This report is part of the “Hajj (Pilgrimage) to Washington” project published by Sasapost. It covers the Middle East lobbies in the US between 2010 and 2020. Most of the report is based on documents from the US Department of Justice database, operating under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). This legislation requires lobbyists to disclose their activities and funds, ensuring that all documents are publicly accessible online.
Thanks to its supportive foreign policy during the Arab Spring, Qatar earned itself many allies and rivals. Among its main opponents is its southern neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and its other neighbour, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both countries supported counter-revolutions and sought to suppress and stifle any movement or democratic transition upholding freedoms and advocating for the basic principles of decent living conditions in the region.
Qatar has begun to broaden its influence over the past two decades, and thanks to its foreign policy of supporting the Arab Spring, it has been forging allies and opponents. Doha has realised that in order for it to become an influential actor in the region, it needs to secure itself in the world’s capital, Washington.
By hosting Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US military base in the Middle East, Doha was able to win the most important ally on the world map. But Donald Trump’s accession to power, along with the pressure exerted by its two main rivals, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, nearly unsettled the balance.
This report traces the history of the Qatari lobby in the US, outlining the strategies adopted, the payments made and its agenda. It also draws a comparison between how it operated before and after the blockade. The term “Qatari lobby” in this report is defined as the parties working for Qatar’s interests, whether Qatari or not.
This is part 3 of a series looking at the lobbying work of MENA states in the US. Read the others:
- The Emirati lobby: The biggest spender and the largest Arab one
- A revolution, a change of regime and 4 rulers
The working methods of the Qatari lobby
Since Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa took control of the Emirate in 1995, Qatar has made soft power the pillar of its foreign policy by opening and resorting to diplomatic channels, taking on the role of international mediator and investing in media development in Washington. This policy was reflected in the Qatari lobby’s activities, as prior to the blockade, Qatar had mainly focused its outreach policy on State Department-related agencies, think tanks and the media, with the exception of defence affairs and arms deals.
The State of Qatar did not have a powerful lobby before the blockade imposed in June 2017. Consequently, the blockade forced the creation of a lobby to advance its interests and relieve the strain exerted by other lobbies, especially the Emirati lobby.
The FARA documents revealed the activities of the lobbies working against Qatar in Washington concerning many issues, such as the war against Al Jazeera and the smear campaigns.
Concerning the Qatari lobby’s expenditures, the documented lobbying payments after the blockade amounted to almost $54 million (out of $75 million during the last decade) on new and ongoing contracts.
This report reviews the working approaches of the Qatari lobby and the lobbying channels to which it resorted.
Congress: Qatar builds advocacy groups to serve its interests
Lobbies usually establish contact with staff and members of Congress to lobby them regarding laws and legislation involving a foreign policy issue. Qatar has widely adopted this method after the imposition of the blockade. However, the Qatari lobby differs from the rest in terms of building a network of “Congressional Caucuses”, a group of members of Congress sharing common legislative goals regarding specific issues or countries.
The Congressional “Qatari Caucus” was founded in 2004 by engaging Tanya Rahall, an expert in lobbying and governmental affairs. The caucus was composed of 50 members of Congress. With the help of her brother, Democratic Representative Nick Rahall, Tanya set up the caucus. Today, it is known as the Congressional Caucus on Qatari-American Strategic Relationships and has been joined by a group of representatives including Republican Representative Gus Bilirakis, Democrat André Carson, Republican Billy Long and Republican Joe Wilson.
In 2007, Representative Carolyn Maloney, with the support of other representatives from the Qatari Caucus, such as Nick Rahall and Joe Wilson, issued a congratulatory resolution to the State of Qatar on the Qatari-American Friendship Day. After Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani assumed leadership of the Emirate, the Republican Representative Michael Grimm congratulated the State of Qatar on the occasion.
A few days before the Qatar blockade, the lobby tried to persuade Republican Representative Lee Zeldin to reactivate the caucus. However, he refused due to his “concern about Qatar’s relations with Hamas”, reported Politico.
After the blockade, the lobby documents recorded intensified contacts with the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, comprising a group of Republicans defending the principles and values of the Tea Party movement. The caucus was formed in 2015 to oppose traditional Republicans attempting to reach political agreements with Democrats and the former Democratic President Barack Obama in order to pass specific laws. The caucus helped Trump immediately after his inauguration as president of the US and cooperated with him on a number of cases, including the shutdown of the US Government after his dispute with the Democrats.
The lobby’s contact with the Freedom Caucus occurred during the tumultuous time when Qatar was striving to gain the support of Trump and his allies in the White House due to the damage it had incurred from the blockade. From February to July 2017, there were regular contacts with Justin Ouimette, policy director of the Freedom Caucus and Republican caucus member David Schweikert.
Networking with the White House and investing in US states
Prior to Trump’s inauguration, the Qatari lobby sought to communicate with his transition team. It liaised with Abe Goldschmidt, Trump’s special assistant, to coordinate a meeting with him in December 2016. Goldschmidt worked on Michael Bloomberg’s campaign for mayor of New York state. He worked as an assistant in communications affairs within the Jewish community and later as presidential campaign assistant to Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s private attorney. The Qatari lobby held further meetings with members of Trump’s transition team, such as Matt Mowers and Rick Dearborn.
The Qatari lobby has adopted an astute strategy of reaching out to US states and strengthening trade ties with them. Thanks to this strategy, the lobby won over members of Congress representing these states; and the stronger these trade ties would become, the more pleased the populations within these states would be. As a result, chances would increase for the re-election of the members representing them in Congress.
For instance, after the blockade of Qatar, the Qatari Embassy contracted Ballard Partners three months before Sheikh Tamim’s visit to Washington in June 2018. The firm has close ties with Trump’s circles, and its president has maintained relations with Trump for 30 years.On the state investment front, the Florida-based firm approached Rick Scott, the state governor, and a group of private companies to conclude investment agreements. Despite the lack of registered activity, payments made to the firm amounted to $2.160 million.
Doha, in the meantime, established a special relationship with the state of South Carolina, particularly the coastal city of Charleston. The city signed a “twinning agreement” with Doha in November 2019. Qatar Aviation Services signed investment contracts with Boeing’s aircraft manufacturing plant in Charleston, in addition to arms contracts for F-15 aircraft.
In 2018, Barzan Holdings, affiliated with the Qatari Ministry of Defence, opened an office in Charleston and signed agreements to purchase US security equipment and coordinate arms sales. Since its creation, the office had a budget of $20,569,000.
Qatar has succeeded in strengthening its relationship with South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, one of the most prominent Republican figures in Congress and head of the Judiciary Committee, thanks to these specific investment deals. Graham has been an ally in the battle against the blockade countries in Washington. Graham has, therefore, been one of Mohammed Bin Salman’s greatest critics in holding him accountable for the Jamal Khashoggi murder, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar.
Education is a lever in the US – so is establishing ties with the media and think tanks
Qatar’s soft power is not only limited to the media. During the last decade, it has adopted “education diplomacy” by establishing the Education City programme alongside a group of US universities such as Georgetown University, Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M. According to this programme: “Students studying within Education City have a unique opportunity to gain depth and breadth through cross-registration at other Education City universities.”
In 2009, the Qatar Foundation, which runs Education City, hired Ogilvy to contact dozens of US media outlets to promote Education City’s activities and initiatives, such as promoting the My Academy initiative and coordinating media meetings for Sheikha Hind Bint Hamad, CEO of the foundation.
The lobby also promoted the Education Above All Foundation and its educational projects, as well as another project in the Gaza Strip, providing an overview at its meeting with Mike Summers, the top policy aide to John Boehner.
Regarding research centres, the Brookings Institution opened a branch in Doha in 2007 and is one of the oldest US research centres, established in 1916. Qatar continuously donates to the institute; in 2013, Qatar donated $14,800,000.
From December 2014 to May 2015, the lobby communicated extensively with the most prominent think tanks in Washington, such as The Washington Institute, the Centre for American Progress and the Atlantic Council.
The calm before the storm: The lobby’s activities after the Arab Spring and before the blockade
The Qatari lobby’s documents prior to the blockade show targeted activities on specific issues. In order to place the activities in a broader context, it is necessary to mention some of the defining events of the lobby’s activities during this period.
Following the Arab Spring, new axes were formed in the region, and a Gulf power struggle was ignited in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Qatar did not take a radical stance towards countries that were hostile to revolutions at the time, but instead sought to remain within the framework of Gulf unity efforts and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
It joined the Saudi coalition in the Yemen war, but despite the unification of the Gulf ranks with the intention of overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad, Qatari approaches conflicted with those of Saudi Arabia on the ground.
However, the war waged by the UAE with Saudi Arabia against the Arab Spring forces put Qatar on the list of enemies of the counter-revolutionary countries. In an unprecedented event, the escalation resulted in the withdrawal of the ambassadors of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt from Qatar in 2014. As Qatar began to feel isolated, it made efforts to conclude arms deals with Washington.
In 2013, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Doha and signed a ten-year military cooperation agreement, followed by an advanced arms sales agreement worth $11 billion. These deals were not the first of their kind, as there had already been ongoing military cooperation between Qatar and the US; in 1992, Qatar signed a military cooperation agreement with the US.
Since 2002, Qatar has disbursed nearly $8 billion in support of US and coalition operations. Since 2003, Doha has paid around $500 million for military construction, providing $800 million to expand Al Udeid Air Base.As part of its mediation efforts, Qatar hosted Lebanese political forces in 2008 to discuss a solution to the Lebanese crisis in the so-called Doha Agreement.
In June 2013, Doha opened an office for the Afghan Taliban to discuss efforts to end the crisis in Afghanistan and hold negotiations between the Afghan High Peace Council and the authorised representatives of the Taliban. Qatar is currently playing the role of mediator in peace talks between the US and the Taliban and between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban.
Before the blockade, most of the lobby’s activities targeted research centres and media organisations. The lobby carried out public relations campaigns on the workers’ rights issue and the 2022 World Cup, and communication with Congress was limited to the arms deals that Qatar sought to finalise. The following summarises the most prominent companies and files on which the Qatari lobby worked before the blockade.
In 1994, Qatar hired Patton, Boggs and Blow shortly before Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa took power. It provided advisory and legal services and communicated mainly with the State Department and its agencies dealing with the Gulf and the Middle East. The firm’s relationship with Qatar continued until December 2019. In 2020, the firm announced the closure of its office in Qatar and its desire to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In 2014, ensuing the withdrawal of the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, the Qatari lobby hired most of the companies that worked extensively on public relations campaigns to improve its image in Washington.
Portland public relations firm was one of the best public relations companies that Qatar had contracted. It started working in September 2014 to promote Qatar’s handling of the workers’ rights issue and the 2022 World Cup.
With headquarters in the UK and an office in Doha, the firm is headed by Tim Allan, who served as an advisor to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. One example of documented activities is the firm’s promotion of the Qatar Fund for Development’s donation to the UNESCO World Heritage Education Programme. Payments to the firm have reached $8.8 million to date.
Two months later, on 22 December, 2014, the lobby hired Mercury Public Affairs, one of the well-known firms working for Turkey in Washington.
Mercury Public Affairs lobbied extensively to pass the arms deals with Qatar and later to have the decisions presented against Qatar in Congress blocked. The payments for the duration of the contract (2014-2019) amounted to $6,347,000.
During the passing of the arms deal in 2014, Mercury Public Affairs contacted Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Forces Committee. At that time, Senator Kaine visited Doha, accompanied by independent Senator Angus King, a member of the Armed Forces Committee, to meet with Prime Minister Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani and visit Al Udeid Air Base.The National Defence Authorisation Act for the 2016 fiscal year included Section 1278, which requires the Defence Department to notify Congress about the risks and benefits of the aircraft sales to Qatar that it had requested in July 2013. Mercury Public Affairs liaised with Chris Bruce, the chief of staff at the Senate Armed Forces Committee, for information on this provision of the law.
On the same day that it contracted Mercury Public Affairs, Doha hired Levick Strategic Communications, which reached out extensively to media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Politico. The firm provided monitoring services on the content published by think tanks relating to Qatar. The payments made to the firm during the contract (2014-2018) amounted to $2,451,000.
Through the Portland firm, the Qatari Embassy also contracted the Gallagher Group, which lobbied for the signing of the F-15 fighter jets deal and that of the Boeing C-17 military transport aircraft. At the end of 2016, the Qatari lobby hired the Podesta Group to liaise with research centres, the most important of which was the Centre for American Progress, the centre close to Democratic circles. The services of Podesta lasted nearly three months, for which Doha paid $61,800.
In March 2017, FARA documents recorded a contract between Sheikh Khalifa Bin Fahad Al-Thani and the Global Strategies Council, the background of which was the kidnapping by armed militias in 2015 of 28 Qataris, including members of the ruling family. The firm provided investigative services to ensure that the individuals involved were alive and provided negotiation services aiming for their release. During its six-month period of work, the firm was paid $2 million.
Qatar is playing out all its cards: How has the lobby dealt with the blockade?
Qatar found itself facing trouble that it had to navigate with delicate caution following the blockade imposed on it in June 2017. The blockading countries cut off the land routes for delivering food supplies and banned Qatari flights from utilising their airspace. However, most dangerous of all was Trump’s alignment with the countries imposing the blockade.
Those countries laid the groundwork for the blockade in Washington, spreading accusations and exerting pressure on all levels. This went from tarnishing Qatar’s image in the media, to allying with the Israeli lobby and the right-wing Republicans in Congress to pass legislation that would harm Qatar, accusing it of supporting the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas.
The efforts of the Qatari lobby after the blockade can be summarised as the following main areas: the human rights issue led by Ali Al-Marri, head of the National Human Rights Committee in Qatar, the previously mentioned investment portfolio of networking with the US States and the political aspect by networking with the White House and lobbying through Congress.
To ease pressure, the lobby used the Al Udeid Air Base card to remind the Americans of the American-Qatari strategic alliance. The documents mention the lobby’s meeting with Democratic Representative Ro Khanna to discuss the blockade of Qatar and its consequences on Al Udeid Air Base. The documents recorded extensive communication with Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell, a 2020 presidential candidate and a critic and opponent of the blockade on Qatar.
Regarding promoting Al-Udeid Air Base’s importance, the Qatari Embassy contracted the SGR government relations and lobbying firm. The firm forged ties with Republican figures in the Trump administration and executed media campaigns highlighting Al Udeid Air Base’s prominence.
Immediately following the ending of the blockade, the lobby held meetings for Al-Marri with senior senators such as Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris and Mark Warner to discuss the human rights violations caused by the blockade. Al-Marri hired several US firms to provide advisory and legal services and to assist him in filing lawsuits in international courts against the violations committed by the countries imposing the blockade.
Easing pressure through forging ties with Trump and his vice-president
Following President Trump’s statements in support of the blockading countries, in which he accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, it was imperative for the Qatari lobby to move quickly to appease the US administration in order for Qatar to preserve its national security, especially after threats and reports of an imminent military coup attempt.
Regarding these efforts, Doha contracted Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough in August 2017, two months after the blockade was imposed. During these endeavours, the firm held a meeting for the Qatari ambassador at the end of 2018 with Trump’s advisors.
A month later, in September 2017, President Trump and Prince Tamim held a press conference during the United Nations General Assembly. At this time, Qatar hired the Information Management Services firm, which carried out extensive media campaigns before the General Assembly to raise awareness of the blockade and its violations of international laws.
Bluefront Strategies was hired, and the firm proceeded to launch a media campaign, create an account on Twitter entitled “Lift the Blockade” and design billboards printed on cars on the streets of New York.
The lobby’s communication efforts were not only limited to those close to Trump, but also included advisors close to US Vice-President Mike Pence, such as Joe Kellogg, Pence’s National Security advisor and Steve Pinkos.SGR contacted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump’s National Security Advisor Brett McGurk and National Security Advisor Kash Patel. Less than a year after the start of the blockade, the Emir of Qatar visited the White House and, during the press conference, stressed the importance of Al Udeid Air Base in combating terrorism. The firm also held a meeting with Assistant to the president and Deputy Director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing in Trump’s administration Alex Gray. At the meeting, potential arms deals were discussed.
The defence agenda and the legislation combating ‘Palestinian terrorism’
In May 2017, shortly before the imposition of the blockade, Republican Representative Brian Mast introduced the Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act, a law that seeks to cut off the financial networks of Palestinian resistance movements, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine. The law included a direct accusation against Qatar for supporting these movements, financially and militarily.
The law was supported by several pro-Israel members, such as Democrat Representative Eliot Engel and Republican Ed Royce.
The Qatari lobby worked to block the bill by parleying with the Foreign Affairs Committee staff, such as Mira Resnick and Matthew Zweig. The lobbying focused on removing Qatar from the bill.
As part of the lobby’s campaign to block the bill, it promoted a letter written by Shimon Shapira, a former general of the Israeli intelligence service, stating that Qatar had not provided military support to Hamas. The lobby later succeeded in removing the mention of Qatar from the bill, and in the same bill, reintroduced by Congressman Brian Mast in 2019, the mention of Qatar was omitted.
In July 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Qatar regarding “combating terrorism”. This was preceded by efforts from a team of the State Department, including Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones, with whom the Qatari lobby was in contact at the end of 2016. During a dialogue held in 2019, the two governments confirmed their commitment to the MoU.
In mid-2019, Senator Rand Paul introduced a bill blocking the $3 billion sale of Apache helicopters to Qatar, but Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Armed Forces Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe declared their opposition to the bill and Congress later rejected it. Senator Paul is identified as being one of the Republicans who opposed US military intervention.
In the context of completing the deal and stalling Senator Paul’s bill, the Qatari lobby contacted Special Assistant at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Brooks and Republican Senator John Cornyn. Senator Cornyn defended the deal on the pretext: “If [the Gulf States] do not buy weapons from us, they will buy them from China and Russia.”
The most crucial key to US policy is rapprochement with Israel’s supporters
During its course, the Qatari lobby employed firms to communicate with pro-Israel organisations and figures in Washington to improve relations with the US and alleviate pressure from both the Israeli lobby and the anti-Qatar lobbies. Before the blockade, Qatar’s documents record two contracts related to the Qatari-Israeli rapprochement. The first is that of Qatari businessperson Hassan Ali Bin Ali with the Friedlander Group run by Orthodox Jew Ezra Friedlander.
The contract was signed in November 2014 in exchange for services to promote Qatar’s image within the Jewish community in the US and services to coordinate meetings with members of Congress and Jewish leaders.
The Friedlander Group contacted pro-Israel Congress members and others opposing the State of Qatar, such as Republican Representative Peter Roskam, who pressured Qatar to sever relations with Hamas. The firm also established contact with Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, who sponsored a resolution to pay tribute to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Congress. During the ceremony celebrating Peres, Hassan was in attendance.Two months after the blockade, the State of Qatar signed a contract with Stonington Strategies, run by Nicolas Muzin, a former assistant to Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a fierce advocate of Israel.
Muzin has coordinated trips for Jewish-American figures to Qatar, such as Head of the Zionist Organisation of America Morton Klein, a staunch critic of the State of Qatar.
In mid-2018, the lobby contracted Lexington Strategies, run by Joey Allaham, a Jewish Syrian-American businessperson with solid ties to the US Israeli lobby. Allaham provided promotional services for the 2022 World Cup and helped strengthen relations with the Jewish community. The relationship with Allaham ended one month after it had begun.
Translated from Sasapost, 25 January 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.