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How the Qataris conquered DC while you were sleeping

Qatar’s charm offensive is part of a multi-faceted and strategic influence operation designed to further entangle the U.S. with this autocratic power.

The coronavirus has brought most industries in our nation’s capital to a screeching halt. DC’s celebrated restaurant scene is largely shuttered. The World Series champion Washington Nationals aren’t defending their title. Even the Beltway’s notorious traffic has disappeared.

But, one industry in DC is thriving: lobbying. As Politico explained, “the coronavirus pandemic has fueled a boom in business on K street.” Much of this surge in the influence industry has been driven by large businesses and associations vying to secure more than their fair share of the coronavirus stimulus packages. And, lobbyists for some foreign governments are taking full advantage of the pandemic too. But, they’re not looking to score government stimulus money; they’re looking to score goodwill during these bad times.

Lobbyists working for Qatar have, arguably, been at the forefront of this coronavirus charitable crusade. They’ve blasted out press releases about Qatar hosting a conference with high-level World Health Organization (WHO) officials in response to the pandemic. They alerted congressional staffers when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a letter to Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs thanking Qatar Airways for helping tens of thousands of Americans return home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Qatar has also been spreading money all over America for coronavirus relief. As COVID-19 cases continued to mount in April, Qatar made a $5 million donation to help families in Los Angeles. In a tweet in early May, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo thanked, “the government and people of Qatar…for your assistance in helping send critical supplies and for the donation of aid.” Even smaller cities, like Charleston, South Carolina, are receiving coronavirus relief money from the government of Qatar.

On its face, this might simply be seen as a friendly country helping out the U.S. in a time of need. That might certainly be true, and American communities are desperately in need of help, but this is only a portion of the story. This charm offensive is part of a multi-faceted and strategic Qatari influence operation designed to further entangle the U.S. with this autocratic power.

Qatar’s coronavirus campaign is the latest installment in a resurgent Qatari influence operation that began almost three years ago thanks, perhaps ironically, to the immense influence of another Middle East power — Saudi Arabia.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election the Saudis began courting Trump and were successful beyond their wildest dreams. This love affair between Trump and the Saudi regime culminated with Trump’s first trip abroad as president to Riyadh in May 2017. Just weeks later Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a host of other countries launched a blockade of Qatar and had the full backing of the American president. As is the president’s way when expressing his views on all delicate foreign policy matters, Trump took to Twitter to declare his support for the Saudi faction. With the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also allegedly “in the pocket” of future Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Qataris found themselves completely outmatched in the influence game in DC. So, they did what many countries now do when faced with an international crisis involving the U.S. — they hired an army of lobbyists.

As documented in a recently released report that I authored, “The Qatar Lobby in Washington,” after the blockade began in 2017, the Qatari government vastly expanded the number of Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) registered firms working for them. They started just days after the blockade began by bringing on the law firm of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, with a whopping $2.5 million contract for just the first ninety days of work. Later in 2017 they added more Republican fire-power via Stonington Strategies, headed by Nick Muzin, who previously worked on Trump’s presidential campaign. Muzin’s strategy for getting the president off the Saudi’s side was simple: influence those who influence him, most notably Fox News. Muzin and Stonington ultimately targeted around 250 Trump influencers on behalf of Qatar, even paying for them to go on all-expenses-paid trips to Doha. Fox News commentator and former Governor Mike Huckabee, who went on one such trip tweeted, “Just back from a few days in surprisingly beautiful, modern, and hospitable Doha, Qatar.”

Needless to say, the lobbying blitz worked. On April 10, 2018, less than a year after the blockade began and Trump accused the Qatari government of financing terrorism, Trump met with the Emir of Qatar in the Oval office and described him as a “great gentleman.” The Emir, in an Orwellian historical rewrite, thanked the president for, “supporting us during this blockade.”

And, the Qatar lobby was far from done. By the end of 2018, Qatar had more than two dozen FARA registered firms on their payroll, according to our analysis of all the FARA filings made by firms working on behalf of Qatar. They had also contacted nearly two-thirds of all members of Congress and made campaign contributions to 59 of those members, sometimes on the exact same day they met with them.

Even this extraordinary influence operation is just the tip of the iceberg of Qatar’s influence in America. The Qataris are one of the top donors to DC think tanks — the Brookings Institution alone receives more than $2 million annually from Qatar. And, never mind what you’ve heard about Chinese influence on campus, Qatar is, by far, the leading foreign donor to American Universities, outspending China more than two-to-one.

The Qataris are also major investors in DC real estate. Qatar invested more than $600 million to become the primary owner of the gleaming City Center in the heart of DC and has since purchased other prominent real estate around town. Most recently, in April, the Embassy of the State of Qatar bought the historic Hollerith House in Georgetown for $17.75 million, the most expensive home purchased in the nation’s capital since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos dropped $22 million on a DC home in 2017. And, the recent coronavirus donations follow a long-track record of Qatar making charitable donations in the U.S., like providing $30 million in grants to help Texas recover from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

Perhaps most importantly, Qatar has amassed this extraordinary influence operation extremely quietly. While the Saudi lobby has garnered all the wrong headlines — particularly given the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and their devastating war in Yemen — Qatar has flown under the radar, while dramatically increasing its ties to the U.S. For example, the Al-Udeid military base — that is already home to more U.S. troops than and base in the Middle East — is expanding and trade between the U.S. and Qatar grew by a remarkable 35 percent in 2019.

But, is this good for U.S. foreign policy? Qatar certainly appears less volatile than their mercurial Saudi and Emirati neighbors who seem intent on continuing their disastrous war in Yemen and doing all they can to drag the U.S. into what would be an even more disastrous war with Iran. But, make no mistake, Qatar is still an authoritarian regime with a terrible human rights record.

Most importantly, the resurgence in U.S. ties with Qatar didn’t happen because it was good foreign policy, it happened because U.S. foreign policy is for sale. And, so long as U.S. Middle East policy continues to be determined by the highest bidder, we should continue to expect U.S. foreign policy to be of little benefit to the U.S.

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