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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

Qatar World Cup PR executive worked for Syria's Al Assad

Michael Holtzman was employed by Asma Al Assad's office months before the civil war broke out

A PR executive at the centre of the controversy over Qatar's campaign to discredit rival World Cup bids, formerly worked for Asma Al Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, above right, with her husband. AFP
A PR executive at the centre of the controversy over Qatar's campaign to discredit rival World Cup bids, formerly worked for Asma Al Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, above right, with her husband. AFP

A public relations executive at the centre of a storm over Qatar’s use of a “black ops” campaign to discredit rival World Cup bids formerly worked for the Al Assad regime in Syria.

Michael Holtzman, president of the PR consultancy BLJ Worldwide, which featured heavily in leaked emails that suggested Qatar’s World Cup bid had attempted to sabotage rival bids, was employed by the Office of the First Lady of Syria, Asma Al Assad, as recently 2010, The Times revealed.

Mr Holtzman was reportedly paid US$5,000 (Dh18,366) a month, and his efforts included helping to arrange a notorious article about Bashar Al Assad’s British-born wife Asma. The interview featured in Vogue magazine titled "A Rose in the Desert". It was published by the magazine just months before the Al Assad regime began a brutal crackdown on protesters which led to the seven-year civil war.

The article has since been removed from the Vogue website.

A biography of Mr Holtzman on the BLJ Worldwide website claims he was once named “PR Person of the Year”, although there is no mention of his work for Syria’s first lady. He is also listed as having consulted for former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

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Mr Holtzman was one of the authors of emails to high-level individuals in Qatar’s World Cup bid in 2010. In one, he boasted of promoting “negative aspects of their [United States and Australia’s] respective bids in the media”.

Qatar rejected claims it had broken the rules by running such a “black ops" campaign, but British MP Damian Collins, who chairs the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, told British radio that, “It requires a proper independent investigation and Fifa should make clear that will happen. If the Qataris have broken the rules, they should face some sanctions.”

Mrs Al Assad, a former investment banker, became the subject of high-level sanctions in 2012, as part of her husband’s inner circle. The sanctions included an asset freeze and a travel ban.

Hacked emails laid bare her lavish online shopping sprees despite Syria’s descent into civil war. Mrs Al Assad’s spending habits included tens of thousands of pounds on jewels and furniture from the London department store Harrods.

Fifa is under pressure to strip Qatar of the World Cup following the allegations, which also included claims that the bid from Doha had attempted to spread propaganda about the rival campaigns of Australia and the US to host the World Cup in 2022.

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