By Jack Detsch September 13, 2018
Dozens of members of Congress began writing letters to Riyadh’s ambassador to Washington last month to point out the human cost of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar.
The notes, all alike in style and substance, underscore the plight of mixed-nationality families stuck in limbo as a result of the year-long diplomatic spat. Saudi nationals living across the border, they point out, risk losing their citizenship.
“As we explore long-term solutions for the dispute within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),” the letters conclude, “providing binational families with increased access to their loved ones seems like a potential starting point.”
The letters, it turns out, were written at the suggestion of McDermott Will and Emery, part of a multi-million lobbying blitz by Qatar to get Washington on its side in the increasingly nasty Gulf dispute. The gas-rich emirate spent $18.5 million in 2017 trying to counter damaging attacks on its reputation by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a five-fold increase over 2016.
By all indications, Qatar is settling in for a long siege.
According to a review of lobbying disclosures by Al-Monitor, McDermott is one of at least seven lobbying and public relations firms and subcontractors hired by Qatar in the immediate aftermath of the June 2017 diplomatic crisis. And the tiny emirate is on track to blow right past that personal record in 2018, having hired another 14 more firms so far this year.
Qatar has lavished much of its attention on 250 "influencers" close to Trump, according to the Wall Street Journal. The UAE has responded in kind, with a record $21.3 million lobbying campaign in 2017.
“The battle is still of course over the direction of the White House on the crisis,” Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics, told Al-Monitor. “It’s important to remember that the crisis is tribal in its essence. American foreign policy is not geared toward fixing a tribal fight.”
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain accuse Qatar of coddling up to both Iran and extremist Islamist groups. Qatar counters that its GCC neighbors seek to punish its independent foreign policy.
To make its case, Qatar is fielding an army of lobbyists to tackle the issue from multiple angles.
The Choharis Law Group is highlighting the “human rights consequences of [the] blockade including freedom of movement, ability to make religious pilgrimages [and] family reunification” on behalf of the Qatar National Human Rights Committee. Former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Debevoise & Plimpton law firm are working for the Qatari Attorney General’s office to “advance legal and factual arguments in support of … Qatar's position in that dispute and to solicit the help of US government officials in resolving that dispute.” And pro-Israel businessman Joseph Allaham has been leading outreach to the US Jewish community, including a controversial $100,000 donation to the Zionist Organization of America.
Despite the lobbying surge, Doha dropped its biggest hire in late May when the Qatari Government Communications Office parted ways with Information Management Services, an opposition research firm run by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee researcher Jeff Klueter. Qatar hired the firm right after the embargo started and shelled out $2.75 million in 2017 and another $340,000 in 2018.
Separately, Qatar Aluminium Limited (Qatalum), a joint venture between state energy giant Qatar Petroleum and Norsk Hydro, hired Steptoe and Johnson in May to lobby for an exemption to President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, joining fellow Gulf nations Bahrain and Oman. Qatar accounted for 1.8 percent of aluminum exports to the United States in 2017, according to the Congressional Research Service, with $307 million worth of exports.
Qatar is also backing a new Washington think tank, the Gulf International Forum, to compete with similar institutions funded by its regional rivals. The Gulf International Forum, which bills itself as an “independent institute,” receives funding from organizations funded by the Qatari government.
The increase in spending appears to be having an impact.
This January, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hosted the inaugural US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue and agreed to make it an annual affair. The two countries signed several agreements, on issues ranging from civil aviation to cyber security.
“It was a strong message to the Qataris, but it was also a strong message to the blockading countries that our relationship is not going to change,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy.
Still, efforts to get the White House to broker an end to the Gulf spat have sputtered. With the February departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who made multiple trips to Doha during the crisis, the Donald Trump administration has shifted toward countering Tehran after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal. The US administration had planned a summit this fall to reunite the fractured Gulf Cooperation Council, but the talks have been postponed until early 2019.
Meanwhile, Qatar has continued to rely heavily on its defense relationship with the Pentagon, highlighted by the Al-Udeid airbase that is home to 11,000 US troops. Qatar announced in July that it would be spending $1.8 billion to upgrade the base, with an eye toward turning it into a permanent US military installation.
Qatar has bought nearly $1.6 billion worth of US military equipment since Trump took office in January 2017. A knowledgeable source told Al-Monitor that the emirate is now looking for a US training base for 36 F-15s to be delivered to Doha in 2022. Boeing won a $6.2 billion contract to manufacture the aircraft in December.
Two sources told Al-Monitor that Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah plans to come to the US in August for a tour of the American defense industry, though the visit has not been finalized.
As the lobbying spending continues to increase on both sides, experts expect the stalemate to continue.
“It strikes me that both sides have thrown a lot of resources into this,” a source with knowledge of the administration’s deliberations told Al-Monitor. “I think it’s just become oversaturated.”
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