If you’re looking to cash in on one of Washington’s swampier pastimes, you could do worse than picking a side in the lobbying and public relations war between the Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While both countries are U.S. allies—each hosts a sizeable American military contingent—there is no love lost between them. The two gulf states nearly went to war in 2017, and have waged an expensive and at times brazen campaign for influence in Washington and within the Trump administration.
The risks in this game are substantial. Participants have been subjected to federal investigations, targeted by state-sponsored hackers, and smeared relentlessly as paid shills or supporters of terror. It may have even cost former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson his job as secretary of state.
The enormous strategic and economic stakes have made the struggle for America’s favor a lucrative one, and it’s unsurprising that names associated with MAGA grift have become involved in promoting the UAE’s campaign against Qatar. Even Pizzagate conspiracist and Infowars correspondent Mike Cernovich released a short documentary attacking Qatar last month, focusing on the country’s ties to Islamists and, ironically, its campaign for influence abroad.
You cannot make this stuff up. But to be fair, it should be noted that Qatar is not simply an innocent victim. Many of its actions have been genuinely worrying and should cause concern not only in the region but in Washington as well.
Despite the best efforts of the players involved to keep things quiet, we may be learning more about this scheme. The office of special counsel and congressional investigators have zeroed in on a mysterious January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles, apparently brokered by the UAE as part of an effort to establish a “back channel” between the incoming Trump administration and Russia. An incidental but important outcome of the Mueller investigation could be to reveal a broader scope of foreign meddling and interference with American politics and policymaking.
Before the infamous Seychelles rendezvous, several of its key participants met first at Trump Tower on August 3, 2016. Blackwater founder Erik Prince—who lives in the UAE and helped the country form a paramilitary force—arranged for Donald Trump Jr. to meet George Nader, a Lebanese-American adviser to UAE crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), and Joel Zamel, an Israeli social media entrepreneur. According to The New York Times, the future president’s son “responded approvingly,” and after the election, Nader paid Zamel a sum of up to $2 million:
There are conflicting accounts of the reason for the payment, but among other things, a company linked to Mr. Zamel provided Mr. Nader with an elaborate presentation about the significance of social media campaigning to Mr. Trump’s victory.
Accounts differ as to the purpose of the secretive post-election gathering in the Seychelles — whether it was arranged for business purposes or to establish a diplomatic “back channel” between the U.S. and Russia. George Nader reportedly told a grand jury that Erik Prince visited the remote island nation as an emissary of the incoming Trump administration. During his visit, Prince met with MBZ and Kirill Dmitriev, who runs Russia’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund. While it remains unclear exactly what the group discussed in the Seychelles, political tensions in the gulf would ramp up in the months to come.
In May 2017, President Trump visited Riyadh to attend the multilateral Arab-Islamic-American Summit, which is probably best remembered for its photograph of the president “touching the orb” with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We don’t know what particular assurances Trump may have provided at the summit, but two weeks later, a Saudi-led bloc of countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an economic embargo against the country.
Almost immediately, President Trump tweeted his support for Qatar’s isolation and signaled that the move received his endorsement at the Riyadh summit.
Behind the scenes, the administration worked to de-escalate the crisis. According to a report in The Intercept quoting “one current member of the U.S. intelligence community and two former State Department officials,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Saudi leaders not to follow through on a contemplated invasion of Qatar. Tillerson’s intervention was said to have enraged the UAE leadership, which began a campaign to have him removed as secretary of state. (Tillerson was fired less than a year later.)
After Tillerson’s ouster, MBZ was reportedly “gloating to every member in the Gulf ruling families that he was the mastermind behind firing Tillerson.” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an adviser to the crown prince, tweeted that “history will remember that a Gulf state had a role in expelling the foreign minister of a superpower and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
According to hacked emails given to the New York Times, ex-RNC finance co-chair Elliott Broidy also claimed to have personally recommended that the president to fire Tillerson.* Broidy, whose security company Circinus was later awarded a contract worth more than $200 million by the UAE, was a close associate with Nader, the Lebanese-American adviser to MBZ. (Broidy is also known for arranging a hush-money payment to a Playboy playmate via Trump fixer Michael Cohen.) Nader has cooperated with the Mueller investigation.
On October 6, 2017—four months after diplomatic tensions in the gulf almost gave way to war —the public relations firm SCL Social disclosed a $330,000 contract with the UAE for a “global media campaign.” SCL Social was the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, which employed Trump strategist Steve Bannon and received a $5 million investment from the pro-Trump Mercer family.
Two weeks later, Bannon addressed a Hudson Institute summit focusing on Qatar’s ties to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. “The single most important thing that’s happening in the world is the situation in Qatar,” he said.
According to the New York Times, the Hudson summit and another anti-Qatar conference at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies were funded in part by a $2.7 million payment from George Nader to Elliott Broidy. The Times noted that “Hudson Institute policies prohibit donations from foreign governments that are not democracies, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies bars donations from all foreign governments, so Mr. Nader’s role as an adviser to the U.A.E. may have raised concerns had he donated directly.”
The fallout from the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last October would highlight not only the inflamed state of gulf politics in Washington, but also the paranoia about the motives and funding of anyone who took a different perspective.
Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen who fell out with the regime for his support for the pro-democracy movement and a role for the Muslim Brotherhood, was brutally murdered during a routine visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Washington Post later reported that he maintained close ties to an executive at the Qatar Foundation who “shaped the columns he submitted… proposing topics, drafting material and prodding him to take a harder line against the Saudi government.”
The revelation that Khashoggi may have received support from Qatar was seized upon by some commentators to absolve or obscure the guilt that might otherwise fall upon the Saudi regime. A small Washington think tank called the Security Studies Group made the Khashoggi affair a particular focus, portraying him as a legitimate target by labeling him a “Qatari asset.”
Jim Hanson, who heads the Security Studies Group, compared the murder of Khashoggi to President Obama’s drone strike on al-Qaeda terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaki who had communications with or otherwise inspired the 2005 London tube bombers, the Fort Dix shooter, the failed Times Square bomber and others.
Critics of the Saudi government were accused of organizing an “information operation,” as if the brutal killing of Khashoggi were somehow orchestrated by Doha or Ankara.
Security Studies Group’s Dave Reaboi—along with J. Michael Waller of the Center for Security Policy—recently participated in a short anti-Qatar film directed by date rape denialist and “smooth” brain supplement hawker Mike Cernovich. Not generally known for his Middle East expertise, Cernovich also promoted a mysterious smear campaign against former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, which used anti-Semitic imagery to imply the former general was being secretly manipulated by Jewish financiers like George Soros and the Rothschild family.
We shouldn’t let sleazy pro-Trump grifters distract us from Qatar’s behavior, which is troubling in a number of ways. The country’s enormous natural gas reserves have allowed it to chart an independent and at times destabilizing course in the Middle East. Its Al-Jazeera news channel, support for the Arab Spring democracy movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, and economic ties with Iran have infuriated regional capitals from Cairo to Riyadh.
One of the precipitating events leading to the diplomatic showdown in June of 2017 was a shocking $1 billion ransom for the release of Qatari royals captured during a hunting trip in Iraq—reportedly paid to an al-Qaeda-connected group and Iranian officials.
Qatar may have also used its economic power to influence the president’s indebted son-in-law. Last August, a firm which counts the Qatari sovereign wealth fund as one of its largest shareholders helped bail out Jared Kushner’s family real estate company by agreeing to pay all 99 years of a long-term building lease up front.
Whether or how small-time MAGA figures are connected to bigger players like Erik Prince, Elliott Broidy, or foreign governments themselves remains to be seen. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires anyone acting on behalf of a foreign principal to influence U.S. public opinion or policy to register with the Department of Justice, but there are loopholes and gray areas that allow many such campaigns to operate under the radar. For instance, an American defense contractor could donate large sums to a U.S.-based think tank to effectively advocate on behalf of a foreign power without being forced to disclose its activities.
But there’s nothing like a federal investigation to force closely guarded information into the public domain. A look back at Paul Manafort’s secret effort to discredit the Ukrainian opposition, detailed by Ukrainian government sources and filings by federal prosecutors, is instructive. Manafort paid a conservative blogger named Christopher Badeaux—who was previously entangled in the Malaysian payola scandal— to establish a website for a “fake” think tank called the Center for the Study of Former Soviet Socialist Republics (CXSSR). Badeaux’s role emerged when he was named as a potential witness for the Manafort trial in the District of Columbia (which became moot once Manafort struck a plea deal with the federal government).
It remains to be seen what George Nader—the Erik Prince- and Elliott Broidy-linked UAE adviser who funneled millions to support anti-Qatar think tank conferences—has told federal investigators. To the extent that Mueller’s report is made public, we could learn more about how this opaque advocacy campaign worked, and who else might have been involved. It will be important to keep an eye on how aggressive Attorney General William Barr is in blocking the release of information that falls under his fourth stated criterion for redaction: “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”
“What did the president know and when did he know it?” is a question we all hope the Mueller report resolves. But it is not the only question. The special counsel may or may not provide a roadmap for impeachment by documenting crimes, conspiracies or other abuses of power. By exposing the Middle East grift, he could also help drain the swamp that fuels so much of the cynicism that dominates our politics. And if you subscribe to the theory that “Trump is a symptom, not a cause,” this might turn out to be more important to the future of the republic.
Correction, April 12, 2019, 12:49 p.m.: The article originally stated that, “According to hacked emails given to the New York Times, ex-RNC finance co-chair Elliott Broidy also claimed to have personally lobbied the president to fire Tillerson.” Broidy is not a registered lobbyist and his recommendation to President Trump that Tillerson be fired was not made in an official capacity. The sentence has been changed to read: “According to hacked emails given to the New York Times, ex-RNC finance co-chair Elliott Broidy also claimed to have personally recommended that