Akin Gump lobbies both for and against sanctions on Turkey

Lobbying is big business in the United States and there are none bigger than international law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Among its most lucrative accounts is the firm’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates. A registered foreign agent for the Embassy of the UAE since 2007, Akin Gump makes millions per year lobbying the U.S. government on Abu Dhabi’s behalf.

Filings required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act show that much of Akin Gump’s work for the UAE in recent years has focused on the Gulf state’s criticism of nearby Qatar and its media organisations. However, the firm also lobbied U.S. congressional staff in November and December in support of U.S. sanctions on Turkey.

Curiously, Akin Gump was also hired in October by TransAtlantic Petroleum, a Texas-based oil and gas company with interests in Turkey, to lobby against U.S. sanctions bills targeting Turkey in response to its cross-border offensive in Syria. 

During second half of 2019, a period when U.S.-Turkey relations deteriorated first over Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missile systems and then its incursion into northeastern Syria in October, the UAE paid Akin Gump a staggering $6 million.

This is a huge increase from the approximately $375,000 the UAE paid the firm in the first half of 2019, although Akin Gump has earned figures of $2-4 million from the UAE in six-month periods in the past.

On Nov. 6, Akin Gump emailed 68 congressional staffers regarding “Issues relating to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East including recent developments in Syria.”

The following day, Akin Gump further emailed the staff of several senators serving on the Committee on Foreign Relations “to underscore the UAE's condemnation of Turkish aggression in Syria and support for sanctions measures against Turkey such as the House-passed "Protect Against Conflict by Turkey Act" (H.R. 4695).”

On Dec. 11, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations went on to pass out of committee, by a vote of 18-to-four, the Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act, which is related to the House bill that passed in October.

Two days later, Akin Gump spoke on the phone regarding “Turkish aggression in Syria” with the offices of the same senators on the committee that it previously emailed about the matter in November. The Risch-Menendez bill, so-called after the bill’s co-sponsors, the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the committee, is thought to be the most viable U.S. legislative response to recent tensions with Turkey.

Given the effort Akin Gump made to communicate the UAE’s support for U.S. sanctions bills against Turkey in late 2019, it is therefore interesting that at the same time the firm started lobbying on behalf of a new client against those same sanctions bills.

TransAtlantic Petroleum decided to exit its U.S. operations in 2007, when it first acquired exploration licenses in Turkey and other foreign countries. At the end of 2009 it listed its common shares on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and in October 2010, it raised $85 million in a direct public offering the same month it fracture stimulated its first well in Turkey’s Thrace Basin.

The company went on to expand its holdings into southeastern Turkey, where it is executing a horizontal drilling programme in the Molla area outside Diyarbakır and redeveloping the Selmo field north of Batman, its historically most productive holding in Turkey.

In the first few years of its shift to focus on exploration and production in Turkey, TransAtlantic shares climbed to values in the low $30s in 2010 and 2011, although they dropped to values between $8-11 per share in 2013 and 2014 and continued to trend downwards. Since 2016, the company’s shares have only been worth about $1.

TransAtlantic is now heavily dependent on its business in Turkey and so it is no surprise that it hired lobbyists to oppose U.S. sanctions on Turkey that could complicate its interests there. 

Although TransAtlantic share values have steadily dropped over the years, they took a further tumble last October, corresponding with Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria and the clamour in the U.S. Congress to sanction Turkey.

By November, when the lobbying firm it had just hired to lobby against sanctions was conversely lobbying for sanctions on the UAE’s behalf, TransAtlantic’s share value had dropped to just $0.37, where it remains today.

A recent filing required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act shows that TransAtlantic paid Akin Gump $40,000 in the fourth quarter of 2019 to lobby against the Risch-Menendez bill and a harsher sanctions bill proposed by Senators Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen.

Another Texas-based oil and gas company, the Baker Hughes Company, spent $60,000 on its own separate lobbying efforts in the fourth quarter of 2019 that included opposing the various U.S. sanctions bills targeting Turkey. Baker Hughes was involved in the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline that crosses Turkey and maintains interests in the country to date.

The Risch-Menendez bill has not passed and it is unclear whether it will come to a floor vote, so TransAtlantic and Baker Hughes may feel satisfied with their decision to spend on lobbying to protect their interests in Turkey. It is nonetheless extraordinary that TransAtlantic chose to hire a lobbying firm whose top foreign client, the UAE, paid Akin Gump vastly greater sums to accomplish the opposite goal.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.