Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Doha’s backdoors in Washington

Via donations to think tanks and lobby groups, Qatar has long bought influence in Washington, and continues to do so now, writes Mohamed Abdel-Baky

Doha’s backdoors in Washington
Doha’s backdoors in Washington

Over the past decade rulers of Qatar have been keen to buy influence in different Western capitals to lobby for the interest for the tiny Gulf kingdom that faces now regional isolation due to its support for radical groups.

Despite alleged Qatar involvement in funding militant groups accused of terrorism in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, rarely can be found reports by the major think tanks in the US and EU that discuss the issue. The question of Doha’s influence on think tanks was brought into light in September 2014 when The New York Times published an investigative report indicating that Qatar has positioned itself as one of the largest donors to think tanks in Washington.

According to the US Treasury Department, Qatar signed an agreement with the Brookings Institution for a $14.8 million four-year donation in 2013. The donation was for different research activities, including funds for a Brookings affiliate in Qatar and a project on US relations with the Islamic world.

Although Brookings denied in a statement in 2014 that the Qatari funds affected the integrity of its research, some scholars told the New York Times that “the donations have led to implicit agreements that the research groups would refrain from criticising the donor governments.”

Saleem Ali, who worked at Brookings’ Doha Centre as a visiting fellow, told the Times that he had been told during his job interview that he could not take positions critical of the Qatari government in published papers.

“If a member of Congress is using the Brookings reports, they should be aware — they are not getting the full story,” Ali said.

“There was a no-go zone when it came to criticising the Qatari government,” Ali added. “It was unsettling for the academics there. But it was the price we had to pay.”

According to a report released by the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT)  — an American think tank — in 2014, Qatar started in 2002 subsidising the Brookings outreach programme to the Muslim world that continues today. Between 2002 and 2010, Brookings never disclosed the annual funds provided by the government of Qatar.

The IPT report said that Brookings Doha hosted Islamists who justify “terrorist attacks against civilians and American troops, who advocate blasphemy laws which would criminalise criticism of Islam,” while it “never scrutinises or criticises the government of Qatar, its largest benefactor”.

The main aim behind Qatar establishing the Brookings Doha Centre was to promote the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood’s political Islam as “the Arab world’s best hope for democracy”, according to IPT.

For the last two years, Brookings has tried to deny any influence exercised by Doha on research projects via different international figures, including ex-US ambassador and Brookings Vice President Martin Indyk, who told the Times that the Washington-based think tank adopts a strict policy that guarantees that funds do not influence its research.

“Our business is to influence policy with scholarly, independent research, based on objective criteria, and to be policy-relevant, we need to engage policymakers,” Indyk said in a press statement at the time.

However, that was not the opinion of Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, which expressed at the time, in a press statement that praised the agreement with Brookings, that “the centre will assume its role in reflecting the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones.”

Additionally, Brookings officials told the Times that they met regularly with senior Qatari officials to discuss the Brookings Doha Centre’s activities and budget.

Qatar’s efforts at using think tanks and lobby groups in Washington to promote its role in the Middle East as a “peacemaker” did not reflect on official correspondence between US officials, revealed by WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables, that showed State Department dissatisfaction with Qatar’s support for Islamist militants.

“Qatar’s overall level of cooperation with the US is considered the worst in the region,” said a senior US diplomatic official in a memo dated 30 December 2009.

“Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups exploit Qatar as a fundraising locale,” the official added.

Another memo dating back to 2008 noted that Qatar’s security apparatus was reluctant to act against known terrorists, saying that Doha “has often been unwilling to cooperate on designations of certain terrorist financiers.”

Due to its influence and huge spending on lobby groups in Washington, Qatar was able to contain any public criticism of its policy for supporting terrorism. Even when the 9/11 Commission indicated that the Qatari former minister of Islamic affairs Sheikh Abdallah bin Khaled bin Hamad Al-Thani personally invited 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohamed to relocate his family from Pakistan to the emirate during the 1990s, few media reports focused on the issue.

“Qatar knows how to manipulate the American media. Even during the current crisis it uses the Western media to convince the international community that it is being punished due to its independent policy from Saudi Arabia, not because of its support for terrorism,” said Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at Cairo University.

In addition to funding think tanks, Qatar is known as one of the highest spender in Washington on lobby firms. On Saturday, the US Justice Department revealed that Doha has hired former US attorney-general John Ashcroft’s firm as its lobbyist. The deal, which is worth $2.5 million, is only for 90 days and aims to assist Qatar to comply with US money laundering and counter-terrorism finance regulations.

The move came a day after Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain labelled 59 figures and 12 entities linked to Qatar on a terrorist list. On Friday, US President Donald Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism at a very high level”.

According to Bloomberg, Ashcroft’s team will work to improve Qatar’s image in Washington by enlisting former government leaders who held senior positions in the Treasury, Homeland Security, the FBI and intelligence community. Their services would be paid for out of the $2.5 million fee, according to the contract, which also says that Ashcroft himself will lead the effort.

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