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.
Channel 4 News claimed that the person who set it up is still affiliated with former employer Portland Communications, which has been employed by Qatar’s government to help with the country’s image.
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.
Last year for example, both the UK’s Sunday Times and Guardian newspapers ran separate series of articles over the last year that were critical of Qatar.
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.”
Meanwhile Campbell takes the Sharjah UAE coin! http://www.thenational.ae/uae/sharjah-media-centre-cooperates-with-alastair-campbell
There must be more than these BS. There must be some hidden root causes of this conflict that the world is not very much aware of.
I’d look at history…
http://www.bnyhajr.com/vb/bnyhajr4853/ (nothing in English, but Google translate is good enough)
Does anybody think we all just started existing in 1971?
Britannica translated Al-Sowaidi family to “Sudanese”, which is a huge mistake.
I can’t imagine anyone employing someone as ‘shop-soiled’ as Alastair Campbell to run a PR campaign on their behalf. It’s like having a starting position at -20 on a scale of 1 to 10 !
2 peas in a pod are qatar and this guy.
What is really more interesting here is that this former government officials in the rich countries can be bought and made to influence journalists to write such ridiculous and false articles which they know don’t tell the true story
Surely one of dohanews’ most important reports.
On another front: welcome to the future, where the challenge will be too untangle the increasingly obscure webs of influence
So the Qatar government pays an atheist to improve their countries image abroad and publish positive new stories. Who would have thought a country which seeks to promote its Islamic identity would team up with a man who famously said once, ‘we don’t do God’. Love it!
In this day and age you would be hard pressed to do anything meaningful if you made it a principle to avoid working with atheists.
hold on Sir! What do you mean in this day and age?! it is still the 16th century for us in here!
oops.. Sorry it’s 2014 lol
Run with the hare and chase with the hound.
I do t blame Qatar for doing this, it’s a cost effective strategy. Rather than fix kafala it’s cheaper to employ PR firms to spin your country in a positive light. All governments both democratic and dictatorships do this, Qatar is just catching up. They know it will take years to create a just society for all residents but they need to repair their battered reputation and this is a quick fix if the world swallows it.
Ohh, common….again Qatar? Have we not learned that bribing in the 21st century can never be completely covered up and hidden? I mean, how can Qatari citizens and royalties keep digging their heads in the sand and pretend that this is all normal? – This is getting ridiculous. You CAN’T keep paying money to fix things your way Qatar, this is NOT how things work. How can any human being respect Qatar or any Qatari after they keep reading all those unethical dealings and behaviors? Are you going to call me a racist now? or a hater? or jealous? – What a waste of a nation and what a waste of a beautiful religion.
Whoa. Talk about deep. Well done, DN.
I think anyone who employs Alastair Campbell on PR work has already shot himself in the foot. He is now so discredited even the truth would be disbelieved if it came from him (and it very seldom does).