Rumors of war were in the air. The week after Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on Qatar last June, Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East expert based in Washington, recalls being in Doha.
“I did not realize how grave the crisis was,” he says. “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 advisers 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 recalls.
In those days, before Turkey airlifted in infantry to help tiny Qatar defend against a potential invasion or coup, the Gulf stood on edge. Now, more than six months later, things are looking rosy for Doha.
Foreign Minister Muhammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah were in Washington at the end of January signing agreements and meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis as part of a US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue confab.
Al Attiyah 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 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. Ally Turkey hinted it could deploy further forces to Doha. The only silver lining for critics of Qatar 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 United Arab Emirates, 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 terrorism 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 under the US Department of Justice Foreign Agent Registration Act.
In June and July 2017, Qatar retained the services of eight firms in the US, and then 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 Ashcroft, former attorney-general, to “enlist the support and expertise of former key government leaders,” to respond to the crises.
According to the Foreign Agent Registration Act filing, the advisers 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 30 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 adds, claiming, “Qatar is America’s strongest ally in fighting ISIS,” and that the US and Qatar have “shared values.”
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 full-page ads in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times
, Google, Snapchat, mobile billboards and on Fox and CNN. The ads specifically targeted the UN HQ, the financial district in NY, Times Square and JFK Airport.
According to one insider who has observed the Doha campaign for “hearts and minds of Washington,” the Qataris found allies in Tillerson and Mattis. Both cabinet members were surprised by the Saudi decision to cut relations with Doha in June.
“They were troubled with the timing and felt it could distract in the fight against Iran and extremism,” the source says. US President Donald 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 terrorism financing on July 10. 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 crisis,” he argues. 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, says that Qatar has been making promises to change and crack down on terrorism for years. He describes 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. One of the groups Doha sought to influence was members of pro-Israel organizations, claiming Qatar has a new face. Schanzer stresses that it’s too early to know if there is real change afoot. “Qatar must prove they are turning a new leaf.”
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
However, the previous emir, Hamad bin Khalifa 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 to take only “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.-Gen. Shimon Shapira claiming “Qatar has not delivered weapons to Hamas.” Shapira has been an adviser to 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 that there is a real cost to bad conduct. Has Doha seen the cost?
One of the firms it 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.