence of the contracts—one in place, one expired—to The Daily Beast.
“Ironhand Security had a contract with the Saudi government to provide advice on its military transformation efforts, a key component of the 2030 vision and reform agenda strongly supported by the United States,” the spokesperson said. “This was particularly important given the significance of the military-to-military relationship.”
That contract ended in March of this year, according to the spokesperson. A second contract between Ironhand and the kingdom, signed in January and set to expire in several weeks, involves “advisory services on the development of a domestic industrial base.”
The spokesperson indicated that Jones is not yet ready to cut his business ties with the kingdom.
“General Jones is disturbed about this matter and horrified at the reports,” he said. “He wants to know precisely what happened to Mr. Khashoggi and eagerly awaits disclosure of the full facts produced by the investigations, which must be thorough, objective, transparent, and verifiable.”
Jones’ willingness to wait out the investigation process distinguishes him from a host of American individuals and companies who have distanced themselves from the kingdom after Khashoggi’s disappearance. Earlier this week, a spokesperson for the lobbying firm BGR Group told The Daily Beast that it had ended its work for Saudi Arabia. That same day, Glover Park Group—another lobbying firm—also announced it had cut ties. But despite the slew of departures, long-time lobbyists told The Daily Beast that the kingdom’s ample wealth would still open doors on K Street.
A host of American media companies have canceled on plans to participate in a Riyadh investment conference scheduled for next week. After Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced on Thursday he would cancel his appearance, Fox Business, the event’s last media sponsor, also bailed.
But entities with business relationships to the country, including a number of American investment firms, have stayed the course. And for the time being, so has Jones.
The general, a member of the Atlantic Council, headed the National Security Council from Obama’s inauguration until October 2010. Before that, he spent 40 years in the Marine Corps and headed the United States European Command, overseeing NATO forces.
“Though not a great strategic thinker, Jones was widely regarded, by many of his friends and associates, as a skilled bureaucratic operator and an iron-hand organizer,” Fred Kaplan wrote at Slate shortly after Jones departed the White House.
Lydia Dennett, an investigator at the government watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POGO), told The Daily Beast that when foreign governments ink contracts with former administration officials, those commercial connections can act as tools of soft power.
“The concern here is that high-ranking military officials generally are often seen as places where Congress and the executive branch can go to provide unbiased advice on national security issues,” Dennett said. “And when you have these kinds of financial relationships, it can lead to issues of undue influence.”
Since Saudi Arabia didn’t hire Jones to lobby, he was not required to publicly disclose the work. Documents POGO obtained by FOIA show he disclosed work for Saudi Arabia to the Pentagon, which approved it.
During the Obama administration, the decades-long alliance between the United States and the Saudis faced significant strain, in large part because of Team Obama’s work to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. Iran is Saudi Arabia’s top regional foe, and Obama’s overtures to the Shia stronghold angered the House of Saud. The administration’s positive words about the Arab Spring protests—tepid though those words were—also angered the Saudis, as the monarchy has long seen Middle East populism as a direct threat.
But tensions between the Obama administration and the Saudis clearly didn’t keep a top member of that administration from working for the Gulf autocracy.
Under the Trump administration, relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have warmed—and fast. Trump’s first overseas trip as president was to Riyadh, where he, Melania Trump, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi placed their hands on a glowing orb to symbolize their counter-terror cooperation.
Khashoggi’s disappearance threatens that cooperation. But under Trump’s Saudi-friendly administration—and with the help of Americans like Jones who do business with the kingdom—the close ties will likely survive.