Why Qatar’s involvement in EU scandal may impact Middle East - analysis

Several European Parliament members were found to have been involved in corruption with Qatar.

 European Parliament vice president, Greek socialist Eva Kaili, is seen at the European Parliament in Strasbourg (photo credit: REUTERS)
European Parliament vice president, Greek socialist Eva Kaili, is seen at the European Parliament in Strasbourg
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Qatar has been trying to deflect critique from worker’s rights and human rights during the World Cup. Doha now faces a new challenge. Qatar has been accused of being involved in a corruption scandal in Europe that has ensnared several members of the European Parliament.

Over the past week it has been revealed that large sums of cash were found in two homes, and the EU Parliament voted to remove one Greek MEP as one of the 14 vice presidents of the body.

The scandal has important implications for the Middle East. If Doha was targeting left-leaning politicians in the EU for influence and lobbying, which reports suggest, then this may have also influenced policy-making on the Middle East and also critique of Israel.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola has spoken of “difficult days for European democracy,” according to The Guardian. Qatar has denied the accusations, but media reports in Europe have grown in recent days, and this appears to be the tip of the iceberg in terms of a larger scandal.

“The allegations have cast a shadow over the role of lobby groups at the European Parliament,” The Guardian reported. “A recommendation to allow visa-free travel to the EU for Qataris was set to be voted on by MEPs this week, but has now been shelved.”

On the one hand, this scandal affects Europe and the EU as well as its institutions. It may impact the attempt by Qatar to get various deals. The accusations against Doha are also linked to the wider concern over the World Cup and how Qatar was awarded the ongoing tournament.

General view of a message of the World Cup Qatar 2022 displayed on the pitch before the match, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor, Qatar, November 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)General view of a message of the World Cup Qatar 2022 displayed on the pitch before the match, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor, Qatar, November 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)

Doha has attempted to prevent critique by spreading various types of stories. One type of Qatar narrative is to claim that although Doha may be imperfect, European history is full of crimes as well, such as colonialism.

Another pro-Qatar narrative is to claim that it is “racist” or “Qatarphobia” to critique the wealthy Gulf state. In other areas, Qatar has mobilized human-rights groups and powerful media, including Al Jazeera, to shift the spotlight to critique other countries, such as the UAE or Egypt.

How does Qatar use its wealth for influence?

One of the ways Qatar uses its wealth to influence the region and the West is via playing a double game. Doha often hosts extremists, such as Hamas or the Taliban, and then it portrays itself as the “go-to” place where countries can cut deals with the extremists. That means Qatar sits astride these extremist groups, with a hand on the faucet in a sense, being both a broker of deals and being able to influence the world through a kind of extremist blackmail. In essence: Work with Qatar, or groups such as Hamas or the Taliban might threaten others.

This Janus-faced game of being a strategic partner of European countries and the US, while also backing extremists, has not always worked for Qatar. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups angered other Gulf states and Egypt. In addition, Qatar’s tendency to host voices who may incite against other states in the region does not sit well.

BUT QATAR has powerful friends. It works with Iran and Turkey, and when other Gulf states cut relations with Qatar in 2017, Doha was protected by its powerful friends. It also hosts a US military base.

Qatar has also sought to broker deals relating to Hamas in Gaza, funneling money and portraying itself as helping to buy calm there. For Israel, this is a complex issue, because it wants calm in Gaza, but empowering Qatar as a broker gives Doha a lot of influence.

Doha in trouble in Europe

This kind of bargaining, using money to get influence, appears to have now brought Qatar into scandal in Europe. But Doha has seen this happen before with controversy over the World Cup and also other controversies in the US, and it has generally sailed on without much effect on its overall relations.

The EU scandal seems to reveal that Qatar targeted members of the European Parliament from southern Europe and also people who are involved in human-rights and other left-leaning causes. This means that someone decided that the best people to target in influence peddling were left-leaning voices, those connected to socialist or other similar parties.

But why would these voices be open to dealing with Qatar, a state that openly suppresses gay rights and is authoritarian? This is one of the perplexing aspects of how Doha has portrayed itself over the last two decades, via media such as Al Jazeera, as being different than it is.

Even though Qatar is an authoritarian monarchy that not only backs far-right extremists in the Middle East, but also theocracy and suppresses workers’ rights, it is able to sell itself to left-leaning voices in the West through a complex blend of preying on Orientalist ideas and pretending that its suppression of rights is merely its “culture.”

Once Doha has pretended that its authoritarianism and support for extremists is “culture,” then it claims that any critique of its policies is “Islamophobia.” This tends to buy quiet from critics and also enables its influence to continue.

On the one hand, accusations that Qatar was involved in another corruption scandal are not unique. Many countries try to exploit Western democracy through media influence-peddling and corruption. For instance, for many years, countries sought to influence Washington’s foreign policy by plowing money into think tanks in and around DC. Then those countries would get the think tanks to hire former government officials and get the officials to help lobby for them. This would be passed off as merely “policy” discussions, but the discussions would always have an agenda.

For instance, when it came to Qatar, the goal would be to get think tanks to critique other Gulf states but never critique Qatar. This kind of lobbying isn’t always corruption, because sometimes it can be done openly. A country can plow money into a think tank, or it can have its supporters do this for it. It can also register its lobbyists.

THE PROBLEM is when this is done behind the scenes and when politicians who are supposedly on the “left” end up giving speeches about how Doha has a good human-rights record, even though it doesn’t.

Western democracies are becoming more alert about how countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and others may be involved in trying to influence policies in the West. This is why some social media have begun labeling “state media” on their sites or examining how some regimes may use “bots” to push ideas or target critics.

The US 2016 election became a key turning point in this respect. Since then, there is a lot more concern that authoritarian regimes sought to divide the West and erode democracy. Now, the war in Ukraine has enabled the West to work more closely together against this practice.

It is in that light that there is now more critique of issues such as the World Cup being held in Doha, and this EU Parliament scandal comes at the worst possible time for Doha. It may end up increasing the spotlight on how countries are buying influence in the West.

The next question that will need to be asked is how this has influenced foreign policy. Getting visa-free travel or deals for national airlines may be one aspect of the current scandal, but bigger questions relate to how this might influence coverage of human rights in the Middle East and arms sales or technology transfers, and also how it might impact critique of Israel.

In the past, countries in the Middle East that were anti-Israel would try to mobilize voices in the West, either at universities or policy-making groups, to spread anti-Israel messages. There has been a confluence of this in the US in the past, where it has now become apparent that some influential foreign-policy voices have become overly sympathetic toward Russia, Iran and other adversaries.

Is critique of Israel authentic if it is being bankrolled by a foreign power in the Middle East, via support for human-rights groups or other NGOs, which then print up anti-Israel reports? We may never know the full extent of the how and why of the sudden appearance of some long-detailed glossy reports that slam Israel, or who funds some conferences or trade unions that suddenly want to boycott Israel. But the scandal in Europe may provide a hint as to how this could happen.

In essence, there is a complex struggle that exists in which countries in the Middle East seek to influence the West. They want to influence policies and also influence people through use of media, organizations, think tanks and politicians.

Some of this attempt to get good coverage or have influential friends abroad is entirely legitimate, and this is just how countries or industries do business. However, when it seeks to avoid the spotlight and get around rules or transparency guidelines, that is where serious questions must be asked about scandals like the one unfolding in Europe.