Why Should We Care About Qatar’s Influence?

David Reaboi

8 months ago

February 16, 2019

For a half-century, Qatar has been a tiny, desert oasis for the Muslim Brotherhood and many of the world’s most virulent Islamists. In the 1960s, Gamel Abdel Nasser once again banned and cracked-down on the Brotherhood in Egypt, forcing thousands of the group’s agitators, clerics and community organizers to retreat elsewhere into the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

Since then, the Arabian Gulf emirate of Qatar has been the Brotherhood’s most hospitable base of operations. In time, Brotherhood Islamism would soon emerge as Qatar’s de-facto state ideology, as the ruling al-Thani family welcomed the Islamists with lavish funding, the highest state honors, and the establishment of new Islamist institutions that would indoctrinate thousands.

Qatar has also been exceptionally successful at buying and obtaining influence to advance its interests in Washington. The extent of its influence and information operations is one of the least-covered and least-scrutinized stories of the last few years but, thankfully, that’s changing. Because of its promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood and its alliance with Iran, more and more American are coming to understand that Qatar is a malign force—not just in the Middle East but in this country, as well.

Of course, spending a lot of money is the easiest way to change or tweak a public policy narrative. Having great wealth allows you to gain friends instantly, in the hope that your generosity will enrich these new friends as well. Nations spend a lot of money in the United States to advance their interests; rich nations, of course, can afford to spend more lavishly.

But not every foreign dollar spent on making a nation’s voice heard inside the Beltway is equal: there are a number of pro-American allies that advance a policy agenda that aligns with U.S. national security and economic interests.

There are, on the other hand, countries that pay enormous sums of money to influence American policy againstour interests. The policies these nations pursue can do real harm to our country’s welfare, both here and abroad. Because of its position with respect to terrorism, its alliance with Iran and Sunni Islamism, the millions of dollars Qatar has spent trying to influence perceptions and policies here in Washington falls squarely into this latter, more dangerous category.

Despite being a relatively unstable country—where a whopping 88% of the population is comprised of foreign laborers—Qatar’s vast wealth can alter policy by carefully manipulating narratives and perceptions using weaponized information in the United States. The sums of money are so large—and the effort to evade the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) and other disclosure laws are so comprehensive—that we don’t have anywhere near a complete picture of the scope of Qatar’s influence game. What we do know is worrying enough:

—Qatar’s money has been able to buy lobbyists who have “encouraged” a number of influential people to soften their line on Qatar’s support for terrorism and Islamism or take up rhetorical arms against its chief regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

—It’s been able to buy media outlets that create the battle-space or the environment that leads, as we have seen, in very short order, to dramatic policy shifts designed to benefit Qatar.

—And it’s been able to cement pro-Qatar narratives in the minds of the professional Beltway foreign policy elite through massive grants to think tanks, universities and, perhaps most troublingly, shrewd use of the CENTCOM base at al-Udeid as a platform from where Qatar could ingratiate itself to a generation of U.S. military commanders and policymakers.

Buying Lobbyists & Influencers

Once the diplomatic war with Saudi Arabia intensified in 2017, Qatar recognized the need for more air cover in Washington—especially on the subject of its funding of Islamists and terrorism. This culminated in a successful influence operation carried out with Qatari money by American lobbyists and agents, specifically groups like Stonington Strategies, run by Joey Allaham and the former deputy chief of staff for Senator Ted Cruz, Nick Muzin. They received around $7 million in Qatari money, according to an expose in Tablet. Not only is that a big paycheck for a lobbyist, but it allows such a lobbyist to spread a lot of dollars around.

Of course, $7 million is just a small part of the money Qatar admits to spending on lobbying annually. Most of that goes to buy the usual PR firms and advertising campaigns, media operators, and former congressmen, generals and ex-staffers who’re paid largely to open key office doors to influential people inside the Beltway. It’s this last group that’s most interesting and, in the case of Stonington Strategies, deeply cynical.

Without question, the Qataris hired Muzin and Allaham only because they were well connected to the American Jewish pro-Israel community, as well as to President Trump’s inner circle. They used that money to wine and dine Israel supporters, absurdly trying to convince them that Qatar—the patron of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the ally of Iran and Turkey—is friendly towards Israel.

Muzin and Allaham targeted some very influential leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish conservative community, which is horrifying if you care about the pro-Israel cause. Thankfully, it didn’t really work, at least not as well as the Qataris had hoped; however much you spend, and regardless of how many palms you grease, you’ll have a hard time convincing most people that their enemy is really their ally.

Of course, nobody likes to be in the position to defend Qatar’s record on terrorism, even for satchels of cash. The Qataris or their lobbyists, very smartly, realized that their money was best spent getting high profile American influencers to attack their main enemy, Saudi Arabia. We still see the residue of some this spent money in the most hostile, unhinged attacks on Riyadh coming from unlikely places in the commentariat, from pundits both on the left and the right.

Influencers—paid or otherwise—work best when there’s a conveyor belt of product for them to comment on, usually a stream of news articles. And one of the biggest stories of the past year was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Not only did it receive an incredible amount of coverage, but it was used very deliberately as a spark that would ignite policy debates that would advance Qatar’s regional agenda. Even now, Khashoggi’s murder is waved, like a bloody shirt, to justify downgrading the US-Saudi alliance at a key moment of fragile peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Qatar’s Hacking and Cyber-Espionage Campaigns

Much has been written here about Jamal Khashoggi and his usefulness as an instrument of information campaigns benefiting both Qatar and its Islamist ally, Turkey. But it’s far from the only time Qatar has waged a nasty campaign in the United States against its enemies.

Cyber-espionage is the hacking or theft of a target’s electronic communications, and we have grown accustomed to thinking about it in the world of spy-craft. Things like stealing a country’s proprietary secrets, manipulating or sabotaging products or weapons systems. With most people conducting business online or over text or email, however, targeted cyber-espionage campaigns can do tremendous damage to citizens or countries.

Qatar is alleged to have been behind the hacking of over 1000 prominent individuals, from soccer players and Bollywood stars to think tank experts and journalists. According to a recent filing in DC Court, Stonington’s Muzin and Allaham were allegedly behind the hacking and distribution of emails belonging to Elliott Broidy, a prominent voice in Republican fundraising with a long record of work against Islamists and terrorism. Naturally, Broidy was a prime target of the Qatari’s efforts in the United States; silencing his efforts to combat Qatar were very important, both to the lobbyists and their paymasters in Doha.

He would be silenced through a media campaign of intimidation as, the lawsuit alleges, Greg Howard of Mercury Public Affairs (a lobbying and public affairs firm registered as foreign agents of Qatar in the United States) worked hard to disseminate cherry-picked contents of Broidy’s emails to journalists eager to undermine a Republican ally of Donald Trump’s. In much the same way as the effort to protect Jamal Khashoggi was weaponized, the media offensive against Broidy took advantage of a thoroughly corrupted press, willing to run with purloined information so long as it fit into their narrative.

Brookings and the Qatar Foundation

As a columnist for the most widely-read and important newspaper in the most important city in the world, Jamal Khashoggi had access to an extremely valuable audience: the policymakers and “smart set” think tankers and government officials who read the Washington Post daily. Getting in front of that audience is an opportunity to influence that’s worth millions.

Despite the posthumous lionization of Khashoggi in the press, his English was so poor that he required more than just the several editors he leaned on for help writing his columns. We’ve subsequently learned that Khashoggi had what could be described as a “handler,” crafting the message of his Washington Post pieces. This staffer at the Qatar Foundation told the Post how she “shaped” the articles he was writing for a US audience.

We tend to think of foundations as kinds of non-partisan non-profits; the Qatar Foundation, however, is different. It exists to advance the priorities of the state. Even as it has been routinely criticized for promoting Islamic extremism, including anti-Semitism, the Qatar Foundation has been, since its inception, a way for the Emirate to project soft power—usually influence, in one way or another—in the service of its national interests. In fact, the Foundation’s three shareholders are the very highest echelon of Doha’s royal family, the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani; his father, former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani; and his father’s consort, Moza bint Nasser.

The Qatar Foundation also literally owns Brookings Center Doha, the Qatar-based branch of one of the oldest think tanks in the world, the Brookings Institution. The Foundation’s listed “100%” ownership stake means that the Brookings Center Doha is actually controlled by Qatari heads of state. Exposés in the New York Times and at Tablet in 2014 show that, rather than producing objective, data-driven analysis about the region, Qatar’s millions colored the work the think tank produced. “[T]here was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” said Saleem Ali, a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Center Doha, told the Times. “If a member of Congress is using the Brookings reports, they should be aware; they are not getting the full story.”

In a pointed back-and-forth with Brookings’ Strobe Talbot, writer Lee Smith addressed the glaring omissions in Brookings’ coverage of the region:

Many of those who follow developments in the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli peace process, would presumably be interested in some “objective, fact-based analysis” of why Qatar, ostensibly an American ally, hosts the head of a group that has killed Americans, and waged war against U.S. allies. Readers might also benefit from a hard look at other terror-sponsoring activities that Doha is widely reported—by the U.S. Treasury Department, among other credible sources—to engage in. But I can find no mention at all of Doha’s close and comfy relationship with the head of a State Department-designated foreign terrorist operation anywhere on the Brookings site.

And yet, members of the media and policymakers still use Brookings as an independent, authoritative source of analysis on the Middle East. That this continues to work—thanks to the biases of the media and others who don’t want to look too closely at the sources of funding and influence—is both obscene and cynically impressive.

Influence Operations in Doha

All of these things—paid influencers, cyber-espionage, funding media and buying think tanks—fall under the category of information warfare. Info ops products consist of weaponized information that is translated into a variety of media, from books to articles, television interviews, blog posts, and tweets. Like the nature of information itself, info ops are relatively temporal, and are based on quick hits; often, these operations are geared toward selling narratives that may, upon close inspection, turn out to be completely false or misleading.

Influence operations, however, have a much longer time-line, and success is often measured in years or decades. This is because the currency of influence operations is the strategic use of interpersonal relationships and institutions. A long-term relationship or affiliation with an institution builds and solidifies the kind of good-will that can be immensely valuable for a lobbyist to exploit. It takes surprisingly little contact and effort for a target of an influence operation to become an ally. A friendly disposition and helpfulness from a Qatari lobbyist or embassy worker, for example, can make one predisposed to trust and feel sympathy for the Qatari point of view.

But sometimes, influence operations are as seedy as they look. We understand that, when politicians or businessmen are taken on lavish, all-expense paid junkets, it’s a clear example of bribery. The quid pro quo (say, on a trip to the Doha Forum) doesn’t have to be immediate, and it doesn’t have to be readily apparent; there is, however, a promise of some kind of profit: money, fame, career advancement, or even virtuousness. Wealthy nations like Qatar have the ability to extend these kinds of benefits to a great many people—not just policymakers, but to media figures, think tankers, academic figures and students as well.

Qatar spends lavishly on universities, not only in the United States, but they have also created a network of schools in their country. The Qatar Foundation paid six US universities— Cornell, Texas A&M,  Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgetown, and Northwestern—hundreds of millions of dollars to operate campuses at the Education City complex in Doha. These academic institutions are where you go to reach some of the most prominent and influential academics and, almost as an added bonus, you’ve got access to thousands of impressionable future targets of influence ops as well in the student body.

Both professors and students make the implicit deal that, in order to live off Qatar’s largesse, there are limits to the types of things that they can discuss. What happens frequently, too, is that spending a lot of time living and being paid well in a foreign country would naturally lead one to have particularly warm feelings about that country.

We see the same dynamic at play when it comes to those who’ve been stationed at the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a home to the US Central Command (CENTCOM) as well as the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the U.S. Air Force. Constructed in 1996, the base became a key strategic planning and command center following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. In the nearly two decades that have followed, the base has given tens of thousands of American servicemen and policymakers the opportunity to live and work alongside their Qatari hosts. Naturally, Qatar’s vast wealth make their stay in the country a comfortable one.

Thanks to the U.S. military presence at the al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar’s grip on the constellation of national security professionals in Washington is nearly total. Rather than being a strategic advantage for this country, the base allows Doha to extort the United States. Cracking down on Qatari support for terrorism is always weighted against the massive and very real logistical issues involved with abandoning the Base. It’s easier, they’ve found, just to look away.

Amid the row with Saudi Arabia and the UAE over Qatar’s funding of terrorism, former Defense Secretary James Mattis had only warm words for the Emirate. In 2017, Anne Patterson, the controversial former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt under the Obama administration—whose good relations with Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood scandalized Cairo and made her the most hated woman in Egypt—was mercifully passed over for a top job in the Pentagon. It’s unsurprising, considering her history, that Patterson landed at the US-Qatar Business Council.

Who Opposes Qatar, and Why?

Earlier this month, Security Studies Group co-sponsored a conference on the subject hosted by the Middle East Forum, appropriately, at the city’s newly-built Spy Museum. It’s not surprising that, considering Qatar’s leading role in providing the Muslim Brotherhood with both sanctuary and an immense communications platform, this issue has been picked up in the United States primarily by analysts, academics and experts on political Islam and the threat of Islamism.

But they’re certainly not alone. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s regional re-emergence in the Arab Spring—with Qatar’s explicit backing—Doha’s promotion of the Islamist group became a pressing issue for neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to contend with. For these US-allied Gulf countries, Qatar’s sponsorship of the Brotherhood wasn’t merely incubating violent terrorism in the Americas and Europe; it was instigating revolution inside their countries as well. This is increasingly reflected in the tremendous social media attention the issue has received from Arabs who refuse to be governed by political Islam and the Brotherhood.

And, of course Americans—especially those who care about the US-Israel alliance—should be aware of Qatar’s dangerous information and influence efforts in this country, and stand up to oppose them.

Arguably, there’s not another country that’s even half as aggressive in the foreign influence game as Qatar has been in the last several years. Most of their most effective spending, though, isn’t on well-heeled advertising and public relations firms like Ogilvy; Qatar has funded think tanks and media outlets that get them a much bigger bang-for-the buck. In that way, they’re able to shape the information battlefield— rather than simply replying to a story, owning or partnering with media outlets allow Qatar to create an environment that’s favorable to their interests.

 

 

 

 

About the Author

David Reaboi

David has spent the last decade as consultant in national security and political warfare. He works at the intersection of communications and policy, specializing in Sunni Islamist movements. He received a BA from George Washington University in International Affairs, with a concentration in the history of the Cold War. He is a Claremont Fellow, and his work appears at The Federalist, Claremont Review of Books and PJMedia.