Key pro-Saudi player in Gulf spat registers as foreign agent

Key pro-Saudi player in Gulf spat registers as foreign agent
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A U.S.-based nonprofit that has been running a sprawling media campaign against Qatar as part of an ongoing feud among Persian Gulf countries has now registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent.

The Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) is incorporated in Delaware but based in Washington. It launched last March and said it was aiming to help “foster understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States.”

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The organization ”firmly believes that the best way to achieve this goal is through people to people communication. Most importantly, it will do so by adhering to its core values of transparency, integrity and excellence,” SAPRAC’s website reads.

In an interview last year, the group's founder and president, Salman al-Ansari, told Al Arabiya English that SAPRAC would serve to primarily as an informational body, rather than an advocacy one.

Al-Ansari has published op-eds in The Hill. 

“It's important to mention that SAPRAC doesn't aim to present itself as a lobbying group,” he said, according to Al Arabiya. “SAPRAC is here to educate the American audience primarily about the overall Saudi-US relations. More importantly, SAPRAC is a product of a citizen not a state.”

Then, earlier this summer, a spat between several nations in the Middle East erupted, with a Saudi Arabia-led group of countries accusing Qatar of funding terrorism and aligning too closely with Iran’s government.

While Doha has called the claims “baseless,” the surrounding countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain cut key ties with the tiny nation.

In the months that followed, a full-scale print, television, radio and social media campaign emerged, and SAPRAC set up a website called The Qatar Insider. Subsequent disclosures, potentially prompted by a report in the Daily Beast, show that the Podesta Group had been called in to help with the PR push.

The Qatar Insider, which has an active social media presence, calls itself “the comprehensive source for information on the truth about Qatar’s funding, activities and support for terrorist and extreme Islamist groups.”

Now al-Ansari, a Saudi national, has registered as a foreign agent for the organization in a disclosure filed to the Justice Department last week.

In a separate disclosure that immediately followed, SAPRAC disclosed that it would be working on behalf of the government of Bahrain.

The 30-day contract for Bahrain details a “media campaign” that comes with a $1.2 million price tag, a figure that includes the cost of placing television and digital advertisements.

The components of the campaign include a minute-long “video commercial” to be aired in the Washington, D.C., market “directly targeted at influential people and decision-makers,” online ad buys, and “the development and implementation of a complete digital analytics center… in order to monitor and reposition” each advertisement.

SAPRAC has already shown it can navigate the new ways of Washington. The group has already targeted its ads on major cable news networks and bought slots during the British Open golf tournament in July, according to the Daily Beast.

The ad buy was a deliberate choice, SAPRAC executive director Reem Daffa told The Daily Beast, because “President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE is an avid golfer and spectator.”

"We want the American people to know more about what Qatar is doing in the Gulf region,” al-Ansari said in a press release. “Qatar has always been a malevolent element in an area besieged by terrorist organizations. Now Americans can visit The Qatar Insider to learn more about the high-risk Gulf crisis as it unfolds.”

The group has not responded to questions fromThe Hill over the last few weeks, including one sent to al-Ansari on Thursday following the registrations.

SAPRAC is registered in the House and Senate to lobby under domestic advocacy laws, which are much less stringent than those imposed by the Justice Department and the Foreign Agents Registration Act for work done on behalf of foreign governments.

Last year, al-Ansari told Al Arabiya English that the organization’s funding would “largely depend on online subscriptions, conference fees, membership fees, as well as through US based corporations that are interested in the initiative, especially those who are interested in investing in Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia has its own influence efforts in Washington. In total, the country has roughly 20 firms working on its behalf, according to Justice Department records. Qatar, in its corner, has a dozen.