Qatar Adds U.S. Lobbying Muscle After Saudi Rift, Trump Snub
(Bloomberg) -- Qatar is ramping up its lobbying efforts in the U.S., eager to cultivate a closer relationship with the Biden administration and Congress in order to avoid a repeat of 2017, when it was caught off-guard by a Saudi-led boycott in the Persian Gulf.
Since January, Qatar has hired seven prominent firms to do lobbying and consulting work in Washington at a combined rate of $186,000 per month, according to Foreign Agent Registration Act documents. At least five of the firms have close ties to Democrats, including links with the House and Senate foreign affairs committees.
The $186,000 in new monthly spending includes $35,000 with Florida-based Rubin, Turnbull & Associates; $25,000 with the Fozzie Miller Group LLC; and $20,000 with Ogilvy Government Relations. The new figures still underestimate Qatar’s total spending because they come in addition to the more than a dozen groups contracted by Qatar before 2021, such as Ballard Partners and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP.
The Mideast nation of 2.8 million people has been bolstering its lobbying network since 2017, following the Saudi-led dispute. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt accused Qatar’s ruling family of supporting terrorist groups. They cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar, closed its only land border and banned Qatari planes and ships from their airspace and sea routes. Qatar has rejected the allegations.
The year “2017 marked a pivotal change for Qatar,” said Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, the nation’s Ambassador to the U.S., in an interview with Bloomberg. “Qatar was subjected to an aggressive, vicious campaign and in response we defended ourselves.”
Spending quickly ramped up. Doha had spent $4 million on lobbyists in 2016, compared with $14.2 million for Saudi Arabia and $6.1 million by the U.A.E. The next year, when the boycott hit, the Qatari government boosted spending to a high of $12.9 million, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. Saudi Arabia has scaled back lobbying spending since 2018, while the UAE has gradually boosted spending to outpace both of its neighbors.
“If I’m Qatar right now, I see an opportunity in that you have a Biden administration that’s not cozied up to your adversaries, specifically Saudi Arabia,” he said. The crisis “served as something of a lesson” for Qatar, which recognized it didn’t “have immediate, indirect access to the policy makers they need to influence at that time,” said Freeman.
The Gulf rift prompted a scattered response by the Trump administration. Then-President Donald Trump initially snubbed Qatar and praised the Saudi-led initiative as a blow to terror financing. It was widely thought that the U.S. had tacitly given Saudi Arabia the green light to go ahead with the campaign.
But with U.S. allies on both sides of the fight and the administration focused on isolating Iran, top Trump officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, found themselves struggling to get the nations to resolve the dispute.
That effort dragged on until the spat officially ended in January. The countries have since started to rebuild trade and diplomatic ties, but the rivalries live on. Qatari officials say they need to counter unflattering narratives fostered by Gulf rivals in Washington.
“We hired lobbyists to correct factual errors and address the damage the disinformation campaign did to our reputation,” Al Thani said.
Qatar is also eager to see the U.S. return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, given the Gulf nation and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field. Tehran stood by Qatar -- providing airspace and basic goods -- during the boycott.
U.S. lobbyists can also seek to help ensure support for a variety of Qatar’s other interests, including its hosting of the 2022 World Cup and continued defense purchases from the U.S. Qatari-U.S. defense ties are tight, with the Al Udeid Air Base serving as the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East and a hub for American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The years-long crisis showed that maintaining a close connection with the U.S. is crucial for the Middle Eastern country.
“The Qataris see the relationship with the United States as one of self-preservation, though they would never actually say that,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on U.S.-Middle East policy.
Despite Trump’s initial support for the Saudi-led boycott, ties between Trump and Doha warmed later in his term, and the country’s emir visited the White House in 2018 and 2019.
Qatar’s rising lobbying clout also coincides with a decline in Washington’s support for neighboring Saudi Arabia. While ties will remain, the Biden administration has signaled it intends to “recalibrate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was tarnished over his alleged connection to the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The Qataris are seeing this as an opportune time to invest in influence,” Freeman said.
FARA documents on file with the U.S. Justice Department show that agents for the Gulf country regularly reach out to politicians from both parties on all kinds of issues, including potential major non-NATO ally status and countering disinformation.
“They don’t play favorites in terms of politics,” former Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia and a lobbyist for Qatar at Nelson Mullins, said in an interview.
For example, Qatar embraced its role as a humanitarian benefactor to Gaza, having won approval from the Americans and Israelis to distribute aid to the population and to build infrastructure. Some U.S. think tanks and media have described the distributions as direct funding for Hamas, a claim Qatar’s communications team and lobbyists work hard to dispel.
Qatar is determined not to find itself in the same situation as in 2017. “By proving themselves to be useful -- including hosting a huge American base -- American policy makers have become vested in the Qatari ruling family,” said Cook, whose comments were echoed by Ambassador Al Thani.
“Qatar will continue its important work with the United States on issues like Afghanistan, Iraq, Horn of Africa, or assisting in the region,” the envoy said. “Now what we are doing is proactively engaging Congress, think tanks, and the media on what Qatar is doing in partnership with United States.”
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