A Qatari exile, a spin war, and a 'cack-handed' push for a coup
It is fronted by an unknown 29-year-old exile, supported by obscure British royalists and promoted by Bill Clinton's former spin doctor. But a Qatari opposition conference in London this week has been described as a "cack-handed" attempt at promoting a coup, and a farcical sideshow in an information war raging across the Gulf.
The Qatar, Global Security & Stability Conference, organised by Qatari businessman Khalid al-Hail, has itself faced unproven claims by an apparently fake London-based PR firm and Al Jazeera Arabic that Hail is a shill for the UAE.
A remarkably cack-handed attempt to gather support for a coup
- Nicholas McGeehan, former HRW researcher
The conference, to take place at an undisclosed luxury hotel on Thursday, is being supported by the founder of the British Monarchist Society and Foundation, backing its call for a "true approach to democracy, human rights, press freedom and counter-terrorism in Qatar".
The event comes amid a months-long battle between Qatar and a Saudi-led quartet of Arab states, which insists Doha supports terrorism and has attempted to usurp sovereign governments. It has been promoted heavily in Saudi Arabian and UAE media.
According to its website, the conference will bring together policy-makers, academics, journalists and Qatari exiles to discuss the rise of a constitutional monarchy in Qatar, where political parties are currently banned and the hereditary emir is all-powerful.
The new emir of Qatar?
Hail, who says he is the event's sole funder, is presented by organisers as the founder of the "Qatar National Democratic Party", or QNDP, which supports "regime change".
He is described as a member of one of Qatar's "founding families" and is a "distant cousin of the current emir" who escaped in 2014 after being tortured for 22 days.
He is understood to split his time between London and Monaco, his friends call him "the sheikh" and he is said to be worth a "considerable sum".
However, records at Companies House show the 29-year-old has been involved in a string of short-lived technology and media companies during his time in London.
Hail is close to Thomas Mace-Archer-Mills, the founder of British Monarchist Society and Foundation, and its secretary, Dame Mervyn Redding.
City of London documents show Redding supported Hail's 2016 application to be granted the Freedom of the City of London, a ceremonial feudal role dating back to the 12th century.
The British monarchists
Both Mace-Archer-Mills and Redding joined Hail as directors of Orb and Sceptre Communications Ltd, a now dissolved PR firm which registered the website for the Qatar opposition conference last November.
Royal consultant Mace-Archer-Mills, who filmed a documentary series with Hail and says he is an adviser to the Serbian royal family, told MEE that he was introduced to Hail by a "lobbyist".
He added that Orb and Sceptre was founded with Hail to support the British Monarchist Society and Foundation's in-house magazine, but was never used.
Mace-Archer-Mills said that Hail was "very much a successful entrepreneur" and comes from "an established family in Qatar".
He also said that Hail is close to Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, the owner of Lyon-based news channel Euronews, who has called for Arab businessmen who have a "conscience" to disinvest from Qatar.
He told CNN: "I am not only calling on Egyptian businessmen, I am calling on all Arab businessmen who don't want to be supporting a country that has been supporting all terrorist groups in our area, their hands are full of blood."
What is certain is that Hail has retained the services of several public relations heavyweights, including Jason Nisse, an ex-newspaper journalist and former director at Newgate Communications, a public relations firms with offices in Abu Dhabi and substantial Middle East business links.
Hail has also retained the services of Steve Rabinowitz of Bluelight Strategies in Washington.
The US spin doctor
Rabinowitz, who has travelled to London this week, was director of media planning in the White House under Bill Clinton and is seen as a Washington insider and key player in the Democratic party.
Rabinowitz, the founder of Jews for Progress, a pro-Israel fundraising committee to support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, recently told Haaretz: "Qatar has its own billion-dollar world-wide whitewash, I mean PR effort, that includes its own television network.
"Half a million dollars a year to court American Jews is chump change - and we Jews are the chumps if we buy any of it."
A source close to Nisse and Rabinowitz said they were "dedicated practically full-time" to the Qatar event, and that they had "looked closely" at the businessman before agreeing to represent him and saw no signs of "outside money".
The 'fake' PR firm
Organisers have yet to publish a list of speakers, and agenda or even a venue, but the event has already faced criticism from the Qatari-owned news channel, Al Jazeera Arabic, which claimed it was funded by the UAE.
The event has also been attacked by a fake London PR firm calling itself the London Centre for Public Affairs, or LCPA.
The firm boasts a bogus address, false phone number and isn't registered with the official UK Lobbying Register.
Its website was registered by Identity Protect Limited, a west London-based firm offering online privacy solutions.
On Monday, the seemingly fake PR firm released a report suggesting that the UAE Journalists Association had been supporting the "controversial anti-Qatar conference".
The LCPA group has previously warned British media to be "vigilant" of the "UAE-sponsored conference".
MEE has contacted the UAE embassy in London for comment.
The 'Honourable Member for Saudi Arabia'
Thursday's event will be attended by Daniel Kawczynski, a Conservative MP who has previously been dubbed the "Honourable Member for Saudi Arabia" for his unwavering support of the oil-rich kingdom, which has led the blockade against Qatar.
But, in an interview with MEE, the backbencher distanced himself from the controversial conference. He said: "It's not quite accurate to say I am backing the event. I am attending it and speaking at it.
"I have afforded the Qatari government three occasions to give their appearance and now I am going to a conference to hear what opponents of the regime have to say in terms of human rights, but also as equally importantly, the allegations about funding of terrorism."
It's not quite accurate to say I am backing the event. I am attending it and speaking at it
- Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP
Kawczynski has now also been caught up in the war of words over the event after a press release issued by the London Centre for Public Affairs claimed that the outfit had written to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee over the MP's role in the conference.
This was picked up and reported by media across the Middle East and on social media, but Kawczynski told MEE that the online attack against him showed that the individuals behind the fake PR firm did not understand parliamentary democracy.
"And frankly their information is out of date. I no longer sit on that committee."
Kawczynski added that he still planned to attend the conference on Thursday, as he "knows very little about the Qatari opposition".
Chris Doyle, director for the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told MEE that he turned down an invitation to attend the event, which he described as "borderline farcical" and risking fuelling the "fantasy" of a coup inside Qatar.
He said: "Open and serious debate about any state in the region is all very welcome, but it would also be welcome to see a greater degree of transparency over who is organising and funding this and for what specific purpose."
It would also be welcome to see a greater degree of transparency
- Chris Doyle, director of CAABU
Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf specialist and former researcher for Human Rights Watch, told MEE that the conference appeared to be a "a remarkably amateurish and cack-handed attempt to gather support for a coup in Qatar".
"The UAE and Saudi Arabia are known for spending millions on sophisticated public relations campaigns to further their agendas," he said.
"This looks like it was cobbled together at the last minute."