WASHINGTON >> For years, they have been one of the most formidable lobbying forces in town: the elite band of former members of Congress, former diplomats and power brokers who have helped Middle Eastern nations navigate diplomatic waters here on delicate issues like arms deals, terrorism, oil and trade restrictions.
Just last year, three of the biggest names in the lobbying club — Tony Podesta, Robert L. Livingston and Toby Moffett — pulled off a coup for one of their clients, Egypt. They met with dozens of lawmakers and helped stall a Senate bill that called on Egypt to curtail human rights abuses. Ultimately, those abuses helped bring the government down.
Moffett, a former congressman from Connecticut, told his old colleagues that the bill “would be viewed as an insult” by an important ally. “We were just saying to them, ‘Don’t do this now to our friends in Egypt,”’ he recounted.
Now the Washington lobbyists for Arab nations find themselves in a precarious spot, as they try to stay a step ahead of the fast-changing events without being seen as aiding despots and dictators. In Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and other countries in the region, leaders have relied increasingly on Washington’s top lobbyists and lawyers, paying them tens of millions of dollars. Some consultants are tacking toward a more progressive stance in light of pro-democracy protests, while others are dropping their clients altogether because of the tumult.
In Tunisia, where the earliest revolts energized the regional upheaval in January, the Washington Media Group, a public relations and communications firm, ended its $420,000 image-building contract with Tunis on Jan. 6, soon after reports emerged of violent government crackdowns on demonstrators.
“We basically decided on principle that we couldn’t work for a country that was using snipers on rooftops to pick off its citizens,” said Gregory L. Vistica, the firm’s president, who first announced the decision on Facebook.
Others have stayed the course, at least for now. Moffett, Livingston and Podesta, who have a joint, multimillion-dollar contract with Egypt, have stepped up the pace of their meetings and phone conferences with Egyptian Embassy officials after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. One of the chief aims, the lobbyists say, is to help the military officials now running the country move toward elections that will be regarded as free and fair outside Egypt.
“What we have done for them in the past is what we will continue to do for them in the future — everything in our power to build good relations between the Egypt of today and the United States,” said Livingston, the former House speaker who is one of Egypt’s Washington lobbyists.
At the same time, Livingston acknowledged that he was closely watching the situation in the region. “Is there a danger that the whole area might become Islamist and radical and totally opposed to the interests of the United States?” he asked. “Certainly there’s that risk.”
At Qorvis, a global public relations firm that has represented numerous countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Cyprus, executives from the firm’s Washington office were visiting the Middle East this week with a business-as-usual attitude.
“Our clients are facing some challenges now,” Seth Thomas Pietras, senior vice president of Qorvis Geopolitical Solutions, said in a telephone interview from Dubai. “But our long-term goals — to bridge the differences between our clients and the United States — haven’t changed. We stand by them.
As a rule, leaders in the Middle East have paid consultants generously, even by Washington lobbying standards, with monthly retainers commonly reaching $50,000 or more, according to federal filings.
(Price breaks are available, however: The law firm of White & Case promised Libya “a special 15 percent discount off of our standard rates” in light of the “significant relationship” it hoped to forge with Moammar Gadhafi’s country in 2008, according to the contract.)
The United Arab Emirates spent $5.3 million in 2009 for lobbying American officials — second only to the Cayman Islands, which has lobbied to retain its status as a tax haven, according to an analysis by Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit research group. Working through DLA Piper and other Washington-based firms, the U.A.E. has sought greater access to American nuclear technology.
Morocco spent more than $3 million on Washington lobbyists, much of it aimed at gaining an edge in its border dispute with Algeria, while Algeria countered by spending $600,000 itself.
Turkey, which shares some interests with the Middle East countries, spent nearly $1.7 million in 2009 to lobby American officials on Turkish and Middle Eastern policy through the firms of the former House leader Richard A. Gephardt, Livingston and other prominent lobbyists.
And Saudi Arabia, one of the most powerful foreign interests here, spent about $1.5 million in 2009 on Washington firms, and it has a $600,000 annual contract with Hogan Lovells aimed partly at fighting legislation and litigation that would challenge OPEC’s influence over oil prices.
“These kinds of regimes have a lot of money at their disposal, and that’s a great attraction,” said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists.
Still, he said, “a number of lobbyists will stay away from international clients — period.” To work with dictators in Middle Eastern nations with policies that many American find unsavory, he said, “you have to have a strong stomach.”
Livingston, the former congressman lobbying for Egypt, has also done work for Libya in seeking to resolve legal claims arising from Libya’s role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and normalize the country’s relations with the United States.
But he said he reached a tipping point in 2009 when Libya welcomed back with open arms a bomber convicted in the Pan Am case and when Gadhafi threatened to pitch a tent in New Jersey next to a Jewish yeshiva while visiting the United Nations.
“Those two incidents were just more than we could handle,” Livingston said. Soon after, his firm ended its work for Libya — with “no regrets,” he said.
Other major Washington firms, including White & Case and Blank Rome, a legal and lobbying shop, have also ended their work for Libya, which spent about $850,000 on U.S. lobbying in 2009. It is not clear from federal records which Washington firms, if any, are still working with Gadhafi’s government; none have been publicly admitting it.
As demonstrations were taking place in Egypt last month, Moffett said a friend suggested to him that his lobbying work for the Mubarak government put him “on the wrong side of the Egyptian thing.”
Moffett demurred. “I don’t feel that way at all,” he said. “We feel honored to be on the scene while all this is happening.”