With this year’s edition of the United Nations General Assembly in New York taking place over the previous week, one feature of the 2017 session that returned for this year’s gathering was the intensive amount of lobbying against a decision by six leading Arab states to boycott the state of Qatar for its alleged support for global terrorism and extremism.
Since the boycott began, Qatari lobbying outlays have skyrocketed, especially in the US. Qatar spent $16.3 million on US lobbying in 2017 and is on track to spend even more in 2018.
Qatar’s lobbying efforts this year have even included an attempt to win over “friends, associates, and well-placed admirers” of President Donald J. Trump directly. This featured outreach to approximately 250 figures in the Trump orbit seen as being able to influence the President, either directly or through his favourite medium, television. The figures engaged included former Presidential hopeful and Fox News host Mike Huckabee, as well as prominent lawyer and frequent Fox News contributor Alan Dershowitz.
Qatari lobbying in the US peaked during the General Assembly last year with an extensive campaign to “Lift the Blockade” spread across Times Square billboards, taxi cabs, and newspaper pages, as well as messaging targeting of the Jewish community, designed to assuage concerns over the Gulf nation’s past support for and housing of prominent Hamas militants, including the group’s leader, Khaled Mashal.
As the boycott shows no signs of conclusion, Qatar is expected to up its game to convince delegates that its plight is worthy of international sympathy.
Billboards have already begun appearing across New York calling for the condemnation of the Arab Coalition’s conduct in the conflict in Yemen, sponsored by a newly founded group called “Inside Arabia”. This group, which confusingly hosts a news-style internet portal and plans to launch a magazine, concurrently runs the aforementioned public relations campaign on Yemen.
On their website, they claim they are independent, but given the advertising campaign, which also includes New York city buses, they are most likely operating with support from a third-party backer.
Inside Arabia does not appear to be registered with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires foreign governments to register any activity in the United States, but entries can take up to six weeks to show publicly.
Qatar and Yemen
Qatar was heavily involved with the multi-national coalition to support the internationally-recognised government in Yemen, but switched sides following the commencement of the boycott and has since demonstrated sympathy towards the mostly Shiite Houthi rebels that are backed by Iran.
Trump was forced to roll-back his initial support for the boycotting states after intensive lobbying from the Qataris after reminding Trump of Doha’s investments into the US and focusing on the fact that Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Airbase, the US’ largest in the region and the home of the forward headquarters of United States’ Central Command as well as the UK’s Royal Air Force combat squadrons.
Attempts allegedly extend even to a substantial investment in rapper Ice Cube’s start-up basketball league, the Big3, which was intended to curry favour with Trump’s former chief White House adviser, Steve Bannon, and which subsequently ended in an acrimonious legal dispute.
In this nightmare of a public relations battle, watchdogs are also on the lookout for “shadow tactics” during the UNGA. During the visit of Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the UK earlier in the summer, a casting agency was publicly “exposed” for paying actors to fake protests against the Emir’s visit, placing blame upon the blockading countries. But in this Wild West of public relations, there have been suggestions that the group in question actually had or had links to the Qataris.
Qatar has worked hard to present itself as the underdog over the last year, boldly standing up against its more powerful regional neighbours and their unreasonable demands. However, more discreetly, it has rowed back on a number of key demands.
In March of this year, the country placed 28 people and entities on a new terrorism list. The list included several Qatari nationals accused of being financiers of the Islamist militant al-Nusra Front group fighting in Syria, as well as other foreign nationals who had already been blacklisted by much of the international community, including Qatar’s Gulf neighbours. Keen regional observers have also noted the change in the tone of coverage of Qatar’s state-financed Arabic news channel Al Jazeera.
Sources within the boycotting states are pleased to see these concessions but stress that Doha has a long way to go and fear that Qatar will immediately revert to old behaviours as soon as the spotlight moves elsewhere.
For the moment, Qatar’s hopes seem to be that its PR efforts to indirectly attack the boycotting states’ conflict in Yemen, will help peel supporters away from their rivals and shift focus from its own activities.