How a behind-the-scenes bare-knuckle brawl shaped US foreign policy under Trump
It was a bare-knuckle brawl of the first order. It took place in Washington, D.C., and it resulted in a KO. The winners? Lobbyists and the defense industry. The losers? Us. 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 in 2017 was the foreign-policy equivalent of a sucker punch. On the morning of June 5th, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain announced that 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 United Arab Emirates, 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 Donald Trump’s then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson).
To make sense of this now three-year-old conflict, which turned aspects of American policy in the Middle East ranging from the war in Yemen to the more than 10,000 American military personnel stationed in Qatar into political footballs, 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 U.S. capital that would have made Rocky envious.
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. 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 Republican-controlled Congress. The Saudis and Emiratis were no exception. In 2016, both countries had reported spending a little more than $10 million on FARA registered lobbying firms. By the end of 2017, UAE spending had nearly doubled to $19.5 million, while the Saudi’s had soared to $27.3 million.
In the months following Donald Trump’s November triumph, the Saudis, for instance, added several firms with ties to him or the Republicans to an already sizeable list of companiesregistered under FARA as representing their interests. 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 his administration. To court the Republican Congress, they hired the McKeon Group, run by former Republican Representative Buck McKeon, who had previously served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
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 Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) 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 just two days after the conference ended.
Qatar, mind you, had been a U.S. 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 long-time 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 Democracies.)
While that anti-Qatar crusade was ramping up in Washington, the president himself 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 unanswered.
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. Just two days after the blockade began, for instance, they inked a deal with the law firm of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, paying $2.5 million for just its first 90 days of work.
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 months later.
In September 2017, the Qataris also hired Bluefront Strategies to craft a comprehensive multimedia operation, which was to include commercials on all the major 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 U.N. 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 U.N. meeting, President Trump actually sat down with Emir al-Thani 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 from Avenue Strategies went on the attack, using a powerful weapon in Washington politics: Israel. He distributed aletter 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 it had.
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 we work. Ultimately, HR 2712 died a slow death in Congress and never became law.
The Saudi Bloc’s Battle for the 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 (I-VT) introduced a joint resolution to withdraw U.S. 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 Mohammed bin Salman himself. 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’s 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 ongoing war. 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 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 aletter 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 register.” According to FARA filings, all but one of those 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 10th, President Trump again described al-Thani as a “friend” and a “great gentleman” as well. The emir, in turn, thanked the president 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 CIA later confirmed that the crown prince himself had ordered that Saudi citizen’s assassination at the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
As a result, some lobbying firmscut 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 Emirates).
Given the president’s unyielding support for the Saudis and Emiratis as especially lucrative customers for this country’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 coopting 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. They 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 U.S. as they stumbled from one public relations fiasco to the next. Even their staunchest defender, Donald Trump, recently threatened to sever U.S. 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’s been America. After all, the efforts of both sides to deepen their ties with the military-industrial complex (reinforcing the hyper-militarization of U.S. foreign policy) and increase their sway in Congress have ensured that the real interests of this country 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 andSyria, 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 U.S. foreign policy should be driven by national -- not special -- interests.
Morgan Palumbo is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.
Jessica Draper is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative and Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
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Copyright 2020 Morgan Palumbo and Jessica Draper