By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Since the spring of 2017 Washington and major US media have found themselves in the midst of a tug-of-war between powerful Gulf states, including Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This began in earnest with the May summit in Saudi Arabia called the Arab Islamic American Summit. At the meeting US President Donald Trump urged countries to drive out terrorists. In June the UAE and Saudi Arabia led an effort to cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism, spreading chaos through Al-Jazeera and allying with Iran.
Fighting the ‘blockade’
Qatar was threatened momentarily until Turkish troops arrived and it found its footing. Then it decided to go on the PR offensive in the US and try to win back Washington. Working through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other allies, it was largely successful at finding favor in US media. Allies of Qatar spread stories about the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia bringing instability to the Gulf. By December this narrative had taken off and was successful at getting stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere. These stories focused on partly false stories about the crown prince buying a painting and a yacht. They sought to tarnish his image as an anti-corruption reformer. It was clear that the stories were only published due to a whispering campaign. Instead of checking sources and looking deeper, media took the talking points, repackaged them, and pretended they had found them. The salacious stories were only part of a larger more public PR campaign to make Qatar seem like the stable US ally and a victim of a blockade.
By January it almost seemed the US would broker some kind of GCC deal. Then Tillerson was fired by Trump in mid-March and it appears Bolton and Pompeo will be more influential in US policy. Kushner, a key player in the administration is also considered to have key ties to UAE, ones that have been probed due accusations that they relate to a conflict of interest over business.
‘Hearts and minds’: Jewish groups and the Gulf
Qatar also sought to lobby US Jewish groups, mostly those on the right and pro-Israel side, flying friends it had cultivated to the emirate. It seemed to think they were a key to Trump’s administration. This became a complex story and was covered widely. It also involved recriminations among the groups involved and high profile figures in the community. The issue also had large connections to Al-Jazeera and a documentary about the Israel lobby that were written about by Clayton Swisher at The Forward. The larger story alleged here, explored by Armin Rosen at Tablet, was that if the documentary aired there might be an attempt to force Al-Jazeera to be registered as a “foreign agent.” By seeking out pro-Israel friends in Washington Qatar put itself in the awkward position of then walking back the documentary, even as Qatar was claiming it didn’t control Al-Jazeera content.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince sought to also reach out to Jewish groups and seemed to acknowledge Israel’s rights. “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations,” he told The Atlantic in an interview published in early April 2018. It was not clear if the crown prince met with different Jewish groups than the Qataris, but it is assumed they did. For instance the Saudis met with rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movement while the Qataris focused on Orthodox influencers. Unsurprisingly Al-Jazeera critiqued Riyadh for meeting pro-Israel groups, when Qatar had done the same. The UAE also kept itself involved in this effort, hosting a delegation led by Malcolm Honlein led a group to the UAE in February.
Planted stories, hacked emails and the press
There was much more than just an Israel angle. The Crown Prince made a major trip to the US in March and sought to also carry out a PR offensive. He met with The New Yorker and The Atlantic. To coincide with the crown prince’s visit major media also began playing up a story about UAE connections to a “mysterious” businessman and that the Russia investigation by Mueller was somehow connected to UAE lobbying as well. Then a consulting firm’s name got put into the mix, yet another piece of the web of connections of Gulf influence that appear to connect a huge number of interests. This has also involved hacked emails and think tanks. A Trump fundraiser also sued Qatar over hacked emails. In a statement the fundraiser said: “we believe the evidence is clear that a nation state is waging a sophisticated disinformation campaign against me to silence me, including hacking emails, forging documents, and engaging in espionage and numerous other illegal activities.”
According to a piece in Vanity Fair both Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE had sought to have Tillerson pushed out. According to this and other articles there was big money involved. Millions for “consulting, marketing, and other advisory services rendered” and “the prospect of more than $1 billion in contracts” for a private security company.
If even part of this is true the real story about the Gulf rivalry playing itself out in the US shows how various groups, think tanks, consultants, lobbyists, former Congressmen and officials and present officials, as well as other groups, such as those connected to Israel, have all been caught up in a web. It is also a web that has caught up US media wherein media have become tools in the battle. These countries buy advertising and PR campaigns and leaks are carefully dropped to coincide with meetings and events.
It appears to reveal how easy it is to manipulate American democracy, and how some of the US media, which pats itself on the back for “speaking truth to power” and “democracy dies in darkness”, accepts uncritically stories from the Gulf or allies of the Gulf. These may involve former diplomats, paid lobbyists, consultants or even former intelligence officials. It also reveals how this state feud has allegedly impacted the White House and how media in unfree states, especially states that have established media, such as Al-Jazeera, are used as part of a well orchestrated campaign that functions both publicly and behind the scenes.
The most powerful country in the world and its media, as well as other groups, became deeply connected to a nexus of interests in the Gulf. This is understandable considering the huge US investments in military and business interests in the region, but what is less understandable is why at the highest levels of some media and in Washington there was not more questioning of emirs and princes, the way one would question the motives of the Chancellor of Germany, the Prime Minister of the UK, or the Russian President.