In 2017 the Gulf emirate of Qatar, home to a large US military base, found itself suddenly isolated by its neighbor Saudi Arabia and Riyadh's allies in the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Doha was worried about losing allies in Washington, especially in the Trump administration. So it set about recruiting lobbyists and allies who provided it with a list of 250 "Trump influencers," according to a new article.
At the same time people in Qatar were concerned that a documentary Al Jazeera had made in 2017, featuring footage from an undercover investigator supposedly exposing the "Israel lobby," might be used against Al Jazeera to force it to register as a "foreign agent." Now bits of that documentary have been leaked at the same time as the list of 250 influencers has come to light. Taken together the two incidents are embarrassing for the emirate and also show the lengths it went to in the US to find favor in Washington.
On August 29 The Wall Street Journal published a report that Qatar had "targeted 250 Trump 'influencers' to change US policy." The report covers some familiar names, such as New York restaurateur Joey Allaham and Nick Muzin, a former deputy chief of staff to US Sen. Ted Cruz. "Mr. Allaham's and Mr. Muzin's lobbying firms earned at least $3 million from their work for Qatar," the article says. Part of their strategy was to come up with the names "250 people Mr. Allaham says he and his lobbying-business partner, Nick Muzin, identified as influential in President [Donald] Trump's orbit." Qatar was going big in lobbying in 2017 to salvage its position in Washington, spending $16m.
Among the 250 influencers were two dozen who were sent on trips to Qatar, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, as well as Alan Dershowitz. Some of those targeted say they didn't know the reason for the trips. "If I had known their purpose with me was maybe to impact the president, I would not have gone," Dershowitz told the Journal. Huckabee got a "$50,000 honorarium" for the visit. The chief executive of Newsmax Media was also on the 250 list.
The list is interesting because it reveals new details of Qatar's lobbying effort. Last year it became clear that pro-Israel Jewish figures were prominent in the campaign by Qatar to repair its image. The reason for this has not been disclosed by Qatar or its lobbyists.
On Friday leaked portions of a documentary Al Jazeera made on the Israel lobby suddenly found their way to several media outlets.
Electronic Intifada published one clip. The documentary was made in 2017 but quietly shelved by Qatar during its crisis. Clayton Swisher, who played a key role at Al Jazeera directing the documentary, wrote an op-ed at The Forward in March wondering why the documentary hadn't run.
It "came at a time when, due to an arbitrary blockade on Qatar imposed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Qatar had been pursuing an end to its siege by appealing to the US. According to reports, Qatar sought to offer its own side of the narrative in this conflict by hosting thought leaders, including from the American Jewish community," Swisher wrote. He mentioned Dershowitz and noted that "American Jews had brought up what they saw as Al Jazeera's antisemitism in those meetings [in Doha]." In April the Zionist Organization of America took credit for convincing Qatar to "not allow the release of a viciously antisemitic Al Jazeera 'undercover' film series on the so-called 'American Jewish lobby.'"
The complex story is also linked to efforts to efforts in Congress to label Al Jazeera a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In March, Lee Zeldin, Josh Gottheimer and Ted Cruz led a bipartisan effort to investigate Al Jazeera. "Recent reports that the network's operatives secretly filmed American nonprofit organizations in Washington show the urgent need for an investigation to determine whether Al Jazeera undertook 'political activities' in the US and should register as a foreign agent," the representatives wrote. This letter was sent two days before Swisher's op-ed appeared in March, and weeks before the ZOA took credit for stopping the documentary.
As all these details become clear, including the new revelations about the 250 "influencers," Moscow-based RT has run an article claiming that the "suppression" of the "the documentary demonstrates the incredible power and influence wielded by the Israel lobby." The bizarre irony here is that it is Qatar that tapped into this "influence" and sought to bring "influencers" to Doha. Several of those influencers allegedly told the emirate to pull the documentary. Even though Al Jazeera denies that its content is directly vetted by the government, those who made the documentary claim it was censored.
It now appears Qatar targeted some Jewish Americans in its lobbying because Doha believed they were close to Trump. At the same time the documentary was canceled and some of those who Qatar had cultivated as "influencers" took credit for influencing Qatar to cancel the documentary. But Qatar never seems to have grown its influence in Washington through these contacts.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.