With the United Nations General Assembly in session in New York, countries’ lobbying operations in the U.S. are in full swing.
Qatar has taken pole position in a public relations arms race against Saudi Arabia, which has been advancing the charge that Qatar finances terrorism. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates cut ties with Qatar in June. President Donald Trump declared days later that Qatar must end its funding of terrorism and appeared to take credit for pushing Gulf states and others to sever diplomatic relations.
Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have since hired several well-connected D.C. lobbying shops and communications firms, gearing up their messaging as the dispute appears close to a resolution, with President Trump saying on Tuesday that “it will be solved pretty quickly.”
Qatar has taken out ad spots on TV networks Fox and MSNBC airing throughout the week. The ad tries to do a lot in 30 seconds: counters the charge that Qatar supports terrorism, touts its support for women’s rights and press freedom in comparison to other Gulf states, and calls for the renormalization of trade and travel -- restrictions Qatar calls a “blockade” -- while also striking a defiant tone that “Qatar will prevail” in spite of the blockade.
Qatar is likely trying to create buzz while visiting heads of state are in town, watching American news in between U.N. sessions. Reception from the general public has not been positive, if Twitter is any indication.
The ad, which is also running on YouTube, declares it was paid for by the Government Communications Office of Qatar and promotes a website LiftTheBlockade.com, which features the same “paid for by” statement. In the months since the diplomatic row began, Qatar has been on a lobbying spree, hiring no less than 11 lobbying and communications firms, according to filings with the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act database. Most notably, Qatar hired former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for $2.5 million on June 7, days after Gulf states cut ties.
According to DOJ regulations, foreign agents file their activities reports in six-month cycles, so it is impossible to know which firm is responsible for the Lift The Blockade campaign, which only launched this week. However, only four of the firms are registered as working for the Government Communications Office, rather than the state itself or the embassy: Information Management Services, Levick Strategic Communications, Conover + Gould Strategic Communications, and Audience Partners Worldwide. The latter two are both working as subcontractors of Information Management Services.
Qatar’s Government Communications Office is paying Information Management Services a staggering $375,000 per month on a three-month renewable contract -- more than $1.1 million per quarter. The contract also gives Information Management Services a $250,000 expense account held in escrow to be used however the company deems necessary, reimbursed on a monthly basis. That means Qatar could be spending as much as $625,000 per month through the company.
Despite being incorporated since 1997, Information Management Services apparently only started working as a foreign agent in June, with Qatar as its first and only foreign client. It describes itself vaguely as “an international research firm that produces in-depth data identification and analysis.” The company is wholly owned by Jeff Klueter, a former researcher for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who has worked as an opposition researcher on behalf of Democratic presidential candidates from at least 1992 to 2008.
In addition to the video ads, Qatar has also taken out billboards in Times Square in New York City, where the UN is in session. On Twitter, London-based advertising firm Media Agency Group claimed credit for the ad campaign in Times Square.
After initially speaking by phone with an executive of the firm, the company did not respond to emailed questions from International Business Times. It is unclear whether the firm contracted directly with the Qatar Government Communications Office or was subcontracted by another firm that the government hired. Either scenario would require the firm to be registered with the DOJ as a foreign agent of Qatar, which Media Agency Group has not done, according to filings available in the DOJ’s database.
Questionable Social Media Support
Qatar has been targeting both traditional media through television ad campaigns and billboards in Times Square, as well as social media, with YouTube ads and a new LiftTheBlockade.com website. The official @LiftTheBlockade Twitter account only has 82 followers, but the campaign has been heavily promoted by the @IStandWithQatar account, which has more than 4,000 followers.
The account uses the signifiers of countless “I stand with” grassroots activist campaign slogans and hashtag activism. However, evidence suggests the account may actually be controlled by either the Qatari government or one of the public relations firms it has hired in recent months. @IStandWithQatar spent most of Tuesday live tweeting Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s speech at the United Nations. On Monday, the account sent a string of four tweets mentioning the Government Communications Office Twitter account, @GCOQatar, as well as posting GCO infographics and directing media to speak to the GCO.
After initially following me back, the account unfollowed me after I asked if it is run by the Qatari government. They also said they have no press contact for the apparent activist campaign. Notably, the account joined Twitter in June 2016, but either did not tweet or deleted all of its tweets before June of this year, when the diplomatic scuffle began. Either the account was dormant prior to the June of this year or it had another use was and repurposed -- along with its followers -- for promoting an end to punitive measures against Qatar.
LiftTheBlockade.com was registered last week, on Sept. 11. IStandWithQatar.com was registered three days later, on Sept. 14, making it appear likely that the two are related.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Relations Blitz
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been promoting its own position through a proxy website, The Qatar Insider, claims to be “the comprehensive source for information on the truth about Qatar’s funding, activities and support for terrorist and extreme Islamist groups.” Though it looks like an ordinary news website focused on Qatar, the website is a project of the Saudi Arabia Public Relations Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), according to a disclosure on the site. In August, SAPRAC hired the DC lobbying firm Podesta Group through for $50,000 per month. Podesta Group was originally founded by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair John Podesta, who no longer works there, though his brother, Tony Podesta, still heads it.
Podesta Group’s work plan for SAPRAC describes its work as “building on President Donald Trump's calls on Qatar to stop financing terrorism; and reinforcing Saudi Arabia's role as a leader in stabilizing the region.” But in the details of the three-month work plan for SAPRAC, Podesta Group’s work is focused primarily on promoting The Qatar Insider and its associated social media accounts; the first step in the plan was to “assess the effectiveness of these properties in targeting our audience of DC elites.” Podesta Group then lays out a plan for a mix of search engine marketing, paid social media posts, and online advertisements in influential DC publications Politico and The Hill direct “thought leaders” to the site, noting: “our paid plan will include eye-catching online ads to drive home our topline messaging and push US thought leaders to The Qatar Insider.” It also laid out a plan for a series of videos meant to promote Saudi Arabia as a key American ally and “highlight the Qatar terrorism issue.”
Podesta Group has had its eye set on the U.N. General Assembly three months ago when the work plan was created. The strategy for the General Assembly is similarly focused on influential publications, saying the Group will “Prepare recommendations to amplify our messaging surrounding the 72nd Regular Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA),” which “could include partnering with Foreign Policy or POLITICO for a sponsored event and/or newspaper advertising that could run in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post.”
Ironically, Klueter of Information Management Services and Podesta are used to working together. According to Podesta’s emails leaked by Wikileaks last year, Klueter was conducting opposition research on John McCain in 2008 on behalf of Hillary Clinton, while the Democratic primary race with Barack Obama was still in full swing. Now Klueter’s firm and Podesta’s firm find themselves on opposite sides of the Qatari-Saudi schism.
The Podesta Group also works for the Saudi kingdom through the Center for Studies and Media, an arm of the government that apparently exists solely for hiring lobbyists. According to the Group’s semi-annual activity report, it has primarily pitched journalists on behalf of the Saudi kingdom and contacted think tanks on both sides of the political spectrum, from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation to the liberal Center for American Progress, which John Podesta founded in 2003.