The UAE has employed the services of a British Conservative MP and a London-based public relations firm in a campaign to paint Qatar in a negative light and strip the Gulf country of the honour of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Details of the lengthy campaign have been exposed by the New York Times.
It is alleged that a little-known consultancy, Cornerstone Global Associates (CGA), worked with the UAE to link Qatar to the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism through the careful placement of articles and reports in the media. In its efforts to scuttle the 2022 tournament or, failing that, to humble Qatar by forcing it to share the event with its political enemies, CGA staff met with several key anti-Qatari officials, including British MP Damian Collins. In the meeting, the head of CGA, Ghanem Nuseibeh, is alleged to have revealed to Collins details of a Qatari "plot" to employ CIA operatives to try to undermine its main rivals for the hosting rights of the 2022 football tournament.
Two months later, in July 2018, Britain's Sunday Times published what it billed as a bombshell: "Exclusive: Qatar Sabotaged 2022 World Cup Rivals With 'Black Ops.'" The article, which did not name its sources, revealed some of the topics related to Qatar's World Cup bid and quoted Collins urging FIFA to investigate the allegations and, if true, strip Qatar of the hosting right.
Prior to spearheading an anti-Qatar campaign on behalf of the UAE, CGA had actually offered its services to the government in Doha. According to the NYT, the PR firm is said to have laid out a plan in 2010 to assist Qatar with its mounting public relations problems. The Qataris declined the offer, one of several that had arrived unsolicited during that summer.
In the years since, CGA appears to have become involved closely with the UAE, which has led efforts to discredit its Gulf neighbour, especially since 2017, when it joined Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain to cut diplomatic ties with Doha.
While Qatar has been ostracised regionally, the UAE has led efforts to paint its neighbour in a negative light around the world. In Washington, it has financed a broad campaign hoping to use American journalists and think tanks to tarnish the small Gulf state. The NYT admitted that it too received several batches of documents from an anonymous source last year. Over a period of several months, the source, who claimed to be someone close to CGA who had become disillusioned with how football was being politicised, answered questions relating to the disclosure of encrypted email. The NYT said that it was able to confirm independently some of the meetings and conversations described in the documents, which appear to fit the pattern of the Gulf's continuing tit-for-tat information war.
The campaign took an aggressive turn following the start of the Saudi-UAE-led blockade of Qatar in mid-2017. The breadth and specifics of the campaign to hamstring Qatar's FIFA World Cup are laid out in documents that reveal close ties between CGA and individuals and companies in the UAE.
According to the NYT, one CGA document outlines a plan to produce a report linking Qatar to the Muslim Brotherhood, and several others discuss efforts to place articles in the British news media that would damage Qatar's reputation. However, after the initial flurry of negative headlines, and after CGA's impartiality was called into question, the BBC changed the online version of its report on the matter to soften some of the allegations made by the company.
The NYT was unable to name the source of the anti-Qatar campaign but insisted that there was a close link between Cornerstone Global Associates and the UAE, including a $1 million wire transfer that is thought to have been paid to disclose damaging information about the World Cup bid.
A prominent libel lawyer cited in the report acknowledged that CGA is a client and expressed "grave concerns" about the "unlawful accessing of data" that he believed had been "misinterpreted and taken totally out of context."
CGA's latest bid to strip Qatar of the FIFA World Cup is an article in the Irish Times hailing the potential for a huge "economic windfall" for Britain if the tournament is stripped from Qatar and handed to England instead.