By Julian Pecquet September 12, 2018
Bahrain spent a whopping 75% of its $1.58 million lobbying budget last year trying to turn Washington against rival Gulf state Qatar.
All it has to show for it are punishing new US tariffs and a friendly White House visit from the Qatari emir this spring.
After suffering setbacks in its relationship with the Donald Trump administration, Manama has changed course in recent months to refocus its lobbying priorities.
The embassy parted ways with Saudi national Salman al-Ansari and his US-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee in October after paying the firm $1.2 million for an inconclusive 30-day anti-Qatar advertising campaign championed by big brother Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since then, Bahrain has hired three new firms to represent its own interests before Congress and the administration.
Bahrain’s embassy in Washington hired US law firm Miller & Chevalier this March to help fight Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. Bahrain was the fourth-largest exporter of aluminum to the United States in 2017, according to the Congressional Research Service, with $585 million worth of exports. Moody's credit rating agency predicts the kingdom, which ranked as the world’s eighth-largest aluminum producer in 2016, is among the countries with the most to lose.
“As a close US military ally and impartial free trade partner, the Kingdom of Bahrain is confident in meeting the requirements of the country exemption principles,” the embassy told Al-Monitor at the time.
Bahrain joins fellow Gulf nations Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in lobbying for an exemption from Trump’s so-called Section 232 tariffs. Bahrain and Oman in particular feel burned by Trump’s “America First” policies after negotiating bilateral free trade agreements with the United States as part of President George W. Bush’s ill-fated push to create a Middle East Free Trade Area following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Manama has also hired two other firms this year to more broadly represent its interests in Washington.
In February, the embassy signed a $500,000-per-year contract with the Sonoran Policy Group in Washington to “facilitate meetings and interactions with US administration officials.” And in June, the embassy hired BGR for $780,000 per year to “assist in communicating priority issues regarding US-Bahrain relations to relevant US audiences, including Congress, the executive branch, media and policy community.” Both contracts top Bahrain’s pre-existing contract with DLA Piper, which was paid $380,000 in 2017. The embassy previously hosted its 45th National Day celebration at the Trump Hotel in December 2016, prompting accusations of undue influence.
The lobbying push comes as Bahrain is seen as a potential key beneficiary of Trump’s policies.
As part of its hawkish stance on Iran, the administration has already approved the sale of almost $5 billion in F-16 fighter jets, Viper attack helicopters and bombs and missiles since Trump took office. The uptick in arms sales follows a freeze under the Barack Obama administration amid accusations that the Sunni monarchy was discriminating against the country’s majority-Shiite population.
“As part of the Trump Administration’s emphasis on countering Iran, the United States has downplayed US concerns about Bahrain’s human rights record, dropped Obama Administration human rights conditions on the approval of new combat aircraft to Bahrain, and imposed US sanctions on members of underground violent opposition groups,” the Congressional Research Service writes in its latest report on Bahrain. “Opposition figures,” the report adds, “have express concerns that Administration policy that they describe as far too favorable to the Bahrain government could cause the mainstream opposition to draw close to Iran.”
Manama got another boost this summer when the State Department designated the Shiite al-Ashtar Brigades as a terrorist proxy of Tehran. The group is close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and is accused of attacking several police and security targets in the country.
“Today’s designation serves notice that the United States sees plainly what Iran is trying to do to Bahrain through its proxy, the terrorist group al-Ashtar,” the State Department wrote in its July 10 designation.
US aid, however, remains flat. This year the State Department is only asking Congress for $800,000 in counterterrorism assistance and military training for the second year in a row, a sharp drop from the $35.5 million worth of security aid the country received in fiscal year 2016.
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