x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Qatar hires firm founded by Trump aide to promote image abroad

The battle between Riyadh and Doha has gone beyond the borders of the four boycotting Arab states, as the entities involved looked to promote their points of view abroad

Corey Lewandowski, a former aide to Donald Trump, attends a Trump rally on October 28, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. AFP / Ryan McBride
Corey Lewandowski, a former aide to Donald Trump, attends a Trump rally on October 28, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. AFP / Ryan McBride

Qatar has hired a firm founded by a former aide to US president Donald Trump to counter Saudi Arabia’s lobbying efforts in Washington.

The battle between Qatar and the four Arab states who accuse it of supporting terrorist and extremist groups has expanded far beyond the region as the countries involved seek to promote their points of view abroad.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar on June 5 over the terrorist accusations, which Qatar denies.

Both sides of the conflict have attempted to garner international support during meetings with politicians and on the streets of cities abroad.

This month, taxi cabs in the UK displayed pro-Qatar slogans, while a Saudi Arabia lobby group has placed advertisements on US television putting Qatar in a negative light.

Qatar hired a firm associated with former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski, in pursuit of closer ties with the White House.

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Mr Lewandowski left the Trump campaign after Paul Manafort was hired as campaign manager. But there were unsavoury incidents such as his alleged assault on Michelle Fields, a reporter, who said Mr Lewandowski had grabbed her when she approached Mr Trump after a press conference to ask him a question. Mr Lewandowski was charged with simple battery but not prosecuted. During another campaign event last year, Mr Lewandowski was caught on video grabbing a protester by the collar.

The firm includes several Republican figures well known in Washington’s government district – including George E Birnbaum, a former chief of staff for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Lewandowski, who helped the US president win the Republican primary last year, founded Avenue Strategies after his resignation from the Trump campaign.

He has since resigned from the firm, saying he was not happy with the direction it was taking.

The firm, based in Washington DC, provides clients with guidance in ways to “navigate our government”, in a manner that is “discrete and exemplary”.

The latest measure taken against Qatar by the quartet is the addition of 18 mostly Qatari-based individuals and organisations to a terrorist blacklist.

In a joint statement, the four countries said Doha was continuing to fall short of its promises on ending support for extremists.

Qatar responded saying that the new list “comes as a disappointing surprise that the siege countries continue to pursue as part of their campaign to discredit Qatar”.

On Wednesday, Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said that looking beyond Qatar was now the UAE’s permanent policy towards its neighbour.

The minister said that “barring Qatar’s review of past policies, [the] current state will continue for a while”.

Dr Gargash’s remarks came just hours before US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was scheduled to meet Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani for talks at the state department.

On Friday, Mr Tillerson said Qatar had made significant progress and called on the quartet to begin lifting some of the measures as a sign of good faith.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, meanwhile, said he was willing to begin talks.

Reports yesterday suggested that Doha had not shied away from spending money to shape public opinion in the US, and that it had paid US$2.5 million (Dh9.2m) to a law firm of former US attorney general John Ashcroft to audit its efforts at stopping terrorism funding.

It has also spent millions promoting its cause with various groups in the US.

The crisis, now in its second month, looks unlikely to ease with the quartet accusing of Qatar of funding terrorism and destabilising the region by interfering in Gulf countries’ internal affairs and by strengthening ties with regional arch-rival Iran.

The countries have taken measures to pressure and isolate Qatar into restoring diplomatic ties by adhering to its demands, a list of 13 measures issued by the quartet on June 22. Those demands were rejected by Qatar and later replaced by a set of six “broad principles” by the boycotting countries.

Additional reporting by Associated Press