Analysis | The Gulf’s Influence Game in Washington

Analysis | The Gulf’s Influence Game in Washington

Chris Mullaney.jpg

CHRIS MULLANEY 

- ITS Fellow
- MENA Affairs Specialist
- Former Aid to The Middle East Institute, USAID, and the United Palestinian Appeal

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On June 5th, a number of Middle Eastern countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, separately announced an end to diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing, among other things, Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism and its close relations with Iran. In addition to cutting off diplomatic ties, the countries instituted an economic blockade of Qatar and recalled their citizens living in the country. To date, several rounds of negotiations have taken place, but the diplomatic crisis remains unresolved and tensions persist. While much of the conflict has played out in a very public manner, there is one significant aspect of the conflict that has been largely secretive: the all-important battle for influence in Washington.

While nearly every relevant regional actor has taken a clear position in the conflict, the United States has been equivocal in its response. In the initial days after the blockade, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his support for the Saudi-led blockade, saying that during his trip to Saudi Arabia, leaders had pointed to Qatar as a major funder of terrorism. This message was in direct contrast to the statement from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who urged restraint and calm. While President Trump has since tempered his stance, calling for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, the United States’ true position remains open to interpretation.

“While President Trump has since tempered his stance, the United States’ true position remains open to interpretation.”

Because of the sometimes-conflicting positions that the United States has taken on this issue, both Qatar and the Saudi-bloc have sought to promote their narrative of the conflict to officials in Washington. And because of the security commitments that the United States has in both Qatar and the rest of the Gulf, the position that it takes on this issue is of vital importance to the competing Gulf parties. Thus, in the wake of the diplomatic crisis, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have spent exorbitant amounts of money on lobbying and supporting think tanks in Washington to try to gain influence in American policy-making circles. While this is in some ways a continuation of previous policy, it also represents a drastic ramping up of this strategy. 

According to the U.S. government’s Foreign Agents Registration Act database, Qatar in particular has dramatically increased its spending on lobbying. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering the potentially existential threat that the regime would face if the United States were to fully support the Saudi-led blockade. Still, the scale of the increase is striking; in the five months since the start of the diplomatic crisis, Qatar has entered into new contracts with at least 11 Washington-based lobbying firms and public relations groups, totaling more than $20 million. Prior to June, Qatar had signed only two lobbying contracts in the previous calendar year. The number may be even higher, since foreign agents are only required to register quarterly (and, as we’ve recently learned from Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, sometimes neglect to register at all). 

Who are these lobbyists that Qatar has recruited to promote its narrative of the crisis? In addition to the predictable cast of Washington lawyers and public relations specialists, Qatar’s team of lobbyists includes a number of familiar names and people with direct ties to the Trump administration. Among the firms hired by Qatar is Avenue Strategies, the lobbying firm founded by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. While Mr. Lewandowski no longer works at the firm, Avenue Strategies continues to boast of its unparalleled access and influence with the President. Among Avenue Strategies’ lobbyists specifically registered as foreign agents for the Qatari government are Barry Bennett and Edward Brookover, two former Senior Advisors to the Trump campaign. In addition to Avenue Strategies, Qatar has hired a number of prominent firms with connections to the GOP establishment, including Ashcroft Law, a lobbying firm founded by former George W. Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft himself is listed as a lobbyist for Qatar, perhaps accounting for the whopping $2.5 million fee that Qatar has paid to the firm.

Anti-Qatar Lobby Ad on Twitter

Anti-Qatar Lobby Ad on Twitter

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have assembled their own teams of lobbyists and public relations specialists to push an anti-Qatar narrative in Washington. The two countries have active contracts with a total of 43 different firms. Saudi Arabia has a longer history of lobbying Washington, particularly on issues such as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2016, and thus, most of its lobbying contracts predate the Qatar crisis; however, based on the publicly available communications from these firms, it is clear that the focus of these lobbyists has shifted squarely onto Qatar. For example, DLA Piper, one of the firms contracted by the Saudi government, actively sought to promote the Saudi narrative of the crisis to Congress by publicizing an op-ed written by UAE ambassador Yousef Al-Otaiba. Meanwhile, in a contract with the UAE, lobbying firm Project Associates UK listed its primary activity as “rais[ing] awareness about state sponsored terrorism in the Middle East.” Speaking from my own experience, I have noticed a rapid increase in anti-Qatar ads on Facebook and Twitter, such as the one on the right.

Saudi Arabia’s team of lobbyists includes a number of prominent Washington figures as well. Among these figures are Norm Coleman, a former Senator from Minnesota, Tony Podesta, the brother of Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager John Podesta, and John Anderson, a former editor at Politico. Podesta, it should be noted, recently stepped down from his role as the head of the lobbying firm after being named in Paul Manafort’s indictment. Other prominent figures include board members at think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and contributors at newspapers like The Washington Post

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, with a total of 29, 16, and 14 active lobbying contracts respectively, are among the most prolific foreign lobbies in the world. Only Japan has more lobbying contracts than Saudi Arabia, while Qatar and the UAE rank 8th and 10th among countries globally. The three countries have the lowest populations of any country in the top 10, and Qatar’s population of 2.57 million is less than a tenth of any non-Gulf country in the top ten. 

The competition between Qatar and Saudi over Washington influence is not restricted to lobbying. In addition to the money spent on lobbying, these Gulf countries have also spent millions of dollars funding Washington-based think tanks. The UAE has been at the forefront of these efforts, providing major funding for a number of prominent think tanks, including the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Atlantic Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Middle East Institute. Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE also founded the Arab Gulf States Institute. Qatar meanwhile has entered into a partnership with the Brookings Institution, and even helped found a branch of the institution in Doha. Although this trend predates the current crisis, it has taken on new significance in the wake of the Saudi-led blockade.

While all of this might seem to simply be “politics as usual”, there are a number of reasons to be concerned about the way the Gulf rivalries are playing out in Washington. First, it’s disturbing to see that Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” – a promise that had significant bipartisan appeal, despite Trump’s polarizing candidacy – has clearly not been fulfilled. If anything, Trump’s administration has spawned a whole new breed of lobbyist. These new lobbyists boast of direct connections to the President rather than any type of legislative expertise. While Washington lobbyists have always claimed privileged access, this explicit talk of personal relationships with the President has a more sinister edge to it. The fact that Qatar, facing a potentially existential threat, turned to inexperienced lobbyists with personal connections to Trump, shows that the international community perceives that these personal connections are the best way to influence this administration. Anyone concerned about the influence of special interest groups and foreign interest groups should be alarmed by this development.

Anyone concerned about the influence of special interest groups and foreign interest groups should be alarmed by this development.

This sudden rise in foreign lobbying also suggests that President Trump’s foreign policy has been so poorly defined as to attract heavy foreign lobbying. On issues as important as this crisis, the Trump administration cannot continue to fight itself over basic policy. The haphazard response to this crisis suggests that the firing of senior staff at the State Department is having a negative impact on the department’s ability to function. Trump and his State Department may be contributing to global instability through their inability to take a single, unambiguous policy position. Washington has long been a target for foreign lobbyists, but the rapid increase in lobbying under the current administration from countries in the Gulf should raise alarm bells.

The Gulf’s funding of think tanks also creates questions about the objectivity of these supposedly non-partisan organizations. Scholars at think tanks are generally trusted as objective analysts, both by elected legislators and the public; their analyses can significantly impact policy. They are often published in leading newspapers, with no mention of the funding that they receive. Although donations to these think tanks do not come with strict strings attached, there is usually an implicit threat; scholars often choose to self-censor so as to avoid losing funding in the future, and think tanks are less inclined to hire people with a record of writing critical pieces of their funders. This creates a massive credibility problem; it is extremely difficult to distinguish between an objective analyst and a paid spokesperson for a foreign government.

This creates a massive credibility problem; it is extremely difficult to distinguish between an objective analyst and a paid spokesperson for a foreign government.

The final reason for concern is the advertisements that have appeared on social media. In much the same way that Russia used targeted ads on Facebook and Twitter to exploit social divisions in American society, Qatar and the Saudi-bloc are attacking one another through promoted social media content. The pages that post these attack ads often have authoritative sounding names like “The Qatar Insider”, with no mention of the source of funding behind the ad. Qatar, for its part, has generated dozens of graphics and advertisements touting its positive relationship with the United States, which have been promoted through social media. For now, this type of ad is mostly harmless; they appear to be targeting people who have demonstrated interest in Middle Eastern politics, and are therefore unlikely to be persuaded by one advertisement. Still, the trend of foreign governments targeting Americans with unmarked political advertisements is a serious problem. 

Ultimately, the influence game that is currently playing out between Qatar and the Saudi-bloc should concern Americans across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, there is not an easy solution to these problems. The problems with advertising and think tanks could potentially be ameliorated by simply having more transparency about funding. With some of the largest social media networks currently testifying in front of Congress, it is possible that this type of transparency will materialize. However, the problems associated with the rise of foreign lobbying are more intractable. The current system of registration for foreign lobbyists – a law originally created to prevent Nazi influence over the U.S. government – is widely considered to be toothless. Indeed, Paul Manafort’s attorneys have pointed to the fact that only six people have ever been tried under this law as part of their defense. Further, there is little appetite in Washington for lobbying reform, since lobbying benefits so many interest groups. Still, something should be done. The problem of the revolving door between government and lobbying has only gotten worse under the Trump administration, meaning that foreign lobbyists are becoming more influential. All Americans, regardless of political affiliation, should demand that foreign policy be made with the United States’ best interests in mind, not those of foreign governments.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


Banner Photo Credit: 

  1. By G0T0 - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31414550

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