Qatar leans on K Street connections

Qatar leans on K Street connections

Controversy surrounding the World Cup is spilling over onto K Street, where a key player in the scandal that has rocked international soccer is spending millions of dollars to improve its standing in Washington.

The government of Qatar, which won the rights to hold the tournament in 2022, has shelled out more than $8.8 million on U.S. consultants since the beginning of 2009, when the bidding began. 

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Since then, scandal has broken out around the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the international governing body of soccer teams, and investigators are now looking into whether officials received bribes during the World Cup bid process. 

Last month, the United States indicted 14 people — including some top FIFA officials — on corruption charges amid a probe that has reportedly expanded to include the selections of Russia and Qatar to host the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, respectively.

Qatar has pushed back against swirling rumors that the nation would be stripped of its hosting duties.

“The recent events at FIFA will not impact on our preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy said in a statement released last week.

Qatar is a longtime client of big-name firms including Squire Patton Boggs and BGR Group. Public affairs powerhouses Mercury and LEVICK signed on in January, along with Portland Communications, which sub-contracted with Gallagher Group.

The four new firms that began
 working for Qatar in 2015 have contracts worth a total of more than $1.9 million through June alone. 

Although the money spent on public relations and advocacy services since 2009 includes a slew of issues surrounding U.S.-Qatari engagement, the World Cup 2022 Bid Committee paid Brown Lloyd James, now BLJ Worldwide, an estimated $982,339 from 2009 to 2011, according to filings with the Department of Justice. The firm no longer represents any Qatar-related entities and did not respond to a request for comment.

In forms filed with the DOJ, the firm said it “assisted with Qatar’s 2022 bid by reaching out to our media contacts, developing press releases, creating and promoting special events, and developing media monitoring services for the client.”

The FIFA scandal, along with allegations of mistreated migrant workers, is marring the wealthy country’s image as it seeks to hold onto the World Cup.

“It’s going to make [the consultants’] work a lot harder, they need to do something,” said an individual familiar with foreign advocacy work who asked not to be identified. “At some point, you have to start pushing your client [to be better]. That’s the idea of public diplomacy. But sometimes you can’t talk sense to crazy.”

Responding to reports of inhumane conditions at labor camps supporting World Cup preparations, London-based Portland Communications is reportedly bringing in international journalists to see the camps firsthand. The firm did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill. Contracts say it’s earning $50,000 per month for its work with U.S. government officials.

Many were shocked in 2010 when Qatar beat out the United States to host the tournament, because temperatures in the country often reach upward of 120 degrees. Among some of the promises that helped to secure the bid, the country vowed to create a climate-controlled, open air stadium — all with zero carbon footprint.

BGR Group has not done any work for Qatar since 2009, but still retains the country as an inactive client, the firm confirmed.

Squire Patton Boggs, which has represented the country since 1994, advises Qatar on “security and commercial issues,” in addition to its bilateral relationship with the United States, according to documents.

From 2009 to 2014, the K Street powerhouse earned nearly $3.4 million in fees from the representation. It declined to comment further on its work.

The most costly contracts were inked this year — before the charges against FIFA officials came down, but after human rights groups began decrying the working conditions.

Mercury is earning “$155,000 per month to [further] US-Qatar governmental relations on issues related to commerce and bilateral communication,” it said on registration forms, and will be contacting members of Congress, Washington think tanks and businesses. It declined to comment further on its activities.

Meanwhile, LEVICK is earning $88,000 per month to provide “research and NGO support” to the Qatar Embassy. It also declined to talk about its work.

Patrick Theros, president of the U.S.-Qatar Business Council, said the country has taken serious actions over the last quarter-century to improve labor policies and invest in important causes, “but they have failed to capitalize on it.”

“You can do all the right things, but if you don’t play the PR game in Washington, it corrodes your relationship,” said Theros, also a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar.

“There are countries that have not cooperated and have done everything opposite of what [the United States] we want them to do, but since they maintain such a good game locally, they pay no price for it,” he said.

Qatar pours money into a variety of important causes – from giving $100 million to help New Orleans and the Gulf rebuild following Hurricane Katrina to pledging $88 million last year to help finance the recovery of Darfur, Sudan, after a long civil war in the African country. 

Within its borders, Qatar has also heavily invested in higher education and healthcare — such as the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs, a well-heeled state-funded research and support center that works to pioneer treatments for autism and other diseases.

Still, with all the strides the nation has attempted to make in recent years, human rights organizations say Qatar has a long way to go — and K Street may not be able to help it.

“No amount of PR or lobbying can obscure the underlying realities of labor abuse and exploitation in Qatar. The government of Qatar should invest its resources in fixing these problems, not in trying to hide them from other governments,” said Sunjeev Bery, the advocacy director for Middle East North Africa at Amnesty International USA.