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The Gulf Crisis: The Media War

 7 min read / 

The Gulf crisis is but the latest instalment of the battle of the small states. The UAE and Qatar have been waging a covert war in the media, and through fake NGOs even before Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain first withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in 2014. The media war substituted for imposition of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar at the time of the withdrawal. The three states contemplated a boycott but opted at the time to first try a less aggressive attempt to force a change in Qatari policies.

The UAE, the world’s largest spender on lobbying in the United States in 2013, sought, according to US media reports to plant anti-Qatar stories in American media. To do so, it employed California-based Camstoll Group LLC that was operated by former high-ranking US Treasury officials who had been responsible for relations with Gulf state and Israel as well as countering funding of terrorism. Camstoll signed a consulting agreement with Abu Dhabi’s state-owned Outlook Energy Investments in December 2012, a week after it was incorporated in Santa Monica. Camstoll reported receiving $4.3m in 2012 and $3.2m from Outlook in 2013 as a retainer and compensation for expenses.

Under the contract, Camstoll would consult Outlook on “issues pertaining to illicit financial networks and developing and implementing strategies to combat illicit financial activity.” In its registration as a foreign agent, Camstoll reported that it “has conducted outreach to think tanks, business interests, government officials, media, and other leaders in the United States regarding issues related to illicit financial activity.”

Disseminating “Information”

Camstoll’s “public disclosure forms showed a pattern of conversations with journalists who subsequently wrote articles critical of Qatar’s role in terrorist fund-raising,” the New York Times reported. Camstoll reported multiple conversations with reporters of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Dow Jones News Wires, Financial Times, Bloomberg News, CNN and the Washington Free Beacon.

The lobbying effort resulted among others in a Daily Beast feature entitled “US Spies Worry Qatar Will ‘Magically Lose Track of Released Taliban” that asserted that Qatar’s track record is troubling” and that “the emirate is a good place to raise money for terrorist organizations”; a CNN special report asking “Is Qatar a haven for terror funding?” The Washington Post carried stories reporting that “private Qatar-based charities have taken a more prominent role in recent weeks in raising cash and supplies for Islamist extremists in Syria,” there was “increasing US concern about the role of Qatari individuals and charities in supporting extreme elements within Syria’s rebel alliance” and linked the Qatari royal family to a professor and US foreign policy critic alleged by the US government to be “working secretly as a financier for al-Qaeda.”

One Washington Post story quoted among others “a former US official who specialised in tracking Gulf-based jihadist movements and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because much of his work for the government was classified.”

The description of the source appeared to fit the bios of Camstoll executives, including the company’s owner, Matthew Epstein, a former Treasury Department official who served as its financial attaché to Saudi Arabia and the UAE; Howard Mendelsohn, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Treasury, who according to a US State Department cable “met with senior officials from the UAE’s State Security Department (SSD) and Dubai’s General Department of State Security (GDSS)” to coordinate disruption of Taliban financing, and other former Treasury officials who had been contact with Israel regarding their strategy to counter funding of Palestinian groups.

In disclosing the UAE’s efforts to influence US media reporting on Qatar, The Intercept’s Greenwald argued:

“The point here is not that Qatar is innocent of supporting extremists… The point is that this coordinated media attack on Qatar – using highly paid former US officials and their media allies – is simply a weapon used by the Emirates, Israel, the Saudis and others to advance their agendas… What’s misleading isn’t the claim that Qatar funds extremists but that they do so more than other US allies in the region (a narrative implanted at exactly the time Qatar has become a key target of Israel and the Emirates). Indeed, some of Qatar’s accusers here do the same to at least the same extent, and in the case of the Saudis, far more so.”

Qatar’s response to the media campaign against it was illustrative of its ineptitude in fighting its public relations and public diplomacy battles, clumsiness in developing communication strategies, meek denials of various accusations, and failure to convincingly defend its controversial policies. In a bid to counter its World Cup critics, Qatar contracted Portland Communications founded by Tony Allen, a former adviser to Tony Blair when he was prime minister, according to Britain’s Channel 4 News.

The television channel linked Portland to the creation by Alistair Campbell, Blair’s chief communications advisor at Downing Street Number Ten and a former member of Portland’s strategic council, of a soccer blog that attacked Qatar’s detractors. Britain’s Channel 4 reported that the blog projected itself as “truly independent” and claimed to represent “a random bunch of football fans, determined to spark debate.” The broadcaster said the blog amounted to “astroturfing,” the creation of fake sites that project themselves as grassroots but in effect are operated by corporate interests. Portland admitted that it had helped create the blog but asserted that it was not part of its contractual engagement with Qatar. The blog stopped publishing after the television report.

Qatar also thought to undermine UAE efforts to tarnish its image with the arrest in 2014 of two British human rights investigators of Nepalese origin. The investigators worked for a Norway-based NGO, the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), that was funded to the tune of €4.2m a year by anonymous donors believed to be connected to the UAE. The investigators were detained and later released at a time that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar in a bid to force it to stop its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Birth of the GNRD

Founded in 2008, GNRD was headed by Loai Mohammed Deeb, a Palestinian-born international lawyer who owned a UAE-based consultancy, and reportedly operated a fake university in Scandinavia, according to veteran Middle East author and journalist Brian Whitaker who took a lead in investigating the group. GNRD said it aimed to “to enhance and support both human rights and development by adopting new strategies and policies for real change.”

In 2014, GNRD published a human rights index that ranked the UAE at number 14 in the world and Qatar at 97. Heavy criticism of the index persuaded the group to delete the index from its website. GNRD, moreover, consistently praised the UAE’s controversial human rights records with articles on its website on the role of women, the UAE’s “achievements in promoting and protecting the family, environmental efforts, care for the disabled and its protection of the rights of children.

Appointed as a monitor of Egypt’s 2015 parliamentary election GNRD reported:

“The Egyptian people have experienced a unique process toward democratic transition, and despite the fact that minor errors and inaccuracies occurred, these do not shed a negative light on the overall results of the electoral process.”

GNRD made no mention of the fact that the election occurred in an atmosphere in which hundreds of Muslim Brothers were killed by security forces, thousands more were incarcerated and repression limited expression of dissenting opinions and independent media coverage.

GNRD was closed following police raids in 2015, the confiscation of $13m in assets, and charges of money laundering that have yet to be heard in court. Norwegian investigators said that UAE diplomats had fought hard to prevent the case going to court.

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