Gulf neighbors Qatar and the UAE have both come under fire recently for their use of public relations firms to spin stories in their direction.
For Qatar, the issue involves bolstering support for the 2022 World Cup and its successful hosting bid.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s campaign involves a more sticky geopolitical issue – that of Qatar funding or supporting Islamist groups.
Neither country is employing a novel strategy – administrations throughout the world rely heavily on PR and lobbying firms, usually staffed by former government experts to get their message across.
But in the case of the Gulf states, the PR route appears to be backfiring, as journalists in the US and UK this week challenged their use of spin doctors to influence perceptions abroad.
For example, over the weekend, US-based website The Intercept reported that former US government officials were paid by the UAE government to influence journalists to write articles critical of Qatar’s funding of Islamist groups.
The officials used to be part of the Treasury Department and have now established the lobbying firm Camstoll Group.
Meanwhile, a UK channel accused a former British government advisor of setting up a football blog that runs articles attacking Qatar critics and that is generally supportive of the country hosting the 2022 World Cup.
For months, Qatar residents have been calling on the country to go on the offensive by responding more effectively to what has been perceived as a slew of negative international attention.
The country’s profile has been rising in recent years, due in part to its role as mediator in various regional conflicts, and its position as host of the 2022 World Cup.
But Qatar has also come under intense international scrutiny over human and labor rights issues, its suitability as World Cup host and its role in funding and supporting political groups in the region.
While the former accused the nation of bribery and corruption over the World Cup bidding process, the latter probed the plight of migrant workers in the state, describing the kafala system as tantamount to “slave labor.”
Channel 4 report
To help it manage the publicity, Qatar’s government earlier this year brought on Portland for its consultancy services. The company was founded by Tim Allan, a former senior adviser to ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The Channel 4 News investigation centered on Alastair Campbell, who sat on the strategic council of Portland Communications until recently and is a well-known figure in British political and media circles.
He has set up football blog The Pressing Game and, along with his son Rory, published articles that supported Qatar’s role as host of the World Cup and attacked those who had criticized the state.
The blog describes itself as being written by “a random bunch of football fans, determined to spark debate. We’re truly independent of any organization and therefore able to speak our minds.”
However, C4 News said that Portland, which helped establish the site and was among the first to tweet posts published on it, is guilty of “astroturfing” – creating false sites that claim to be grassroots movements, but are in fact backed by corporate organizations – in this case, Portland.
In a statement, Portland said that while its technical team helped set up the site, the firm does not run it. “It is not part of our work for the Government of Qatar,” it added.
On the other side of the Atlantic, investigative news website The Intercept reports that consulting firm Camstoll Group was funded by the UAE to target “neo-conservative” journalists and plant anti-Qatar stories in numerous American publications.
Qatar and the UAE have been at odds for months over their differing views on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated a terrorist group by Abu Dhabi.
The Intercept article, written by Pulitzer Prize winning-journalist Glenn Greenwald, asserts that the lobbying firm was set up and is staffed by former US Treasury Department officials with significant experience in and expertise of the Gulf, and some of whom have close connections to the UAE.
Two weeks after the firm was formed, it received a US$4.3 million retainer from Outlook Energy Investments – an entity wholly owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi – to provide open-ended consultancy work. This was followed by another payment of $3.2 million in 2013, the site claims.
The report states that the firm “spent enormous of amounts of time cajoling friendly reporters to plant anti-Qatar stories, and they largely succeeded.”
Documents show that journalists and publications contacted by the firm’s lobbyists included: Eli Lake of The Daily Beast; Alana Goodman of Free Beacon; Jennifer Goodman and Joby Warrick of the Washington Post; Erin Burnett of CNN; and Mark Hosenball of Reuters.
The disclosed documents describe the content of these conversations as being “illicit finance issues.”
While all of these journalists have published articles critical of Qatar, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times took a different approach.
In a recent article, he outlined the tactics used by the firm and pointed to “an unlikely alignment of interests, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Israel” that is seeking to depict Doha as “a Godfather to terrorists everywhere.”
The Intercept’s report states:
“The point here is not that Qatar is innocent of supporting extremists. Nor is it a reflection on any inappropriate conduct by the journalists, who are taking information from wherever they can get it (although one would certainly hope that, as Kirkpatrick did, they would make clear what the agenda and paid campaign behind this narrative is).
The point is that this coordinated media attack on Qatar – using highly paid former U.S. officials and their media allies – is simply a weapon used by the Emirates, Israel, the Saudis and others to advance their agendas.”