Qatar adds lobbying muscle in the US after Saudi rift, Trump's snub

Qatar's rising lobbying clout coincides with a decline in the US' support for neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Qatar's rising lobbying clout coincides with a decline in the US' support for neighbouring Saudi Arabia.PHOTO: AFP

DOHA/WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Qatar is ramping up its lobbying efforts in the United States, 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 US$186,000 (S$246,703) a month, according to Foreign Agent Registration Act (Fara) documents. At least five of the firms have close ties to Democrats, including links with the House and Senate foreign affairs committees.

That annual rate of US$2.2 million underestimates total costs 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.

The Middle Eastern country, which has a population of about 2.8 million according to the World Bank, 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 Mr Meshal Hamad Al Thani, the nation's ambassador to the US, in an interview with Bloomberg. "Qatar was subjected to an aggressive, vicious campaign and in response we defended ourselves."

Doha had spent US$4 million on lobbyists in 2016, compared with US$14.2 million for Saudi Arabia and US$6.1 million by the UAE. The next year, when the boycott hit, the Qatari government boosted spending to a high of US$12.9 million, according to data collected by the Centre for Responsive Politics. Saudi Arabia has scaled back lobbying spending since 2018, while the UAE has gradually boosted spending to outpace both of its neighbours.

Dr Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Centre for International Policy and author of a 2020 report on Qatar's lobbying operations, said the recent spate of engagements was "something of an offensive hiring spree" for the country.

"If I'm Qatar right now, I see an opportunity in that you have a Biden administration that's not cosied up to your adversaries, specifically Saudi Arabia," he said.

The crisis "served as something of a lesson" for Qatar, which recognised it didn't "have immediate, indirect access to the policymakers they need to influence at that time", added Dr 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 US had tacitly given Saudi Arabia the green light to go ahead with the campaign.

But with US allies on both sides of the fight and the administration focused on isolating Iran, top Trump officials, including then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then Defence 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," Mr Al Thani said.

Qatar is also eager to see the US return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, given the Gulf nation and Iran share the world's largest natural gas field. Teheran stood by Qatar - providing airspace and basic goods - during the boycott.

US 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 defence purchases from the US. Qatari-US defence ties are tight, with the Al Udeid Air Base serving as the largest US 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 US 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 Dr Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on US-Middle East policy.

Despite Mr Trump's initial support for the Saudi-led boycott, ties between Mr 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 neighbouring Saudi Arabia. While ties will remain, the Biden administration has signalled 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," Dr Freeman said.

Fara documents on file with the US 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 favourites 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 US 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 Dr 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."