In Charm Offensive, Qatar Pushes for a Comeback in Washington
Posted February 9, 2018 7:34 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — With a mix of lobbying, potential investment and pledged support for the U.S. military, Qatar’s charm offensive with the Trump administration appears to have paid off.
Last week, top Qatari officials were feted at a lavish reception and august think tank in Washington. A Qatari investment team met with Boeing executives at the company’s assembly plant in South Carolina. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson called Qatar “a strong partner and longtime friend.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis noted Qatar’s “long-standing support of America’s present and continuing commitment to regional security.”
It was a stark turnabout from eight months ago, when the tiny Gulf state was besieged by a Middle East embargo and President Donald Trump all but accused Qatar of fomenting terror.
The shift has infuriated Qatar’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to their representatives and allies. After engineering the continuing four-nation blockade in June, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi now quietly complain that Qatar has made no genuine changes but has simply improved its public relations. Officials at the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates Embassies in Washington declined to comment for this article.
Analysts said the reality was more complicated. “The Qataris made a better grade on counterterrorism and the Saudis overplayed their hand,” said Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, a former negotiator and Middle East analyst for the State Department. “And the combination of those two things meant we have restored balance in our relationships in the Gulf.”
Tillerson heads to the Middle East next week, where the growing U.S. tilt toward Qatar is likely to be on stark display. At a meeting in Kuwait to solicit investments and donations for Iraq’s reconstruction, the Qataris are expected to make a significant pledge of funds, according to a senior State Department official. But the Saudis, saddled with a costly war in Yemen, and Emiratis, long suspicious of Iraq’s Shiite-led government, are not expected to make similar pledges, said diplomats in the region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the funding assistance had not yet been announced.
Qatar’s foreign minister and defense minister led the delegation to Washington last week for the country’s first strategic dialogue with the United States — a diplomatic platform that the Trump administration has generally reserved for global heavyweights like China and India. Tillerson has been among Qatar’s chief supporters in the administration; he played a key role when he was at Exxon Mobile helping Qatar develop its vast gas field.
There are signs that Tillerson’s view now holds sway in the White House.
Since the summer, the Trump administration has become increasingly unnerved by Saudi moves to remove Lebanon’s prime minister, jail hundreds of princes and businessmen and prosecute a war in Yemen that has created a humanitarian disaster. Additionally, Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s one-time chief strategist who has close ties to the Emirates and has sharply criticized Qatar, is no longer at the White House.
Qatar, meanwhile, signed agreements with the United States for sharing information on terrorists and terrorist financing, fighting human trafficking and disclosing detailed financial information about its national airline. Last month, Trump called Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar and praised the nation for being “one of the few countries” to sign a counterterrorism agreement.
In his meetings last week, Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah said Qatar would upgrade living quarters for U.S. military personnel stationed at al-Udeid Air Base, which hosts nearly 10,000 American troops. The base, southwest of Doha, is the overseas headquarters for U.S. Central Command.
At the same time, Qatar has hired some of Washington’s most influential deal makers and now pays 21 lobbyists in Washington.
They include Nicolas D. Muzin, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who signed on in August for $50,000 per month and received $300,000 per month by December, according to records filed with the Justice Department. He has been booking prominent Jewish and conservative Americans on all-expense-paid trips to Doha to meet with the emir, who has denied claims that Qatar funds Hamas, a militant Islamic group the United States lists as a terrorist organization.
Congress is considering legislation to impose sanctions on countries that support Hamas. It specifically says Qatar “has for many years openly financed Hamas.” Alan Dershowitz, a prominent lawyer, called Qatar the “Israel of the Gulf States” after his meeting with the emir. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, that he decided to make the trip only after determining that, among American Jewish leaders, “everyone is already going.” The parade to Doha grew so large that Itai Bar Dov, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, issued a scolding. “We do not approve of these visits by the Jewish organizations to Qatar,” Dov said.
The Saudis and Emiratis have mobilized their own extensive lobbying network in Washington to push back against the Qataris, and a delegation of prominent American Jewish leaders is scheduled to fly soon to Abu Dhabi.
Officials on Capitol Hill say they have been inundated by competing lobbying teams. And the Saudis and Emiratis remain formidable players in Washington’s influence game, with the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, being one of the city’s most popular hosts. Otaiba declined to comment.
“Foggy Bottom might be rolling out the red carpet, but I don’t see any evidence the charm offensive is changing minds on Capitol Hill,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has aligned with the Saudi and Emirati view of the dispute.
Qatar has long shared a testy relationship with fellow Sunni Muslim nations Saudi Arabia and the UAE, largely because of Doha’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood. The regional neighbors also distrust the TV network Al-Jazeera, based in Doha, which has been critical of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. And Qatar’s relatively good relations with Shiite-majority Iran, with which it shares a vast gas field, has strained rapport with Saudi Arabia.
While the Trump administration has quietly suggested a summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Washington — which the State Department hopes will lead to ending the embargo against Qatar — the Saudis and Emiratis have expressed little interest. “The Emirati and Saudi view is, ‘We will wait the Qataris out. We can live this way for a very long time,'” Jon B. Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a phone interview from Abu Dhabi.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., is among the lawmakers asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to require Al-Jazeera to register as a foreign agent — a designation that could limit its access to U.S. officials and facilities. The congressional request, which has yet to be issued, follows a recent revelation that an undercover Al-Jazeera reporter secretly filmed pro-Israeli organizations in Washington.
“The Qataris have been bad actors,” he said.
That view was not widely shared in the Trump administration while the Doha delegation was in Washington.
Tillerson was the featured speaker at an elaborate reception the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosted for Qatari officials; it was a rare evening social appearance for the secretary of state. Then, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, was given a respectful audience at the American Enterprise Institute, one of Washington’s most prestigious conservative think tanks.
Several days later, top Qatari officials lunched at the Boeing assembly plant with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and the state’s governor, Henry McMaster. Qatar has invested billions of dollars in the United States, buying Miramax Studios in 2016 and a stake in the Empire State Building.
But risks remain for Qatar, especially as it works with the Trump administration, which views Iran as the region’s villain.
“The administration’s policy in the Middle East is moving from primarily an anti-ISIS approach to an anti-Iran one,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “And I’m not sure how well Qatar fits into that.”