Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Qatar’s proxies in Washington

Qatar has been trying to buy influence in Washington through public relations and lobby groups since the beginning of the Gulf crisis, writes Mohamed Abdel-Baky

Tamim and Trump
Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the past three months, Qatar has been trying to find a solution to the Gulf crisis that has pitted it against a Quartet of Arab states through lobbying activities in Washington. However, even after paying tens of millions of US dollars there has been no sign that Doha’s backdoor to the US has helped the Qatari Tamim Al-Thani regime to ease the Arab Quartet’s boycott.

Al-Ahram Weekly has been tracking money that Qatar has been pouring into US lobby and public relations companies in a bid to improve its image in the West. Documents obtained from the US Justice Department database show that Doha has contracted more than five Washington public relations and lobby firms for different jobs since June.

In 2016 alone, Qatar paid almost $2 million to public relations firms in Washington for advocacy and media outreach work. The contracts mainly focused on reaching senior figures in the US presidential election campaigns, with a special focus on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Doha’s spending from June 2017 until the present may also have reached $3 million.


Ashcroft

On 7 June this year two days after five Arab countries cut their relations with Qatar, the US Justice Department revealed that Doha had hired former US attorney-general John Ashcroft’s firm as a lobbyist in Washington. The deal, worth $2.5 million, is for 90 days and aims to assist Qatar in complying with US money-laundering and counter-terrorism regulations.

The move was aimed to counter the decision taken by Arab Quartet members Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to include 59 figures and 12 entities linked to Qatar on a terrorism list. The list was updated in July to include more Qatari entities.

According to the Ashcroft firm contract, the company’s team will work to improve Qatar’s image in Washington by enlisting former government leaders holding senior positions in the US treasury and homeland security departments as well as the FBI and intelligence community. According to the contract, their services will be paid for out of the firm’s $2.5 million fee and Ashcroft himself will lead the efforts.

“The firm will use its extensive experience and expertise in advising domestic and international clients to evaluate, verify and as necessary strengthen the client’s anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing compliance programmes, providing legal advice and recommendations regarding enhancing and improving such efforts,” reads the document.

Also in June, Doha’s government communications office contracted Levick Strategic Communications, a PR firm based in Washington whose area of expertise is crisis management, in order to mitigate negative reporting about Qatar’s links to terrorism.

According to its contract with Doha, Levick Strategic Communications will conduct ongoing risk-sensing and analysis with a focus on US-Qatar relations, create “forward-looking and actionable recommendations,” develop a stakeholder map of policy influencers and key media and third-parties, monitor and analyse information from think-tanks and publications, and consult with Qatari officials to ensure clarity of communications.

“The consultant will conduct ongoing risk-sensing and analysis, with a specific focus on potential impact to US-Qatar relations. Findings will be shared on a regular basis via reports, with real-time alerting,” reads the contract.

The hiring of Levick may be considered a desperate move by Qatar as Doha had earlier declined to renew its contract with the company in April 2017 as a result of its allegedly inefficient performance. Rehiring Levick may signal Doha’s need to intensify communications with opinion-makers and think-tanks in Washington.    

LOBBYING CONGRESS: In parallel with lobbying the US government and reaching out to the US media, Doha has also hired the Gallagher Group, another lobby firm, to put pressure on the US Congress in order to lobby against other Gulf states or face moves against the Doha regime from the US legislative branch.  

“Gallagher will provide advice regarding the [Qatari] Embassy’s communications with the Legislative and Executive Branches of the United States Government to advance the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Government of the State of Qatar, preparing for visits to the United States by delegations representing Qatar, and responding to inquiries and requests from the United States Government,” reads the contract.

However, the Gallagher contract is also part of a larger communication strategy aimed at the US Congress led by the Mercury lobby firm that has led Doha’s efforts to strengthen the so-called “Qatar Caucus,” a group of US senators that supports stronger US-Qatar relations.


LeeZeldin

According to Politico, a US news outlet, two advisers from Mercury have met with Republican senator Lee Zeldin, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East and North Africa subcommittee.

The meeting aimed to persuade Zeldin to help restart the now-defunct congressional Qatar Caucus, but apparently it was not successful. “Asked why Zeldin wasn’t joining the Caucus, spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena wrote in an email that ‘the congressman is concerned about Qatar’s current relationship with Hamas,’” Politico reported.

Mercury has also facilitated meetings between the Qataris and prominent lawmakers in Washington to discuss arms sales, and it has organised congressional staff trips to Qatar.

The increase in lobbying activities by Qatar in Washington is unprecedented, especially since there are fewer Doha allies in the new administration than during the former administration of former US president Barack Obama.

In addition to hiring lobby firms, Qatar has also sought to influence think-tanks in Washington including the Brookings Institution. The question of Doha’s influence on such think-tanks was brought to light in September 2014 when the New York Times published a report indicating that Qatar had 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 four-year $14.8 million 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 had 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 the US 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 2014 report released by the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), an American think-tank, Qatar started subsidising the Brookings outreach programme to the Muslim world in 2002, and this continues today. Between 2002 and 2010, Brookings did not disclose the annual funds provided by the government of Qatar.

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

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


Martin Indyk

The Brookings Institution has tried to deny any influence exercised by Doha on research projects through statements made by various different international figures, including ex-US ambassador and Brookings vice-president Martin Indyk, who told the Times that the Washington-based think-tank adopted a strict policy that guaranteed that funds did 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 policy-makers,” Indyk said in a press statement at the time.

However, that was not the opinion of Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, which said in a press statement praising 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 one.”

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

US DISSATISFACTION: Qatar’s efforts at using think-tanks and lobby groups in Washington to promote its role in the Middle East as a “peacemaker” has not always been reflected in official correspondence between US officials, however. US diplomatic cables published by the website WikiLeaks have 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 one 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 has been able to contain much public criticism of its policy of supporting terrorism.

Even when the US 9/11 Commission investigating the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 indicated that the Qatari former minister of Islamic affairs Abdallah bin Khaled bin Hamad Al-Thani had personally invited 9/11 leader Khaled Sheikh Mohamed to relocate his family from Pakistan to the emirate during the 1990s, few media reports focused on the issue.



John Ashcroft law firm

John Ashcroft law firm

Doha has hired former US attorney-general John Ashcroft’s law firm as its lobbyist in Washington. The deal, worth $2.5 million and is for 90 days:
Part of the Ashcroft contract reads:

“The firm will use its extensive experience and expertise in advising domestic and international clients to evaluate, verify and as necessary, strengthen the client’s anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing (“AML/CTF”) compliance programmes, providing legal advice and recommendations regarding enhancing and improving such efforts.

The engagement will be led by John D Ashcroft, former United States Attorny General and United States Senator. General Ashcroft will enlist the support and expertise of former key government leaders, including former officials who held very senior positions within the Intelligence Community, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security as necessary, to complete the engagement in the best interest of the client.  

“Given the urgent need to commence work immediately and the firm’s intention’s to make this matter a top priority, the firm will require a $ 2,5000,000.00 retainer (the “Flat Fee”) to immediately commence work on the above referenced matter, payable upon execution of this engagement letter. Such a Flat Fee will cover all the costs associated with the engagement during the first ninety days including the fee of any vendors that the firm brings on to provide public affairs support.”



Levick Strategic Communications

Levick Strategic Communications

Doha contracted Levick Strategic Communications to handle its image in the US media and with opinion leaders in Washington.

The contract details read:

“The company will provide research, analysis, and advice to the GCO related to US-Qatar relations. The services shall include the following:

For the period June 1 - December 31, 2017:   
• Consultant will conduct ongoing risk-sensing and analysis, with a specific focus on potential impact to US-Qatar relations. Findings will be shared on a regular basis via reports, with real-time alerting.
• Consultant will develop a stakeholder map of policy influences, key media and third parties for key issues.
• Consultant will monitor, analyze and provide recommendations on relevant think tank activity and publications.
In consideration for the services performed under this agreement, the GCO shall compensate consultant during the term as follows:
1- One-Time Fee: for the services rendered during the period May 1 - May 31, 2017, the GCO shall pay consultant a one-time fee of $54,000, payable on July 1, 2017.
2- Consulting Fee: for the services’ rendered during the period June 1 - December 31, 2017, payable as follows:
A. July 1, 2017: $108,000.
B. August 1, 2017: $108,000
C. October 1, 2017: $108,000
D. December 1, 2017: $54,000.



The Gallagher Group contract

The Gallagher Group contract

The Qatari regime has hired the Gallagher Group, another Washington lobby firm, to put pressure on the US Congress,
The contract reads:

“This refers to the Consulting Services Agreement (the “Agreement”) between the Embassy of the State of Qatar and the Gallagher Group, (“Gallagher”), dated July 11, 2016, as amended.
This will confirm our mutual agreement to extend the Term of the Agreement for the period commencing July 1, 2017 and expiring on December 31, 2017, subject to the following amendments:
1- The fees payable to Gallagher shall be $25.000 per month, payable on the first day of each calendar month, commencing July 1, 2017.
2- The embassy shall reimburse reasonable expenses incurred by Gallagher in the performance of this agreement.



The Mercury contract

The Mercury contract

Qatar hired the Mercury lobby firm to led Doha’s efforts to strengthen the “Qatar Caucus,” a group of US senators that supports stronger US-Qatar relations. Many US congressmen have refused to be part of the Caucus.

The contract with the Mercury group reads:
“This refers to the Consulting Services Agreement (the “Agreement”) between the Embassy of the State of Qatar and Mercury Public Affairs LLC, effective January 1, 2015, as amended.
This will confirm our mutual agreement to extend the Term of the Agreement for the period commencing April 1, 2017 and expiring on June 30, 2017.
The fees payable to Mercury shall be $100,000 per month, payable monthly on April 1, May 1, and June 1, 2017.

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