Qatar brings lobbyists into Gulf showdown

Qatar brings lobbyists into Gulf showdown
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The standoff in the Middle East over Qatar is quickly becoming an intense lobbying battle in Washington.

Qatar has five K Street firms on retainer, paying more than $1.8 million on its advocacy efforts last year, according to the most recent forms filed with the Justice Department — some of the numbers are not yet updated, so the total stands to be much higher. The country hired two of those firms this year.

Some of Qatar’s well-heeled neighbors, however, have even larger influence war chests, with upwards of 30 firms combined at their beck and call.

Those countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have cut diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar, citing renewed concerns that the country is helping to fund terrorist groups.

As part of a push against those allegations, Qatar hired the firm of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to assist in “evaluating, verifying, and as necessary, strengthening the client’s anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financial compliance programs and providing legal advice and recommendations to enhance and improve such efforts,” according to a contract.

The contract was signed June 7, just two days after Gulf nations cut ties with Qatar.

The government of Qatar agreed to pay the firm $2.5 million up front for three months of work that will be led by Ashcroft.

None of the firms representing Qatar that The Hill contacted for comment responded.

Jon Alterman, a global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it’s unclear whether Qatar has hired Ashcroft to tackle the immediate issues at hand or whether it’s part of a larger effort to bolster U.S. relations.

“I think there are two sets of issues: one is navigating the current circumstances, and one is if we’re going to have a different relationship in Washington, what kinds of things do you have to do over the next five years?” Alterman said. 

“I think the Qataris have not been investing in D.C. relationships for the most part. Their ambassadors have changed relatively frequently. It’s not clear the ambassadors have always had a huge amount of authority.”

That investment strategy appears to be changing following the Gulf region dispute and mixed signals from the Trump administration about the country’s standing with the U.S.

President Trump appeared to celebrate the diplomatic isolation of Qatar last week and on Friday offered a stern warning.

 “The nation of Qatar has unfortunately been a funder of terrorism, and at a very high level,” Trump said during a press conference at the White House. 

That remark came just a few hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for the Gulf countries to ease their blockade on Qatar.

Qatar holds major strategic significance for the United States because it is home to Al Udeid Air Base — the largest U.S. military base in the region and the staging area for much of the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Still, lawmakers and executive branch officials from both parties have been wary of Qatar’s willingness to fund groups like Hamas and allegedly host fundraising organizations that send money to groups tied to terrorism. 

The country acknowledges links to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter of which is banned in Egypt, but denies any connection to supporting terrorism financing.

A spokeswoman at the Qatari Embassy in Washington told The Hill that officials are “reaching out to both the administration and Congress to provide them with the facts. These facts prove that these countries’ allegations are not true.” 

A former U.S. consultant for Qatar said the country has “been trying to position themselves for the last decade as the Switzerland of the Middle East.”

“They want to be a place where disputes can get resolved,” said the consultant, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely about a former client. “The unintended consequence of that is that they’ve gotten into bed with a lot of f----d up people.”

Qatar also hired U.S. lobbyists in its successful effort to land the 2022 World Cup, which will make it the first Middle Eastern country to host the international soccer event. Having the World Cup in Qatar, the consultant said, was part of a public diplomacy push.

But FIFA and the U.S. Congress and policy community are “really different beasts,” Alterman said. 

“They have different rules, they have different processes,” he told The Hill. 

However, documents filed with the Justice Department show that firms working for Qatar met frequently with individuals on Capitol Hill in recent years.

Mercury, which has former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) on staff, facilitated meetings between the Qataris and prominent lawmakers, as well as discussing military arms sales, lawmaker and staff trips to Qatar, and the Senate’s inquiry into labor practices involved in the construction of stadiums for the World Cup.

The country has been criticized for alleged human rights abuses in World Cup construction, as workers have died in the scorching heat.

In all of 2016, Qatar paid Mercury more than $900,000, according to a tally by The Hill of foreign lobbying disclosures.

The Gallagher Group has also been working with policymakers on similar issues for Qatar, earning more than $185,000 for its work in the first half of last year.

Squire Patton Boggs and London-based Portland PR also work for Qatar. A member of the royal family hired a firm called Global Strategies Council earlier this year. Public affairs firm Levick is listed as an active foreign agent, but the contract at the Justice Department appears to only have been effective through March 2017.

Still, Qatar finds itself pitted against an army of advocates for the countries that have cut ties.

Saudi Arabia alone has 22 U.S. firms on retainer, while the UAE has 10. Bahrain, Egypt and the Maldives have three, two and one, respectively.

Multiple K Street operatives for Saudi Arabia told The Hill that Qatar-related issues are not on their radar at the moment. However, the number of firms it has indicates that a big force could be mobilized to shape U.S. policy and thinking on the issue, should the need arise.

Many of Saudi Arabia’s firms were hired to push back against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which passed Congress last year and allows families of victims of terrorism to sue countries they believe supported the terrorism.

Much of the negotiations around Qatar policy will be happening outside of K Street boardrooms, said Ali Shihabi, the executive director of the Arabia Foundation.

“This is something that’s happening in a high level. I don’t think that lobbying firms can have an impact on something like that,” he said.