Gregg Roman, director of the Middle East Forum, spoke to a November 14th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the impact of Qatar's influence operations on U.S. foreign policy.
Roman said Qatar's bid for the 2022 World Cup, which it succeeded in securing, is "mired in controversy" due to the practices it employed in 2009 and 2010 to defeat America's bid to host the event. The World Cup controversy exposed Qatar's modus operandi. Subsequently, after the Garcia Report's investigation in 2014 into FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football [soccer] Association) corruption, the investigation resulted in two Department of Justice (DOJ) indictments of FIFA's selection and bidding process. FIFA is the prestigious governing body of the sport. Questions arose regarding the selection of Qatar, given their dismal human rights record and other malign acts surrounding their bid. Indictments alleged that improprieties were committed by Americans and foreign nationals who influenced the process on Qatar's behalf.
The report contained revelations of corruption, in which FIFA officials from a Qatari government agency, the Committee for Supreme Legacy and Delivery, paid bribes in 2009 and 2010. Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Tamim, instructed the committee to secure the 2022 World Cup's winning bid. Comprising three Qatari agents related to the Emir, the committee was tasked with employing Qatar's ample resources from its lucrative gas-production revenues to accomplish two priorities as part of Qatar's National Vision 2030. First, cultivate tourism by converting Qatar Airlines into a major transport hub; and second, ensure that Qatar's capital, Doha, would become "a center for global sport."
Qatar has invested $200 billion in its infrastructure since FIFA's decision to award it the World Cup 2022. Although the massive investment is recognized as part of Qatar's three-decade quest to "gain outsize influence beyond the country's size and global politics" and become "the top Arab country in the Middle East," Roman said it is intended to "distract others from their sponsorship of terrorism, their violation of labor rights, and their general misconduct globally." In order for the Qatari committee to "push their bid over the finish line," the three Qatari agents engaged "lobbyists, foreign agents, spies, and national security-oriented individuals" to facilitate their influence campaign. Some of those individuals previously worked for U.S. government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
In 2010, the committee authorized a second round of bribes to buy the silence of FIFA members who voted in Qatar's favor. An Associated Press (AP) article disclosed that a U.S. firm, Global Risk Associates (GRA), headed by Kevin Chalker, a former CIA operative, was allegedly involved in a $375 million "dirty tricks campaign" on behalf of Qatar to secure the World Cup 2022. The FBI's investigation alleges GRA engaged in spying on U.S. citizens to obtain "advanced intelligence" and sideline America's bid in order to give Qatar "the upper hand" in the bidding process. Roman said this is "worrying" because it is "not an isolated incident." Qatar cultivates individuals and American firms to act on its behalf to influence U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
In 2017, Qatar upped the ante after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Gulf Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia, boycotted Qatar, issuing a list of demands for the member state to reform its "malign behavior." In response, the Emir mobilized the same three Qatari nationals he had tasked with securing the World Cup 2022 bid. However, in this instance, the aim was to convince Qatar's allies in the U.S. to help lift the GCC blockade. The committee's strategy was to approach the White House, Congress, and "influential constituencies" that the Qataris thought held sway over the government's decision-making policies. Thus, three lobbyists were hired to "spread Qatari monies" to American Jewish and pro-Israel organizations in the U.S. The lobbyists invited them to come to Doha with the aim of engaging their support for Qatar's cause. Roman said that despite Qatar's established history of sponsoring Hamas and other terrorist groups throughout the Mideast, its connections to Hezbollah, its close relations with Tehran, and its state-owned Al Jazeera network's incitement against Israel, the Qatari government believed it could "convince" Jewish American leaders that Doha "was somehow friendly to American Jewish interests."
In addition to Qatar's "malign activities" in Europe and the U.S., its human rights abuses and malign labor practices have resulted in the deaths of thousands of workers who built the World Cup facilities. Despite these abuses, the lobbyists redoubled their efforts to convince the U.S. Congress that Qatar was "vital to American national security interests." Roman said that there were also allegations that Qatar's committee of three were responsible for "trying to undermine Americans who were against Qatar." In the early days of the Trump administration, Qatar was condemned as a state sponsor of terrorism, but by the end of Trump's term, the intense lobbying effort by the Gulf state had convinced the administration that Qatar was a nation "the U.S. could do business with." The Biden administration went even further in its first year, conferring upon Qatar the status of "a major non-NATO ally."
Roman was critical of foreign powers who use unregistered American agents to influence U.S. foreign policy for the benefit of these powers, describing these as "very much to our country's detriment." The Middle East Forum has investigated Qatar's sponsorship of non-state activities and found that the Gulf nation has spent "billions of dollars" through its Eid Foundation and its Qatar Foundation International to underwrite global Islamist organizations. A lawsuit against Qatar's National Bank alleges it laundered money that funded the ISIS cell responsible for the executions of Steve Sotloff and journalist James Foley. Another lawsuit on behalf of terror victims and their families, including that of American citizen Taylor Force, was initiated against Qatar and its banks for allegedly funding Hamas, the Palestinian terror group that targets civilians.
Roman said that while one way of bringing Qatar and its lobbyists to account is through litigation, another is reminding American policymakers who "cast a pro-Qatari argument on Capitol Hill" that Qatar is a state sponsor of terrorism. Roman said that one such policymaker, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), has attracted over $1 billion of Qatari investment to his state's industries. One of these companies — Barzan Aeronautical, which develops drones and military armaments — is owned by Barzan LLC in Delaware, a subsidiary of a German company, Barzan GmbH, which in turn is "wholly owned by the Qatari Ministry of Defense." In essence, this means that Qatar "has their own drone research and development facility in the middle of Charleston, South Carolina."
U.S. Central Command's Air Operations are located in Al-Udeid airbase in Qatar. Some U.S policymakers consider Qatar "a responsible interlocutor for America's interests in countries where we have no diplomatic presence." One such country is Afghanistan, where Qatar represents U.S. interests in the Taliban-led government. Ironically, the Taliban who held an American soldier (Bowe Bergdahl) hostage for years, negotiated his release in exchange for Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay. Upon their release, the Taliban prisoners were hosted in Qatar, living off Doha's largesse. One of the released prisoners rose to become the head of the Taliban and negotiated with the U.S. State Department during the Biden administration's 2021's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Roman said the Qatari emir's success in "silently" influencing America's foreign policy only reinforces his "confidence" that he can hire Americans to alter U.S. policies to benefit Qatar. Roman said that he would like to see the U.S. government indict any American working for the Qataris who is found in violation of American law. He also said that Qatar's agents "[need] to pay a price for their pernicious activities in the United States." He believes Qatar is "more of a threat to national security than they are a benefit," and maintains that the U.S. should relocate "American national security apparatus and infrastructure" in Qatar, such as the Al-Udeid airbase, to "more reliable allies" in the Gulf. Elected U.S. officials should "cut [Qatar] off at the knees and stop allowing it to have such a disproportionate amount of influence in ... American foreign policy decision-making."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.