Arms imports to Qatar have increased dramatically since the International Federation of Association Football selected the Gulf State to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010. Sports diplomacy has played a big role in how the U.S. has come to view Qatar as a strategic partner in the Middle East. That’s an image Qatari clients have paid foreign agents in the U.S. $195.4 million to push with lawmakers, journalists, think tanks and others since 2015, an OpenSecrets analysis of Foreign Agent Registration Act filings found.
Since 2010, the U.S. has exported military-grade weapons and equipment worth more than $4.2 billion to Qatar. While a 2020 State Department fact sheet on bilateral relations with Qatar lauds the country’s “constructive financial, political, and military role in addressing regional turmoil,” the U.S. only exported $1 million worth of arms to Qatar from 1972 to 2008, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
President Joe Biden’s administration approved a $1 billion arms sale to Qatar on Nov. 29 during the World Cup match between the United States and Iran, whose geopolitical relations with Washington, D.C., have grown tense since then-President Donald Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018.
Arms exports to Qatar ramped up during former President Barack Obama’s administration and continued regularly throughout the Trump administration. They peaked in 2021 when the Biden administration sent more than $906 million worth of weapons to Qatar. Data for 2022 is not yet available from SIPRI.
The Qatari government has paid foreign agents $74.6 million since 2015, the first year it ramped up its U.S. lobbying efforts – and the same year Qatar saw an uptick in arms imports.
Informational materials on file with the Justice Department describe Qatar as a “critical American security partner in the Middle East.” Foreign agents of the Qatari government focused on Qatar’s role in “fighting terrorism” and “shared values” with the U.S. – though the human rights group Freedom House assessed the Gulf State is “not free” given its lack of fundamental freedoms, repression of women and criminalization of same-sex relationships.
Registered foreign agents reported receiving $120.8 million from non-governmental Qatari clients through the same period. Most of that came from the state-owned defense company Barzan Holdings, the strategic procurement arm of the Qatari Ministry of Defense, an OpenSecrets analysis of FARA filings found.
Qatar-owned company builds partnerships, coordinates exports in U.S.
Barzan Aeronautical – a Qatar-owned, U.S.-based commercial company – registered under FARA on behalf of Barzan Holdings in February 2019. Since then, Barzan Aeronautical has reported receiving $117.6 million from Barzan Holdings, an OpenSecrets analysis of FARA filings found.
The money received has “absolutely nothing to do with lobbying activities,” Laura Ott, director of business and government affairs at Barzan Aeronautical and a registered foreign agent of Barzan Holdings, told OpenSecrets in a written statement.
Ott said that money has primarily gone toward development of unmanned drones with its U.S. partner, Textron Systems. She added that the company’s investment in the U.S. defense industry “both creates jobs and strengthens the defense relationship between the United States and the Qatari Armed Forces by developing and procuring technology that is interoperable to support not only Qatari national defense, but also to support US national defense objectives.”
Qatar’s Ministry of Defense owns Barzan Holdings, according to informational materials filed under FARA. Barzan USA LLC, a Delaware-based limited liability company wholly owned by Barzan Holdings, owns Barzan Aeronautical. Additional documents filed under FARA indicate Barzan Holdings is the sole shareholder of Barzan Aeronautical.
According to short form registrations on file with the Department of Justice, foreign agents at Barzan Aeronautical work with U.S. government agencies to coordinate commercial and export matters, and handle legal issues related to those activities on behalf of Barzan Holdings.
From March 1 through Aug. 31, 2022, the period covered in the most recent supplemental statements on file with the Justice Department, Barzan Holdings’ foreign agents reported 115 contacts – including emails, meetings and phone calls – to the executive branch, members of Congress and American universities. Barzan Aeronautical worked with the State Department, Department of Defense and the Commerce Department “on procurement of technology” during that period. The company’s foreign agents also reached out to legislative officials, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and Rep. Nancy Mace (R–S.C.), to discuss commercial business.
Foreign agents of Barzan Aeronautical reached out to these lawmakers to “deal with education exchange, permitting and development issues, and procurement activities that are coordinated with the US government,” Ott told OpenSecrets.
In November 2021, the company announced plans to build a $14.7 million drone technology research, testing and distribution facility on Johns Island in Charleston, S.C., to support Qatari, U.S. and NATO defense and security. The U.S.-based firm selected Trident Technical College as its inaugural partner, according to FARA records, and sponsored an exchange program with the Barzan Aeronautical Campus in Doha.
CEO John Hardwick, also registered under FARA, celebrated the new facility as an opportunity “to grow our company and advance the defense and security objectives of Qatar and its allies” in informational materials on file with the Justice Department.
Barzan Aeronautical also reported a $28,000 contribution to Trident Technical College in 2021 for a “Barzan Aerospace Capstone Design Program 2021-2022.” Clemson University received $27,000, Tuskegee University received $26,000 and Brigham Young University received $40,000 for the same capstone program, according to a supplemental statement on file with the Justice Department.
Former members of Congress lobby for Qatar
Two former members of Congress that are now registered foreign agents of Qatar have lobbied extensively for the Gulf State’s government, documents filed under FARA show. Their efforts have been key in forging the U.S.-Qatari partnership.
In January 2022, Biden announced plans to nominate Qatar as a major non-NATO ally. Former Rep. Jim Moran (D–Va.), who has been a foreign agent for the government of Qatar since 2017, circulated an email announcing the plans, according to informational materials filed under FARA. He’s a senior policy adviser at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, which has received $9.3 million from the Qatari government since 2017, more money than any other lobbying firm, OpenSecrets previously reported.
The designation was published in the Federal Register on March 10, 2022.
Moran has also elevated pieces extolling the first parliamentary elections in Qatar in 2021 and thanks from members of Congress, government officials and prominent journalists to the government of Qatar for its role in helping evacuate Americans from Afghanistan during the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021.
“Many countries have stepped up to help the evacuation and relocation efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken is quoted as saying in informational materials circulated by Moran in October 2021.
Graham is also quoted as saying, “I really appreciate all the help by our Qatari allies regarding Afghanistan.” One American lobbyist registered as a foreign agent for the government of Qatar at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough reported contributing $5,800 to Graham’s campaign that month.
A Venable LLP lobbying team that includes former Rep. Bart Stupak (D–Mich.) circulated informational materials touting the role Qatar plays in the “United States’ foreign policy strategy on security, counterterrorism and the ongoing international pressure on Iran to discontinue its nuclear programs.”
Qatar was the top country represented by Venable LLP in 2021, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of FARA filings. The lobbying firm also elevated joint efforts including the role Qatar played in assisting the U.S. during the Afghanistan withdrawal in August 2021.
The Qatari government pays Venable $110,000 per month for government relations services, according to an updated copy of the contract filed under FARA. That’s down from $150,000 in 2018.
Neither Stupak nor Moran responded to requests for comment.
Arms imports from France, China and others also ramped up in wake of World Cup award
Qatar’s imports of arms from other countries also ramped up after 2010, according to SIRPI data. Around $8.3 billion of the $8.7 billion worth of arms Qatar has imported since 2000 came from 2010 through 2021.
After the United States, France is the second-largest arms exporter to Qatar, sending $2.3 billion worth of weapons to Qatar since 2010. A fighter jet deal between France and Qatar may have tipped the scale on the eyebrow-raising decision to award the World Cup to the Gulf State in 2022, according to former FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
In an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, Blatter said the U.S. was originally the favorite to host the 2022 World Cup – until former French President Nicholas Sarkozy stepped in to implore Michel Plantini, a former French soccer player and then-president of the Union of European Football Associations, to change his vote to Qatar. Six months later, Qatar closed a deal to buy $14.6 billion worth of fighter jets from France.
The vast majority of those jets were not exported to Qatar as of the end of 2021, according to SIPRI data accessed Dec. 13. But almost half of the weapons systems Qatar has imported since 2010 are aircrafts, and over a quarter of imported weapons systems are missiles.
The $1 billion sale approved by the Biden administration on Nov. 29 includes 10 defensive drone systems, 200 anti-drone interceptors and related equipment. The prime contractors are Raytheon, SRC and Northrop Grumman, according to a press release issued by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
Reporting Intern Filip Timotija and Senior Researcher Dan Auble contributed to this report.
This is part of a series investigating defense industry influence on policy and conflict throughout the world, made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.