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Saudis hire top DC lobbyists to seek US approval for deals

[WASHINGTON] Saudi Arabia is adding to its ranks of blue-chip lobbyists in Washington.

A Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund that aims to reduce the kingdom's dependency on oil has engaged a top K Street firm to lobby for approval of future acquisitions in the US, according to a March 8 filing with the Justice Department.

The Public Investment Fund(PIF), chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will pay the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP up to US$535,000 through May 1 for legal services and outreach to government officials for "current and anticipated investments" in the US. Among those representing the fund will be Geoffrey Verhoff, a top fundraiser for the Republican National Committee and a regional vice-chairman of the party's finance team.

Akin Gump will focus on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, which reviews foreign acquisitions of US businesses, according to the filings. The panel can approve deals, impose changes to transactions to protect American security or recommend that the president block a takeover.

The committee is a formidable gatekeeper for foreign investment in the US. Opposition from the panel has scuttled a string of deals under President Donald Trump over concerns about foreign ownership of American technology.

The latest Saudi Foreign Agents Registration Act(FARA) filing follows a flurry in February regarding the nation's bid to build nuclear power plants as American and Saudi leaders negotiate the contours of a possible nuclear technology-sharing agreement that could allow the enrichment of uranium. Trump administration officials, eager to revive the moribund American nuclear industry, are pushing the kingdom to consider a consortium of US companies for the job instead of competitors from Russia, China and other countries.

The Saudis are turning to Akin Gump amid a move by the kingdom to diversify its economy away from oil under a plan known as Vision 2030 and turn the PIF into the world's largest sovereign wealth fund. The sale of about 5 per cent in Saudi Arabian Oil Co, known as Aramco, is expected to provide more funds for PIF's investments.

It has already announced several large international deals, including a $20 billion commitment to US infrastructure fund managed by Blackstone Group LP, up to US$45 billion for a technology fund managed by SoftBank Group Corp and a $3.5 billion stake in Uber Technologies Inc. The fund was among investors that purchased a majority stake in the property business of French hotel operator Accor SA last month.

PIF is in talks to buy a stake in Endeavor, the holding company for Hollywood talent agency WME, people familiar with the matter said in January. Last year, the investment vehicle hired the head of Qatar Investment Authority's real estate arm, Greg Bankhurst, as chief development officer, people with knowledge of the matter said at the time.

According to the filings, made under FARA, two Akin Gump partners and two employees will work for the Saudi fund, including Mr Verhoff. Mr Verhoff is a senior adviser whose experience includes representing foreign sovereigns on tax, trade and development matters and raising tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates and causes, according to his biography posted on the firm's website.

Prakash Mehta, co-leader of Akin Gump's investment management practice group, and international trade partner Hal Shapiro will also work for PIF.

For lobbying over nuclear energy deals, Saudi Arabia has turned to Jeff Merrifield, a former presidential appointee on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who now leads the energy practice at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLC. The country has also enlisted King and Spalding LLP and David Kultgen, a lawyer and retired Aramco executive, who said he was recruited in early October to provide legal and consulting services to Saudi Arabia, including on its national atomic energy project.