Baby showers, icicle music and sauna time: How embassy parties have become the new K Street
The UAE has myriad interests before the U.S. government, including weapons acquisition, and more than a dozen firms actively registered with DOJ to represent government clients.
Otaiba said his favorite event to host is an interfaith Iftar dinner during Ramadan with Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others. Former Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, former Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Special Olympics Chair Timothy Shriver have all attended the event, which started before the pandemic.
The dinner in late March drew a lineup of prominent Jewish movers and shakers: Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), Biden antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt, Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog and Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz. The menu included salmon, saffron chicken, eggplant and beef kibbeh labanieh, and guests received a box of dates from the UAE as a party favor.
“Everybody leaves feeling good after that,” Otaiba said. “It’s about tolerance, it’s about inclusion, all of the values that we represent and stand for in the Emirates.”
Iftar dinners, however, are relatively mundane compared to many embassy shindigs. The French ambassador’s residence in recent years has held an Améthyste event, an homage to the purple stone. Washington bigwigs who attended last year included Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), senior White House officials Shalanda Young and Mitch Landrieu and Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
The purpose is to bring together Democrats and Republicans, said a French official in Washington who was granted anonymity to discuss the thinking behind the event. But it also hasn’t hidden its connections to K Street influences. Heather Podesta, a mega-lobbyist who that quarter lobbied for companies including Toyota and SpaceX, co-hosted Améthyste in December.
“Any time you put Republicans, Democrats, the media, corporations, nonprofits, entertainment industry, and diplomatic corps in the same room, good things are going to happen,” Podesta said in a statement. “In a town that too often is bifurcated by party, we all need opportunities to know each other better.”
The event’s corporate sponsors included the South Korean conglomerate SK Group and the French investment firm Ardian, which is looking to invest in the U.S., said Steve Clemons, another co-host of the event whose day job is writing a newsletter for the media startup Semafor. Clemons, a familiar face to those operating at the nexus of journalism and the embassy party circuit, became a Chevalier in France’s Legion of Honor in 2021.
In a statement, Ardian did not comment on its involvement in the party. The party also featured Chevron-branded coasters for the energy company, another sponsor. SK Group did not provide a comment. Chevron spokesperson Bill Turenne said in a statement: “Like other brands and news organizations, Chevron is proud to support events in Washington, like Amethyste, that bring Republicans and Democrats together to benefit important charity partners.”
Though denizens of the embassy party circuit say corporate sponsorships date back a number of years, they have at least become more noticeable of late. As part of the festivities around the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner, the Swiss commodity company Mercuria is sponsoring Time Magazine’s after-party Saturday night at the Swiss ambassador’s residence.
A representative for Mercuria said in an email: “Mercuria is a Swiss company, so the company often sponsors events at the Swiss embassy. We also sponsor the Soiree Suisse at the Swiss Embassy with other Swiss companies each year.” Spokespeople for the Swiss embassy and Time either declined to comment or did not respond.
One Republican lobbyist said that a company with business with a foreign government or in a foreign country might sponsor an event as a means to build relationships. A defense contractor, for instance, might use the venue to schmooze with a diplomat from a country to whom it hopes to sell military equipment, the lobbyist said.
Alternatively, part of a government’s mission in the U.S. is often wooing companies to show that the country is “open for business” and encourage investment, the person noted.
Asked why more companies are sponsoring events at embassies, Gérard Araud, who was France’s ambassador to Washington from 2014 to 2019, said: “I think it’s money. I think it’s really the foreign ministries are all fighting under budget constraints.” He said that when he was ambassador, he had to get approval from the foreign affairs ministry in Paris for any proposed sponsorship of an embassy event.
POLITICO has partnered with embassies in the past, including hosting an event earlier this month at the home of the European Union ambassador. Thursday’s event took place at the home of Ambassador Karen Pierce.
“POLITICO proudly convenes high-level gatherings of influential people which is why we are so excited to partner with the British Embassy in April to showcase our reporting teams from both here and London for a fantastic audience,” said Brad Dayspring, executive vice president of global communications and brand at POLITICO. “More conversations are needed in Washington, not less, which is why our reporters and editors regularly attend events like these and why we prioritize hosting and connecting people at them.”
One of the quirkiest draws on the embassy party circuit is the Finnish Embassy’s long-running sauna series, which brings together journalists and Hill staffers for a long night of sauna time, conversation and Scandinavian food. The ambassador has his own sauna that he uses to have one-on-ones with top government officials and journalists.