Inside Qatar’s charm offensive to win over Washington

There was much bonhomie as a few dozen people, including members of Congress and U.S. administration officials, gathered last week for dinner in a posh Washington neighborhood in honor of Qatar’s foreign minister.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sat next to the minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani.

“You have been a great friend to the United States,” Mnuchin told Thani, praising Qatar for its cooperation on counter-terrorism financing efforts.

The scene was a stark contrast from just a year ago.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of fomenting regional unrest, supporting terrorism and getting too close to Iran, all of which Doha denies.

At the time, a dinner with Qatari officials at a Washington steakhouse to garner support from members of Congress was a muted affair, without anyone with influence in the Trump administration at the event, according to a person who attended. President Donald Trump followed the boycott with tweets suggesting Qatar funded terrorism, even though other U.S. officials emphasized it was an ally.

“When the blockade happened they (Qatar) had no presence on the Hill,” said Joey Allaham, a former adviser to Qatar who was paid $1.45 million, including costs, for his advocacy work.

A year later the boycott remains in force, as the rivals have failed to resolve their dispute. But Qatar has managed to persuade certain lawmakers and influential Americans that it is a U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism and victim of an unfair boycott, interviews with advisers on both sides show.

Several Qatari lobbyists said the aggressive strategy, which has cost the small OPEC member tens of millions of dollars, has been about reaching people close to Trump as well as lobbying on Capitol Hill.

The country has also hired some people seen as close to Trump, pledged billions of dollars in U.S. investments or business and sponsored Doha visits, according to its advisers and public filings.

SIMMERING TENSIONS

Qatar’s boycott followed long simmering tensions in the region, with countries such as Saudi and the UAE angry about the tiny but rich Gulf nation’s outsized role in regional affairs, sponsoring factions in revolts and civil wars and brokering peace deals across the Middle East.

The United States, closely allied to countries on both sides, has found itself in the middle and tried unsuccessfully to mediate. Qatar hosts the Middle East headquarters for U.S. air forces. An administration official said the United States fears the rift could allow Iran to enhance its position in the Gulf if Tehran supported the Qataris.

Trump wants “the dispute eased and eventually resolved, as it only benefits Iran,” a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said.

Indeed, since the boycott Iran and Qatar ties have improved. Tehran opened its airspace to Qatar Airways when Saudis and others closed theirs, while Qatar restored full diplomatic relations with Iran.

This boycott violates the “right of an independent country like Qatar to choose its allies,” said an Iranian official, who previously served as ambassador to the UAE.

Iran’s foreign ministry declined to comment.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, said: “Rather than hoping for Washington to enforce a solution to the crisis, Qatar should establish a dialogue directly with the UAE and its neighbors.”

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

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