How Qatar won back Washington

Qatar has broken its isolation not only through outreach to Iran and Turkey but also in Washington.

Lobbyists and PR warfare: How Qatar won back Washington

Qatar-US

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Qatari Foreign Minister al-Thani [Getty], January 31, 2018.

Qatar has broken its isolation not only in the region through outreach to Iran and Turkey but also in Washington, illustrating how it put together a successful strategy.

Rumors of war were in the air. The week after Saudi Arabia blockaded Qatar in June 2017 Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East expert based in Washington, recalled being in Doha. I did not realize how grave the crises was,” he said. A few days after the blockade it became clear when we were there how dangerous the situation is, that there could be a real hard conflict.” Down in the lobby of his hotel were ex-military types, perhaps advisors to Qatar’s military in case things got worse. Former British marines lounged around. It’s hard to say how many there were because I only saw them at the hotel I stayed at,” Neubauer recalled.

In those days, before Turkey airlifted in infantry to help tiny Qatar defend against a potential invasion or against an internal coup, the Gulf stood on edge. Now, more than six months later, things are looking rosy for Doha. Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Defense Minister Muhammad al-Atiyah were in Washington at the end of January signing agreements and meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis as part of a US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue confab.

Al-Atiyah told reporters the emirate will expand US CENTCOM’s al-Udeid Air base, home to 10,000 troops. Al-Thani addressed an American Enterprise Institute special event on ‘Changing Dynamics in the Gulf.’ Qatar’s foreign ministry celebrated the victory-lap in the US with #QatarUSA tweets.

Every day brings better news for Qatar as its rivals appear in disarray. Turkey hinted it could deploy further forces to Doha. The only silver lining for critics of Qatar’s, is that the US announced it was labeling Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Hamas leaders have frequently visited and resided in Qatar.

For observers of the Gulf, especially those who have criticized Qatar’s track record, the emirate’s success in Washington and in pushing its narrative in the media of being the victim,” has been surprising.

Qatar, with a native population of only 260,000 and several million foreign workers, has a GDP half the size of Israel’s. In the Gulf it has built up an impressive reputation, hosting a massive US military base, growing Al-Jazeera as a media brand and hosting international universities and cultural events. Unlike other Gulf Cooperation Council countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE, it sought to have its own foreign policy. It supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and has flirted with Islamist extremists for years, being accused of letting terrorists and terror finance flow through Doha.

The story of how Qatar surmounted the 2017 crises and became the toast of Washington again is filled with innuendo, infighting in the US government and a major PR campaign the emirate launched using lobbying and PR firms in the US. Some of Qatar’s efforts are public because firms it works with had to file with the US Department of Justice Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).

Between June and July 2017, Qatar retained the services of eight firms in the US, and then retained nine more later in the year. According to the filed contracts, Doha agreed to pay between 50,000 and $500,000 a month to each. Total obligations if it kept the agreements for a year add up to $22 million. Qatar was up against similar lobbying by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of which also retain dozens of firms and pay millions for their services in Washington.

On June 7, Ahmed Y. Al-Rumaihi from the Qatari embassy signed an agreement with the Ashcroft Law Firm to engage John D. Ashcroft, former US Attorney General, to enlist the support and expertise of former key government leaders,” to respond to the crises. According to the FARA filing the advise would include former officials from the intelligence community,” the FBI, the Department of Treasury and Department of Homeland Security.

In essence Qatar was enlisting the help of a network of former officials and their friends in the media and government. A June 30th letter from another firm to the Embassy of Qatar spelled out how it would advocate on behalf of Doha; liaison with Executive Branch officials and Members of Congress.” Two former members of Congress would go to bat for Qatar on the hill.

Qatar’s PR firms also printed up adds claiming Qatar is America’s strongest ally in fighting ISIS,” and that the US and Qatar have shared values.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s pro-Qatar stance was highlighted in the leaflets. The battle culminated in a September 18-28 campaign to lift the blockade” claiming it was illegal” and Qatar will prevail.” They built a website, lifttheblockade.com and bought a full page print add in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Google, Snapchat, mobile billboards and on Fox and CNN. The adds also specifically targeted the UN HQ, the Financial District in NY, Times Square and JFK.

According to one insider who has observed the Doha campaign for hearts and minds of Washington,” the Qataris found allies in Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Both cabinet members were surprised by the Saudi decision to cut relations in June. They were troubled with the timing and felt it could distract in the fight against Iran and extremism,” the source says.

Trump’s speech in Riyadh in May had made the Saudis think they would get support from the president. Another insider watching things unfold in June thought Trump would break the back of the Qataris and force a leadership change.” This source says that the Saudis moved without checking with Mattis or Tillerson, both of whom have taken the view that we are beholden to the Qataris because CENTCOM is in Doha.”

The sense among many is that Qatar was scared in June and July and felt it had its back up against the wall, and rushed to sign an agreement to combat terror financing on July 10th. The agreement was not made public.

Neubauer, the Gulf expert, says that the debates we see in media today are just part of the story. This was an attempt to wage economic warfare,” against Qatar and the narrative and consensus has shifted in Washington and this is a manufactured and reckless crises,” he argued. He thinks Washington policy circles now think Riyadh exploited grievances with Doha to undermine US interests and objectives.”

Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Qatar has been making promises to change and crack down on terror for years. He described Qatar’s offensive in Washington as going down to the micro level” which means it seeks to appeal to think tanks and organizations and different influential groups in the US. It seems to me very premature to come out and defend the Qataris in what appears to be their reform process.”

Central to the PR battle of whether Qatar has changed is its position on Hamas. Qatar sought to influence members of pro-Israel organizations, claiming it had a new face.

Schanzer stressed it’s too early to know whether there is real change afoot.

Qatar must prove they are turning a new leaf,” he said.

The Qataris have claimed the US never asked them to expel Hamas. According to leaked 2008 US government cables, diplomats concluded the intelligence on Qatar’s official support for Hamas is inconclusive.” But the previous emir, Hamad bin-Khalifah al-Thani, told Al-Jazeera in September 2011 that even if we support Hamas we will be supporting a legitimate government,” if Hamas joined a Palestinian unity government. Other leaked documents claim that in 2011 there was pressure on Qatar to take in Hamas members from Damascus and Qatar agreed only to take political” members.

On November 14, one of Qatar’s firms in Washington sent a letter to members of the House Foreign Relations Committee attaching a letter from Israeli Brig. General Shimon Shapira. claiming Qatar has not delivered weapons to Hamas.” Shapira has been an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Qatar has broken its isolation not only in the region through outreach to Iran and Turkey but also in Washington, illustrating how it put together a successful strategy. This involved mobilizing multiple layers within the US; from media to government and various lobbies to put across a narrative that Saudi Arabia was in the wrong.

Critical voices say Qatar needs to recognize there is a real cost to bad conduct. Has Doha seen the cost? One of the firms they retained was engaged to verify and evaluate strengthening Qatar’s anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing compliance programs.” Cost: $165,000. In the high stakes world Qatar plays in, that’s not much.

Source: by Seth J. Frantzman, Jpost.com, February 03, 2018
© 2018, Jpost.com (The Jerusalem Post online edition), All rights Reserved – Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc.

Defence minister: Saudi, UAE intended to invade Qatar

HE the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Dr Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, stressed the need for open dialogue as a means to end the ongoing Gulf crisis.

By Lally Weymouth/The Washington Post

Qatar’s Defence Minister, HE Dr Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, visited Washington this past week to attend a strategic dialogue with US Defence Secretary James Mattis. Welcoming the Qatari Defence Minister was a way for US President Donald Trump’s administration to tell Qatar’s neighbours, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that it dislikes the boycott against Qatar they launched last June. It’s gone on too long,” said one senior US official who works in foreign affairs (although the president at first endorsed the blockade). The administration wants the Gulf states united to fight militants and contain Iran, instead of feuding with one another. HE al-Attiyah talked to The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth about the dispute, his nation’s dependence on Iran and a possible rapprochement. Edited excerpts follow.

QUESTION: Didn’t the recent dispute between Qatar, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other, begin when the UAE reportedly hacked into your country’s computers and put out a false report that your emir had made a pro-Iran statement?

ANSWER: The beginning was an ambush. The only thing is, I don’t think they calculated right. They thought they could strike hard and bend the Qatari people. But the people showed solidarity and became more resilient. We enhanced our bilateral relations all over the world. So, you may say that the plan failed. All their 13 demands.

Q: One of the 13 demands was for Qatar to stop backing extremism?

A: Yes. Out of the 13 demands, not a single one was a genuine claim. We are the only country who signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States to counter terrorism. We have teams from all concerned departments working together [with the United States] almost on a weekly basis.

Q: Have you interrupted any terror strikes?

A: There are the hard operations and the programmes and training. Today we are flying side by side with Americans to counter terrorism —

Q: You are flying side by side where?

A: To Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q: And Syria?

A: [The coalition and Nato] are using our strategic airlifts. But we are facing problems, because the neighbours are disturbing the operation. The airways are blocked.

Q: Do you mean UAE airspace?

A: UAE and Saudi. They are members of the coalition. But with their embargo, they are disturbing the operation.

Q: Is this the reason the US is tired of the dispute and wants it to end?

A: This is not a way to counter terrorism. This operation needs a lot of intelligence sharing, and if you don’t talk to your neighbours, how can you get information exchanged?

Q: How can the dispute be resolved?

A: The only way to resolve such a dispute is a dialogue, which we have been calling for since the beginning of the crisis.

Q: And they say?

A: They want to come with preconditions. We refuse the idea of preconditions.

Q: President Trump has offered to mediate, hasn’t he?

A: Yes, he is trying. And I hear he will invite the GCC soon to Washington.

Q: The administration wants to contain Iran and fight ISIL (another name for the Islamic State). Reportedly, they find this dispute a distraction.

A: This is exactly the picture. If you want to have a sincere dialogue with Iran where both parties lay down their concerns and try to come to an understanding of the region . . . the best way is to sit and talk.

Q: Isn’t the administration concerned with Iran’s military activities outside its borders?

A: Absolutely. But how do we address this issue? There is the hard way, which will be a disaster, and then there is engagement and dialogue, which we always encourage.

Q: Your country shares a gas field with Iran. Do you have to have friendly relations with Tehran?

A: We have to have friendly relations with everyone. We are responsible for the supply of (an enormous amount) of the world’s energy. We have to have a smooth flow of energy, and that means we have to eliminate having enemies.

Q: You have Turkish troops in your country. Were you actually afraid that Saudi Arabia or the UAE might invade?

A: I wouldn’t say afraid. They have intentions to intervene militarily —

Q: Saudi and UAE?

A: Yes, for sure. They have this intention. But our relations with Turkey go way back before the crisis.

Q: But you seriously think the UAE and Saudi Arabia have intentions to invade? Today?

A: We have diffused this intention. But at the beginning of the crisis, they had this intention. They have tried everything. They tried to provoke the tribes. They used mosques against us. Then they tried to get some puppets to bring in and replace our leaders.

Q: They wanted to install a new emir?

A: Yes, it is true. They put their puppet, Abdullah Ali al-Thani [a relative of a former Qatari emir], on TV and said, His Highness the Emir XYZ.” . . . Then, when their plan failed, they kidnapped this man, and he tried to commit suicide to get out of Abu Dhabi. They tried to seduce him, and he followed them for a while, and then they found a substitute for him, so they wanted to get rid of him. They have another one now.

Q: They now have another one who they are trying to make emir? What are you going to do?

A: They can’t do anything. The Qatari people love their emir.

Q: Because of the boycott against Qatar, you’ve had to import much of your country’s food from other countries via Iran’s airspace, right?

A: Yes. Iran is the only airspace we have — they blocked everything else. Iran gave us a sea line so we could get our food — some of it comes from Azerbaijan, Turkey or Europe.

Q: How was your conversation with Defence Secretary Mattis? What was the headline?

A: The headline is that we have plans to take our military-to-military co-operation to another level. We are going to expand Al Udeid [the air base that hosts the US military] and build housing and increase the capacity.

Q: And Qatar is paying for this?

A: Of course. We are hosting them. At the same time, we are going to increase our exercises and training — most of our equipment is from the US. We will have the F-15s in a couple of years. We already have the C-17 and C-130.

Q: What do you think of the Russian presence in the Middle East, especially in Syria? And why are you buying Russian military equipment?

A: Russia has been in Syria for the past 40 years. I think they have interests in the region. The more we keep the instability in the region, the more we are inviting foreign players to come in.

Q: In the past, your country has been accused of backing extreme terrorist groups in Syria.

A: It is false. Back then and today. This is a false accusation against Qatar. We have been concentrating in Syria on combating ISIL.

Q: And is that going well?

A: Yes, the ISIL operation is going very well. It is much better because previously when you pressured them in Iraq, they popped out in Syria. When you pressured them in Syria, they popped out in Iraq. We need to give the credit to General Mattis on this because he fought ISIL very well.

* Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor for The Washington Post.
Source: Gulf Times, February 04, 2018
© 2018, Gulf Times, All rights Reserved – Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc.

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