Amid an ongoing regional crisis, which has pitted Saudi Arabia and most other Persian Gulf states against the tiny nation of Qatar, a public relations arms race has unfolded in Washington as both sides attempt to woo the U.S. government and American media.
In the past year, Qatar has flooded D.C. with lobbying money, hiring numerous consulting firms to help it strengthen ties with the U.S. government amid the Gulf crisis.
That PR rivalry culminated last week with the inaugural U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, an annual series of bilateral meetings between high-level U.S. and Qatari officials in Washington — as well as the launch of a new Qatar-linked think tank.
The think tank, the Gulf International Forum, launched on Feb. 1 with a luncheon at the National Press Club. The vice chairman of the state-linked Qatar Press Center spoke on a panel at the event; a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Patrick Theros, serves as an advisor to the organization.
Director Dania Thafer, who holds a master’s degree in political economy from New York University and is originally from Kuwait, said the organization is independent and does not receive funding directly from the Qatari government but that it does receive money from organizations that are themselves funded by the government.
“One of the things we’ve seen over the past year is a proliferation of these ‘think tanks’ that are clearly being funded by governments that are pushing a particular line,” said a Washington-based Middle East analyst who asked to speak on condition of anonymity.
The Arabia Foundation, a think tank close to the Saudi government, was founded in 2017. A similar organization, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, is close to the Emirati government and was launched in 2015.
After Gulf nations began their campaign to isolate Qatar in June 2017, the beleaguered nation retained seven U.S. lobbying firms and dished out almost $5 million on PR campaigns relating to the Gulf crisis, according to records filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Saudi Arabia has alleged that Qatar supports terrorist groups, though analysts say the blockade is more likely an attempt by Riyadh to enforce discipline among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Qatar has at times marched to the beat of its own drum, hosting members of the Muslim Brotherhood and refusing to break ties with Iran after a major diplomatic falling-out between Tehran and Riyadh saw most GCC countries cut relations with their northern neighbor.
Qatar’s influential state-funded news agency Al Jazeera also now regularly criticizes Saudi Arabia and Egypt — but not Doha itself.
That influx of cash may have paid off last week, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis both attended the dialogue along with their Qatari counterparts.
The two sides signed a number of bilateral agreements, including several on civil aviation, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity. “It was a strong message to the Qataris, but it was also a strong message to the blockading countries that our relationship is not going to change,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy.
Doha faces a serious opponent. Saudi Arabia has long poured resources into D.C. influence campaigns. Between 2015 and 2017, Saudi Arabia expanded the number of foreign agents it hired from 25 to 145, spending more than $18 million on lobbying. Riyadh has also funded a number of U.S. religious institutions and Middle East studies departments at U.S. universities, while Qatar has arrived later to the game.
“Many vacation homes will be built on the back of the money that is being spent in this town on this issue,” said Gerald Feierstein, the director for Gulf affairs at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. The think tank has received large donations from both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as smaller gifts from Qatar and Oman.
Saudi efforts bore fruit when, at the outset of the diplomatic crisis last year, U.S. President Donald Trump took a hard-line stance backing the Saudi leadership and its decision to crack down on Doha. But now, a determined Doha lobby and a series of Saudi diplomatic missteps have started to shift the Trump administration’s stance toward Qatar.
“From a purely PR standpoint, [the Qataris] are more clever than the Saudis,” said Jean-François Seznec, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“They are presenting a more open image, an image of cultural openness, which the Saudis until lately did not have,” said Seznec, referring to recent reforms such as fighting corruption and allowing Saudi women to drive.
The Trump administration was initially interested in pressing the Saudi case against Qatar more forcefully, according to some U.S. officials, but eventually grew frustrated with Riyadh. The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen, the quasi-detention of Lebanon’s prime minister in Riyadh, and the messy corruption crackdown lead by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman helped tip the scales.
Now, said one State Department official who asked to remain anonymous, “the gap between the White House and the State Department has certainly narrowed to where I think we’re more on the same page.”
In other words, Doha’s PR campaign appears to be working.
“The Qataris have the better part argument over the past seven to eight months, but that’s because the Saudis and the Emiratis have not been very effective at making their case,” Feierstein said. “Initially, they were unable to even articulate what it was that they were even demanding.”
Qatar’s moves to expand the U.S. military’s Al-Udeid Air Base — the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command — likely helped as well. “The military, for reasons that are understandable, gets the importance of Al-Udeid,” said Dennis Ross, a former senior U.S. diplomat and current fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They haven’t wanted to do anything that would call into question both our ability to use the base and Qatar’s financing of it.”
Ross, however, was still suspicious of the current Qatari position. “Their support for the base is important, but it shouldn’t be a get-out-of-jail-free card for them,” he told FP. “I think this is much more about trying to create a climate of opinion.”