By Jack Detsch December 12, 2017
Besieged Qatar is calling in its chits.
Under attack by its Gulf neighbors, the tiny emirate is turning to the Donald Trump administration of all places to defend it against charges that it is too cozy with Islamists and Iran. In its messaging war with Saudi Arabia and its allies, Doha is counting on powerful allies inside the US government to help make its case that the current crisis is just a neighborhood spat in need of a fair referee.
Qatar's strongest asset in this influence game is the US air base at Al Udeid, a key center of operations for raids against the self-described Islamic State (IS). A month after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt launched an economic embargo on June 5, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reaffirmed Qatar's "strategic" role in the fight against IS, undermining Doha critics who insist the country supports terrorism.
In a July 6 phone conversation, Mattis and his Qatari counterpart, Khaled bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, "affirmed their commitment to continued US-Qatar cooperation and deepening their strategic partnership," according to a Pentagon readout of their call. Mattis reportedly went on to urge all parties to de-escalate tensions, "so all partners in the Gulf region can focus on next steps in meeting common goals."
Qatar has put more than $5 billion toward modernizing Al Udeid, which hosts more than 10,000 US troops. The base has hosted American warplanes for more than 15 years, and its long runways are the only ones in the Gulf that allow operations by US Air Force B-52 bombers, which can carry the US military’s most powerful bunker-busting bombs, against targets in Iraq and Syria. The number of flights from the base actually soared in the months after Qatar's neighbors broke off ties.
Qatar is also set to help host a regional missile defense system and has even offered to train and equip moderate Syrian forces. And it remains a loyal purchaser of US military hardware: Just since last summer, Doha has been approved to purchase 72 Boeing F-15 fighter jets worth a combined $21.1 billion as well as Mark V Fast Patrol boats for $124 million. Just last month, the State Department approved another $1.1 billion to support Doha's F-15 force.
Qatar has also leveraged its longstanding relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who worked closely with the ruling Al Thani family during his time as the boss of ExxonMobil. Tillerson has been engaging with Kuwait in particular to try to broker a deal between the feuding Gulf monarchs, and on July 11 announced the signing of an agreement on combating terrorism financing during a visit to Doha. In an Oct. 19 interview with Bloomberg prior to a trip to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Tillerson faulted the Saudi-led bloc for the crisis. The following week, BuzzFeed reported that US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had told Congress that Qatar does not fund Hamas, reversing her earlier testimony.
Trump and Congress remain skeptical.
The president initially sided squarely with Saudi Arabia and its allies when the crisis erupted just weeks after his May visit to Riyadh.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” the US president tweeted on June 6. “Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!”
Republican lawmakers have also long been critical of Doha's support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed on to sanctions legislation on May 25 that singles out Qatar for its support of Hamas, the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot, although the bill hasn't gone anywhere.
Meanwhile in the Senate, frustration with all sides has led Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to hold up all Gulf arms sales pending a resolution to the Qatar dispute.
To help win over Washington, the gas-rich emirate has retained the services of no fewer than seven new lobbying and public relations firms (not including subcontractors) since the June embargo. Together the new contracts are worth at least $1.4 million per month, putting Qatar on track to vastly surpass the $3.6 million it spent on lobbying and public relations in 2016.
Among the new hires is Avenue Strategies, a Washington consulting firm co-started by Trump presidential campaign aide Barry Bennett. Qatar has also hired the law firm of former Attorney General John Ashcroft to audit any possible ties to known terrorist groups, as well as the law firm of McDermott, Will and Emery and Information Management Services (IMS), an opposition research firm run by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee researcher Jeff Klueter. IMS in turn has hired two subcontractors since June.
Doha is also developing its own strategic communications shop. Established in July, the Qatar-America Partnership is pushing out analysis defending the small country against its Gulf neighbors.
The aggressive campaign is already producing results.
After the Washington-based for-profit corporation Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) ordered more than $1 million worth of TV and digital ads in the Washington market and hired the Podesta Group for $50,000 per month, Bennett urged the US Justice Department to investigate the firm for potentially violating lobbying disclosure laws. SAPRAC's funding, Bennett said, is assumed to come from Saudi Arabia.
Qatar wants broader international arbitration over the dispute as well.
In late July, Doha filed a sweeping complaint against Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain with the World Trade Organization. Doha has also asked the International Civil Aviation Organization to broker an agreement over use of its neighbors' airspace.
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