Gulf state lobbying efforts show that US foreign policy
for the Middle East is driven more by special than
By Morgan Palumbo and Jessica Draper
June 13, 2020 "Information
Clearing House" - It was a bare-knuckle brawl
of the first order. It took place in Washington, DC, and
it resulted in a KO. The winners? Lobbyists and the
defense industry. The loser? The United States. And,
odds on, you didn’t even know that it happened.
Few Americans did, which is why it’s worth telling
the story of how Saudi, Emirati and Qatari money flooded
the nation’s capital and, in the process, American
policy went down for the count.
The fight began three years ago this month. Sure, the
pugilists hadn’t really liked each other that much
before then, but what happened was the foreign-policy
equivalent of a sucker punch.
On the morning of June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the
United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain announced they
were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, the small but
wealthy emirate in the Persian Gulf, and establishing a
land, air and sea blockade of their regional rival,
purportedly because of its ties to terrorism.
The move stunned the Qataris, who responded in
ways that would later become familiar during the
Covid-19 pandemic – by emptying supermarket shelves and
hoarding essentials they worried would quickly run out.
Their initial fears were not unwarranted, as their
neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were even reported
to be planning to
launch a military invasion of Qatar in the weeks to
come, one that would be thwarted only by the strong
objections of the US secretary of state at the time, Rex
To make sense of this now three-year-old conflict,
which made political footballs out of aspects of US
policy in the Middle East ranging from the war in Yemen
to the more than 10,000 American military personnel
stationed in Qatar, means refocusing on Washington and
the extraordinary influence operations the Saudis,
Emiratis and Qataris ran there.
That, in turn, means analyzing Foreign Agents
Registration Act (FARA) documents filed by firms
representing all three countries since the spat began.
Do that and you’ll come across a no-punches-barred
bout of lobbying in the US capital that would have made
The Saudis come out swinging
The stage had been set for the blockade of Qatar
seven months before it began when Donald Trump was
elected president of the United States. Just as his
victory shocked the American public, so it caught many
foreign governments off guard.
In response, they quickly sought out the services of
anyone with ties to the incoming administration and the
The Saudis and Emiratis were no exception. In 2016,
both countries had reported spending
a little more than US$10 million on FARA-registered
lobbying firms. By the end of 2017, UAE spending had
nearly doubled to $19.5 million, while the Saudis’ had
soared to $27.3 million.
In the months following Donald Trump’s November
election triumph, the Saudis, for instance, added
several firms with ties to him or the Republicans to an
already sizable list of companies
registered under FARA as representing their
For example, they brought on the CGCN
Group, whose president and chief policy officer,
Michael Catanzaro, was on Trump’s transition team and
then served in
To court the Republican Congress, they hired the
McKeon Group, run by
former Republican congressman Buck McKeon, who had
previously served as chairman of the House Armed
And that was just registered foreign agents. A number
of actors who had not registered under FARA were
actively pushing the Saudi and Emirati agendas, chief
among them Elliott Broidy and George Nader.
Broidy, a top fundraiser for Trump’s campaign, and
Nader, his business partner, already had a wide range
of interests in
both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To help secure them, the
two men embarked on a campaign to turn the new president
and the Republican establishment against Qatar.
One result was a Broidy-inspired, UAE-funded
anti-Qatar conference hosted
in May 2017 by a prominent Washington think-tank, the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It conveniently
offered Republican congressman Ed Royce a platform to discuss his
plans to introduce a bill, HR 2712, that would label
Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism. It was to be introduced in
the House of Representatives only two days after the
Qatar, mind you, had been a US ally in the Middle
East and was the home of Al Udeid Air Base, where more
than 10,000 American soldiers are still stationed. So
that bill represented a striking development in
American-Qatari relations and was a clearly traceable
result of Saudi and UAE lobbying efforts.
The unregistered influence of players like Broidy and
Nader was evidently backed by other FARA-registered
Saudi and UAE foreign agents actively pushing the bill.
For example, Qorvis Communications, a longtime public
relations mouthpiece for the Saudis, circulated a document titled
“Qatar’s History of Funding Terrorism and Extremism,”
claiming that country was funding al-Nusra, Hamas, the
Muslim Brotherhood and other groups. (Not surprisingly,
it included a supportive quote from David Weinberg, a
senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of
While that anti-Qatar crusade was ramping up in
Washington, the president was being wooed by the Saudi
royals in Riyadh on his first official trip abroad. They
gave him the literal royal treatment and
their efforts appeared to pay off when, just a day after
the blockade began, Trump tweeted:
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that
there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology.
Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”
A week after the imposition of the blockade, the
Emirati ambassador to the United States, Yousef
al-Otaiba, wrote a Wall
Street Journal op-ed calling for Al Udeid Air Base to be
moved to the UAE, a development the Qataris feared could
open the door for an eventual invasion of their country.
However, this Saudi and Emirati onslaught did not go
Qatar strikes back
Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, was
caught flat-footed by the influence operations of the
Saudis and the United Arab Emirates.
The year before Donald Trump became president, the
Qataris had spent just $2.7 million on lobbying
and public relations firms, less than a third of what
the Saudis and UAE paid out, according to FARA records.
But they now moved swiftly to shore up their country’s
image as a crucial American ally.
They went on an instant hiring spree, scooping up
lobbying and public-relations firms with close ties to
Trump and congressional Republicans. Only two days after
the blockade began, for instance, they signed a deal with
the law firm of former US attorney general John
Ashcroft, paying $2.5 million for just its first 90 days
They also quickly obtained the services of Stonington
Strategies. Headed by Nick Muzin, who had worked on
Trump’s election campaign, the firm promptly set out to
court 250 Trump “influencers,” as Julie Bykowicz of
the Wall Street Journal reported.
Among others, Stonington’s campaign sought to woo
prominent Fox News personalities Trump paid special
attention to like former Arkansas governor Mike
Huckabee. He was paid $50,000 to travel to Qatar just
In September 2017, the Qataris also hired Bluefront
Strategies to craft a comprehensive multimedia
operation, which was to include commercials on all the
major US news networks, as well as digital and printed
ads in an array of prominent publications, and a “Lift
the Blockade” campaign on social media.
Meanwhile, ads on Google and YouTube
were to highlight the illegality of the blockade and the
country’s contributions to fighting terrorism.
Bluefront Strategies was to influence public opinion
before the next session of the UN General Assembly that
month. Qatar and its proxies then used the campaign “to
target key decision-makers attending the General
Assembly, including Trump” to gain support on that most
global of stages.
Its agents weren’t just playing defense, either. They
actively attacked the Saudi lobby. For example, Barry
Bennett of Avenue Strategies, a PR firm they hired, sent
a letter to
the assistant attorney general for national security
accusing Saudi Arabia and the Saudi American Public
Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) of FARA violations
in their funding of an expensive media campaign meant
to connect Qatar’s
leaders with violent extremism and acts of terror.
Such counterpunches proved remarkably successful.
SAPRAC eventually felt obliged to
register with FARA. Meanwhile, Huckabee tweeted:
“Just back from a few days in surprisingly beautiful,
modern, and hospitable Doha, Qatar.”
Finally, at that UN meeting, President Trump
actually sat down
with Emir Tamim of Qatar and said:
“We’ve been friends a long time … I have a very strong
feeling [the Qatar diplomatic crisis] will be solved
quickly.” They both then emphasized the “tremendous” and
“strong” relationship between their countries.
The Qataris next mounted a concerted defense against
HR 2712. Lobbying firms they hired, particularly Avenue
Strategies and Husch Blackwell, launched a multifaceted campaign to
prevent that legislation from passing. Elliott Broidy
even claimed in a lawsuit that
the Qatari government and several of its lobbyists had
hacked his email account and distributed private emails
of his to members of Congress in an attempt to discredit
his work for the Saudis.
In November 2017, Barry Bennett of Avenue Strategies
went on the attack, using a powerful weapon in
Washington politics: Israel. He distributed a
letter to members of Congress written by a former
high-ranking official in the Israeli national-security
establishment explicitly stating that Qatar had not
provided military support to Hamas, as HR 2712 claimed
Three months later, Husch Blackwell all but threatened Congress
and the Trump administration with the cancellation of a
$6.2 billion Boeing contract to sell F-15 fighters to
the Qatari military (and the potential loss of thousands
of associated jobs) if the bill passed and sanctions
were imposed on that country.
All of this was linked to a concerted effort by
Qatari agents to contact “nearly
two dozen House offices, including then House majority
leader Kevin McCarthy,” to prevent the bill’s passage,
according to a report by
the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the
Center for International Policy where the writers of
this article work.
Ultimately, HR 2712 died a slow death in Congress and
never became law.
The Saudi war in Yemen
Just as Qatar started to turn the tide in the fight
for influence in Washington, the Saudis and their allies
faced another problem: Congress began moving to sever
support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. On February 28,
2018, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a joint resolution to
withdraw US support for that war.
According to FARA filings,
Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, representing the
Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contacted several
members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,
particularly Democrats, presumably to persuade them to
vote against the measure.
That March, the firm sent out dozens of emails to
members of Congress, inviting them to a gala dinner with
the key Saudi royal, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
According to the invitation from
the CGCN Group, another FARA-registered firm
representing the Saudis, the “KSA [Kingdom of Saudi
Arabia]-USA Partnership Gala Dinner,” was to emphasize
the “enduring defense and counter-terrorism cooperation”
and “historic alliance” between the two countries. It
would end up taking place just two days after the
Senate voted to
table Sanders’ bill.
Emirati lobbyists similarly reached out
to Congress to maintain support for their role in that
war. Hagir Elawad & Associates, for example, distributed
an op-ed written
by the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs
justifying the war, as well as a letter written
by that country’s ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, to 50
congressional contacts defending the Saudi-led
coalition’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties and
arguing that “the United States has a clear stake in the
coalition’s success in Yemen.”
When that conflict began, Qatar was still a member of
the coalition, but the imposition of the blockade led it
to withdraw its forces from Yemen. Qatari officials
then used the
country’s media empire, centered on the broadcaster Al
Jazeera, to highlight the disastrous aspects of the
In doing so, they provided the Saudis and Emiratis
with yet another reason to focus their own influence
machines on both Qatar’s and Al Jazeera’s destruction.
(That network’s closure was, in fact, one of the
original 13 demands the
Saudis and Emiratis had made for lifting the blockade.)
From the moment it was founded in 1996, Al Jazeera
had been an instrument of Qatari soft power, so it was
hardly surprising that the UAE had long pressured
members of the US Congress to force the network to
register under FARA as a foreign agent. And Emirati
lobbying efforts were not in vain.
In early March 2018, 19 members of Congress signed
and sent a
letter to then-attorney general Jeff Sessions urging
the Justice Department to demand that Al Jazeera be
registered under FARA. Another such
letter sent to the Justice Department in June 2019 by
six senators and two representatives asked “why Al
Jazeera and its employees have not been required to
According to FARA filings,
all but one of those congressional representatives had
either received campaign contributions from or been
contacted by a Saudi or Emirati lobbying firm. Al
Jazeera, however, has yet to register.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Despite the efforts of Saudi and Emirati lobbyists in
the early months of 2018, the emir of Qatar still
managed to land an invitation to the Oval Office. At
their meeting that
April 10, Trump again described Tamim as a “friend” and
a “great gentleman” as well. The emir, in turn, thanked
Trump for “supporting us during this blockade.”
If Trump’s cozying up to him was a setback for the
Saudis, the murder of critic and Washington
Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi nearly did
in the Saudi lobbying juggernaut as
well. The US Central Intelligence Agency later confirmed that
the crown prince himself had ordered that Saudi
citizen’s assassination at the country’s consulate in
As a result, some lobbying firms
cut ties with the kingdom and its influence on
Capitol Hill waned,
as did positive public opinion about
Saudi Arabia. In December 2018, the Senate passed the
Sanders bill to end support for the war in Yemen.
Both houses of Congress also passed a War
Powers resolution to end involvement in that
conflict, a historic congressional move in this century,
even if later vetoed by
President Trump (as were a series of attempts to block his
treasured arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab
Given Trump’s unyielding support for the Saudis and
Emiratis as especially lucrative
customers for America’s defense industry, the
Qataris have clearly decided to crib the Saudi playbook.
In May, that country purchased 24
Apache helicopters for $3 billion and, a few months
later, agreed to pay for
and manage a $1.8 billion expansion of Al Udeid Air Base
to ensure the American military’s continued presence for
the foreseeable future. In doing so, Qatar was visibly
at work co-opting two of the most powerful lobbies in
Washington: the military and the weapons makers.
And the winners are …
Though Qatar faced a near-existential threat to its
survival when the blockade began, three years later it’s
not only surviving, but thriving thanks significantly to
its influence operations in Washington. The Qataris have
helped immeasurably to deepen economic,
diplomatic and military relations
between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the emir’s rivals in Riyadh not only
failed to make their blockade a success, but saw their
influence wane appreciably in the US as they stumbled
from one public relations fiasco to the next. Even their
staunchest defender, Donald Trump, recently threatened to
sever US military support for the kingdom if the Saudi
royals didn’t end their oil war with Russia (which they promptly did).
In truth, however, the real loser in this struggle
for influence hasn’t been Saudi Arabia or the Emiratis,
it has been the United States. After all, the efforts of
both sides to deepen their ties with the
military-industrial complex (reinforcing the
hyper-militarization of US foreign policy) and increase
their sway in Congress have ensured that the real
interests of the US played second fiddle to those of
Middle Eastern despots.
Certainly, their acts helped ensure near
historic levels of arms sales to the region, while
prolonging the wars in Yemen and
Syria, and so contributing to death and devastation
on an almost unimaginable scale.
None of this had anything to do with the real
interests of Americans, unless you mean the arms
industry and K Street lobbyists who have been the only
clear American winners in this never-ending PR war in
Washington. In the process, those three Persian Gulf
states have delivered a genuine knockout blow to the
very idea that US foreign policy should be driven by
national – not special – interests.
This article appeared previously at
TomDispatch. Read the original
Copyright 2020 Morgan Palumbo and Jessica Draper
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