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Washington lobbyists continue to cash in on dispute between Qatar and UAE

Gulf states have spent around $100m on lobbying since diplomatic ties crumbled three years ago
US President Donald Trump and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
US President Donald Trump and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, emir of Qatar, talk before a dinner at the Treasury Department in Washington on 8 July 2019 (AFP/File photo)
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue on Monday by declaring it was "past time" for the Arab Gulf rivals to bury the hatchet and renew diplomatic ties.

But $100m says he'll probably have to wait a little longer.

That's about how much money the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have spent lobbying in Washington since the two countries broke diplomatic ties three years ago. 

Much of that spending has focused on battling each other, with Abu Dhabi seeking to paint Qatar as a terror-supporting rogue state while Doha has defended itself as a trusted western ally.

"It's certainly one of the biggest fights that I'm aware of, at least in recent memory," Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the nonprofit Center for International Policy, told Middle East Eye. 

"I can't think of a bigger tiff that was more lucrative to [lobbyists] than this battle."

The ongoing lobbying fight dates back to June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain launched their embargo on Qatar, mainly over its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The UAE took the lead in an all-out influence blitz that saw its lobbying spending more than double between 2016 and 2017, from $10.4m to $21.4m, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

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Qatar soon followed suit, raising its lobbying budget more than three-fold over that same period, from $4m to $12.9m.

The influence fight remains alive and well today, with the Qatari government currently retaining the services of 16 firms, up from five in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The UAE has eight, also up from five in 2016.

"The spending, at least from what I have seen, continues, at least here in the United States," said Jonathan Schanzer, the senior vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank critical of Qatar. 

"Of course it's not all directed at the other... but a lot of it does focus on targeting their adversary. And so that doesn't bode well."

The surge in lobbying by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates started almost as soon as President Donald Trump was elected, said Freeman, who has written lengthy reports on lobbying efforts by all three countries. That left the Qataris "flat-flooted" when the blockade came, he said.

"That was really the moment for the Qatar lobby where you really see them realising they had a problem here in the US, they were way behind the Saudis and the Emiratis when it came to influence here," Freeman said. 

"So they really started picking up steam and adding firms and adding more power brokers to their lobbying arsenal, too."

Their increased influence within the administration would soon become evident. When the Gulf states first announced their blockade, Trump had just returned from his first trip abroad to Saudi Arabia and sided against Qatar.

Less than a year later, however, he would be hosting Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani as a friend in the White House and touting US-Qatari ties.

"The path to that turn around was very much paved by Qatar's lobby," Freeman said.

UAE v Qatar

Despite its diminutive size compared with Saudi Arabia, the UAE quickly took the lead in the lobbying fight against Qatar, records show.

Part of the reason has to do with Riyadh's preoccupation with defending itself from the bipartisan backlash over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen. 

But Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said a more fundamental reason has to do with the battle of ideas raging between the UAE and Qatar over political Islam in Arab societies. 

For Qatar, he said, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas offshoot are a "corrective" to more radical alternatives; for the UAE, he said, they're a "gateway drug" to terrorism.

"For Qatar and the UAE, this is an ideological struggle," Ibish said. 

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"This is about defining the political culture. So it's a huge existential battle. Whereas for Saudi Arabia, it’s about Qatar’s behaviour."

When it comes to their lobbying operations, Ibish said, both have played to their strengths.

Represented by Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, one of the most connected people in Washington, the UAE quickly got to work lobbying Congress and the executive branch. The country could count on key allies such as Elliott Broidy, a Republican fundraiser close to Trump who bankrolled a 2017 FDD conference on Qatar's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood - during which then-House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif) announced his bill to designate Qatar a sponsor of terrorism.

Qatar has also built ties to Congress and the administration, of course. But it has also tried to change the conversation in Washington by engaging with think tanks and the media to reframe the discussion over what's good for the region, Ibish said, through numerous public events and conferences with visiting officials. 

Qatar has also spent large amounts of money flying US officials to Doha via its Qatar-America Institute. The think tank, which received a $5.2m pledge from the Qatari Embassy in Washington just months after the blockade started, was forced to register as a foreign agent of Doha earlier this year by the Department of Justice.

And Doha has also been able to count on its close collaboration with the Pentagon. The country is notably home to the al-Udeid air base, which offers unequal infrastructure in the region, such as runways for B-52s, Ibish said.

"Both of them have spent a lot of money," Ibish said of Qatar and the UAE. "But they're kind of playing different games."

Target: Al Jazeera

With the Pentagon adamantly opposed to breaking ties with the Qataris and President Trump counting on them for his peace deal with the Taliban, the UAE has increasingly turned to ideological allies in the Republican Party to target a shared nemesis: Al Jazeera.

Recently, former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla), now a lobbyist for UAE agent Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, distributed a report on Capitol Hill aimed at fuelling congressional pressure on the Department of Justice to require the network's designation as a foreign agent of Qatar.

Al Jazeera in turn has responded to the mounting attacks by paying DLA Piper $1.66m since hiring the law firm last June, lobbying records show.

On Tuesday, the US Justice Department ordered Al Jazeera to register its American presence as a foreign agent under the country's lobbying laws.

The Justice Department acted after finding that its social video platform AJ+ reportedly engaged in political activities as defined by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

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It said the channel acted at the direction and control of the Qatari leadership.

"Despite assertions of editorial independence and freedom of expression Al Jazeera Media Network and its affiliates are controlled and funded by the government of Qatar," it said.

With the UAE and Bahrain signing historic accords normalising relations with Israel at the White House on Tuesday, some observers believe an isolated Qatar may eventually reduce its support for groups such as Hamas.

"I would say that the fundamentals [of the Gulf conflict] have not changed," FDD's Schanzer said.

"But what I would say that is interesting here is the shifts that we're seeing in the region as a result of the Abraham Accord and what may come after - notably Oman, Sudan or Morocco [following suit] - that could potentially reframe the way the region views itself. And I do think there is a certain amount of pressure on Qatar right now to think about whether it wants to follow suit."

For now, however, the only winner to the three-year Gulf spat has been the lobbying ecosystem centred on K Street, the area in downtown Washington DC where many lawyers and advocacy groups have their offices. It's become a term to refer to the lobbying industry as a whole.

"To me, whenever anybody asks, who won the GCC spat... I think the answer is simple: K Street," Freeman said. 

"K Street won the battle over the Qatar blockade."