Qatar has hired seven American lobbying firms and spent nearly $5 million on U.S. lobbying and media campaigns in an effort to fight its isolation by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and others in June.
A Saudi-led coalition began its economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar on June 5 after the country’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, allegedly praised Iran, criticized President Trump and threatened to withdraw Qatari ambassadors from several Arab states.
Qatar claimed the comments, which aired on Qatari news outlets, were planted by foreign hackers. American intelligence officials identified the UAE as the source of the statements and cyberattack, The Washington Post reported.
The long-range causes of the split include tension between Qatar and the isolating states over the former’s alleged ties to terrorism, relations with Iran and support of foreign Muslim Brotherhood branches. The isolating governments consider domestic Muslim Brotherhood branches to be a threat to their legitimacy, and three have designated it a terrorist organization.
Two days after the boycott, Qatar turned to Washington: First, they hired Ashcroft Law Firm, cofounded by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and second law firm — McDermott, Will & Emory — three weeks later. In late August, Qatar hired a third D.C. law firm, Stonington Strategies, then a fourth, Nelson Mullins, in September.
Last summer, it also hired Avenue Strategies Global, former Trump campaign manager Corey Leandowski’s lobbying firm, according to Politico. Art Estopinan, recently hired as a partner at Avenue Strategies Global and one of the lobbyists for Qatar, was formerly Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s (R-Fla.) chief of staff. He also previously represented the Puerto Rico Private Sector Coalition.
Qatar has also turned to advertising firms, including the Washington, D.C.-based Audience Partners Worldwide.
Most recently, Qatar’s communications office hired the PR and lobbying firm BlueFront Strategies to create what would be the country’s most ambitious media campaign denouncing the isolation. The campaign was designed to target the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
BlueFront’s services for Qatar from Sept. 12 to Oct. 1 overlapped with the UN’s meeting. In total, the firm’s compensation for the campaign was $100,000.
Since June, Qatar has spent around $4.7 million on new contracts for U.S. influence campaigns. Between 2012 and June 2017, the country spent around $6.5 million on new contracts.
The above information comes from the Center for Responsive Politics’ Foreign Lobby Watch database, which curates the public forms companies representing foreign powers must file with the Department of Justice under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
The isolation caused some economic disruption in Qatar. It ended trade across the Saudi Arabia-Qatar border, the route Qatar had used to import around 40 percent of its food. Qatar’s shipping costs temporarily spiked tenfold, and air travel routes were disrupted, as Qatar’s national airline was forced to cancel 18 regional flights.
In addition to economic losses, Trump’s skepticism about the Iran nuclear agreement may also have prompted Qatar’s attempts to control the narrative about its isolation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s disapproval of Qatar’s relationship with Iran was central to the schism, as Saudi Arabia is engaged in proxy conflicts with Iran. If Trump were to use an exit from the deal to make Iran a pariah, it could impact Qatar’s standing with the U.S., too.
Qatar’s anti-isolation campaign aimed to “educate the United Nations General Assembly regarding the need to lift the blockade imposed on Qatar by certain other countries in the Middle East,” according to the contract BlueFront registered under FARA. It follows a botched phone call Trump arranged between the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim in an attempt to mediate the crisis. Instead, the call prompted Saudi Arabia to suspend dialogue with Qatar.
The underlying goal was likely to target powerful decision-makers attending the General Assembly, including Trump. The campaign coincided with Sheikh Tamim’s speech and his meeting with the president at the UN on Sept. 19.
Outlines BlueFront submitted under FARA show plans for ads across multiple platforms. Each ad contains a statement noting that Qatar’s government communications office paid for it, or a link to the campaign’s website where this statement is displayed.
This 31-second video was scheduled to be shown in an estimated 50 slots spread across Fox News, Fox Business, CNN, Headline News, CNBC, and MSNBC:
In 2015, Fortune estimated that a single 30-second ad slot on CNN would cost about $5,000.
They include designs for social media messaging, including an @LiftTheBlockade Twitter account and a Snapchat geofilter targeting the United Nations Headquarters, the Intercontinental Barclay and St. Regis hotels, the Financial District and the Times Square/Midtown areas, and John F. Kennedy Airport.
“We will defend our independence,” full-page ads for publication in The Washington Post and the New York Post state in bold. Below is a quote from the Washington Post article reporting that American officials had identified UAE hackers as being behind the crisis.
The campaign’s references to “independence” may reflect Qatar’s interpretation of conflicts between it and Saudi Arabia as amounting to battles for the smaller nation’s sovereignty. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, sees Qatar’s refusal to fall in line as a liability in its rivalry with Iran. This historic tension has spiked since the beginning of Arab Spring in December 2010, with Qatar supporting the revolutions, and specifically Muslim Brotherhood branches taking part in them, and Saudi Arabia opposing the movements.
The campaign materials also portray Qatar’s isolation specifically as an attack on domestic reforms. Openness to reform holds important political capital for Gulf monarchies, as countries like Saudi Arabia have sought to confront their leaders’ public images as regressive, aged rulers governing young populations. The campaign further frames the mobility restrictions that resulted from Qatar’s isolation as human rights violations.
Foremost, it stressed Qatar’s role as an ally to the U.S. in fighting terrorism, identifying Qatar as the only Gulf country to have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on terrorism with the US. Memoranda of understanding are not legally binding.
The portrayal of Qatar as an ally against terrorism seems to be a response to the heightened controversy the boycott has created surrounding its relationship with U.S.-designated “terrorist” groups.
Despite the isolating countries’ fervor in calling out Qatar’s terrorist links, they too have manipulated armed groups for strategic gain. In 2014, the UAE — perhaps the most vocal critic of Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood ties — violated UN-backed sanctions by sending military aircraft to anti-Islamist militias in Libya, and carried out bombings in support of those forces.
Funding flowing to designated terrorist groups from private citizens has posed a problem in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar alike.
One week following CRP’s initial request, the Qatari ambassador to the United States had not commented on the campaign.
BlueFront Strategies was founded by Sara Fagen, a former strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign and White House political director during his second term. In 2011, the advocacy firm DDC Public Affairs acquired BlueFront. Bluefront is the latest firm to contract with Qatar.
The BlueFront employees who registered under FARA to work on Qatar’s campaign also work for DDC. One, DDC’s Senior Vice President of Client Relations, formerly served as a director in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
According to CRP’s political expenditures data, BlueFront was a notable recipient of campaign spending during the 2012 election cycle, receiving almost $350,000 from three PACs. Two – Freedom First PAC and the National Rifle Association’s PAC – have donated almost exclusively to Republican federal candidates.
Qatar’s isolation prompted a competition between it and the isolating countries in the sphere of American public relations. In July, a Saudi-owned firm, the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), created an anti-Qatar media campaign for Bahrain, as Al Jazeera reported.
Its centerpiece is The Qatar Insider, a website claiming to offer “the truth about Qatar’s funding, activities and support for terrorist and extreme Islamist groups.” Designed like a news website, it reposts stories that could be construed to cast Qatar in a bad light.
The Arabic version of the website reposts articles from Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian newspapers.
CRP captured the following ad linked to The Qatar Insider when it ran in Politico, The Hill, and on NBC:
Bahrain’s ambassador to the U.S. was not available to comment on the campaign. Reem Daffa, SAPRAC’s vice president and executive director, was not reachable by phone.
GCC states’ participation in U.S. lobbying is heavily skewed. In mid-July — about a month after the split — Saudi Arabia had contracts with 22 American lobbying firms, the UAE had 10, and Bahrain and Egypt had three and two respectively, according to The Hill. In contrast, Omani entities have not registered any contracts with U.S. firms in the past five years. Kuwait has registered one.
The expensive media campaigns states on both sides of the isolation issue have purchased contrast starkly with the harsh consequences for locals who would criticize those states’ positions. The UAE has established an up-to-fifteen year sentence for those criticizing the blockade in the press, social media, or in speech. Bahrain has established an up-to-five year sentence, Saudi Arabia announced that it could consider such expression a cybercrime.