December 19, 2022 | Politico EU

It’s not just the EU that needs to scrutinize Qatar’s influence campaigns

There’s nothing wrong with deploying capital for economic growth — but Doha seeks to gain sway too.
December 19, 2022 | Politico EU

It’s not just the EU that needs to scrutinize Qatar’s influence campaigns

There’s nothing wrong with deploying capital for economic growth — but Doha seeks to gain sway too.

Last weekend, Belgian police arrested European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili. They are now investigating at least 10 other European Union employees and officials, and authorities have further confiscated up to €750,000 in cash, which EU officials reportedly accepted as bribes.

All this reportedly stems from efforts by the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar to buy influence in Brussels. But this EU scandal is hardly the only indication of Qatar’s efforts to do so worldwide.

As events surrounding the Parliament continue to unfold, Qatar currently denies all wrongdoing — as does Kaili. Nevertheless, an investigation is underway, and of particular interest is a statement made by Kaili, describing Qatar as a “frontrunner in labor rights.”

The statement rang hollow amidst incontrovertible reports of gross abuse against the foreign workers who built the football stadiums for the World Cup. According to the Guardian, as many as 6,500 migrant workers from the countries of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the bid to host the tournament in 2010. Even a Qatari official recently admitted that 400 to 500 workers had died.

How Qatar came to win the World Cup bid may have foreshadowed the Kaili affair. Qatar beat other much bigger — and more qualified — competitors, such as the United States, to host the tournament. And serious allegations have since pointed to a high likelihood that the country bought the tournament with bribes.

Perhaps the most serious of these charges came from investigative journalists Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, who allege that Qatari football official Mohammed Bin Hammam conducted a massive corruption campaign to secure the bid. A recent Netflix series echoes these allegations, with witnesses alleging that Doha spent some $5 million to buy the votes of FIFA’s executive committee members.

It stands to reason that Qatar has been on its back foot from the moment the games began, with the accusations of bribery and human rights violations reaching a crescendo. And if the facts support the Belgian prosecutor’s case, this could be why Kaili and other EU officials were recruited.

However, Doha’s efforts to secure sway extend well beyond Europe and FIFA.

Since 2016, Qatar — a nation of only 300,000 citizens — has spent a whopping $198 million to buy influence inside Washington, ranking fourth behind the much bigger China, Japan and South Korea. It has sponsored the annual Congressional baseball game, and it even kept the metro running when the Washington Capitals hockey team made a successful push for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup in 2018.

The country’s influence campaign extends into education as well. Between 2002 and 2021, Qatar spent $4.9 billion on American universities, six of which maintain campuses at Education City in Doha — where France’s HEC Paris also has a branch. Interestingly, when it faced global pressure for hosting the World Cup despite its abysmal human and labor rights record, a professor at Georgetown Qatar wrote in the New York Times that “the World Cup belongs in the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, Qatari money isn’t hard to find in Europe either. This year, the country’s sovereign wealth fund announced it plans to invest $5 billion in projects in Spain; the Qataris hold an estimated £10 billion in British real estate; and other European investment targets include Germany, France, Greece and Switzerland.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with deploying capital for economic growth — but Doha seeks to gain influence too.

Alarmingly, some of Qatar’s most effective influence derives from its support for extremist groups in the Middle East. By now the country is widely known to have provided financial or material support to extremist groups like the TalibanHamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Al-Qaeda. But rather than punish Qatar for this, the West consistently looks to Doha to act as an interlocutor, essentially asking the country to help solve regional problems it contributed to.

And this is to say nothing of Qatar’s massive media operation — Al Jazeera.

Originally founded as a tool to aggravate Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, over the years the news outlet has grown into a global empire. Today, it maintains operations in the U.S. And in 2020, the Department of Justice ordered AJ+ — the network’s somewhat newer social media operation, which disseminates messages in English, French, Arabic and Spanish — to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. However, the platform refused, arguing that Al Jazeera is a private organization, thus its affiliates couldn’t possibly be agents of a foreign government. Of course, the network avoids covering oppressive domestic politics, let alone the controversies surrounding Qatari influence worldwide.

Some of Qatar’s activity was well known before the World Cup — some of it wasn’t. And though originally intended to help Qatar transcend criticism, the games have now paradoxically awakened the world to Doha’s massive operation to ensure global influence.

With its massive energy wealth and tiny population, Qatar has no apparent reason to spend the colossal amounts of money it does. Nor does it have the right to violate laws and norms across the world. The EU is now grappling with this. And with the country squarely in focus in the wake of the alleged bribery scandal, the bloc’s officials are now vowing to curb its influence.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow. Follow Jon and Hussain on Twitter @JSchanzer and @hahussain. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

Gulf States Sanctions and Illicit Finance