Qatar may have been the worst-performing host country in World Cup history, but the oil-rich Gulf State is winning its public relations campaign, bolstering an extensive foreign influence operation in the United States.
The Qatari government has paid registered foreign agents $72.3 million since 2015, the first year it significantly ramped up its U.S. lobbying operation, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of Foreign Agents Registration Act filings. That’s more than some federal lobbying powerhouses including Apple or the National Rifle Association spent through the same period.
Foreign agents developed a progressive, innovative image of the Qatari government to present to policymakers, civil servants and others in Washington, D.C., and beyond, an analysis of FARA disclosures found. That image focused on culture, American national security and, of course, soccer.
But OpenSecrets also found some public relations activities by the Qatari committee tasked with overseeing the World Cup are not included in that total, as they don’t fall neatly into the guardrails that trigger foreign lobbying disclosures.
One ad airing in the U.S. during World Cup commercial breaks lauds Qatar’s commitment to “growing its potential as a partner, investor and innovator” as dramatic music plays in the background and images of Microsoft Qatar and Al Udeid Air Base flash by. The ad is sponsored by the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the Qatari government entity “responsible for the oversight and delivery of stadiums and related infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar,” according to informational materials filed under FARA in 2018.
Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani, brother of the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, helms the executive committee in charge of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. Prior to his prominent positions in the Qatari government, Al Thani chaired Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
The Emir appointed Al Thani as secretary for investment affairs in 2017. According to the information materials filed with the Justice Department under FARA, he represented the Emir in “high level strategic and investment discussions with a particular focus on the US market.”
The ad is clearly geared toward influencing an American audience, two foreign influence experts told OpenSecrets. But Joshua Rosenstein, a FARA expert and member at the law firm Sandler Reiff, told OpenSecrets that even though the ad does “extol the virtues of a foreign government,” it’s not a clear-cut violation without “obvious evidence” that the Qatari government hired a firm to handle the ad.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy did not respond to requests for comment.
FARA requires registration by all foreign agents working to influence U.S. public opinion or policy on behalf of a foreign principal — which can include foreign governments and political parties as well as some other foreign nationals, nonprofits and corporations — so long as their activities do not fall under an exemption. While there is an obvious foreign principal in the World Cup ad, there is not a clear foreign agent acting on behalf of the Qatari government, Rosenstein told OpenSecrets.
Fox Sports, the broadcaster, is also not liable and cannot be compelled to register as a foreign agent, Rosenstein told OpenSecrets. But some U.S. fans have criticized Fox Sports for “shilling for Qatar.” David Neal, executive producer of Fox Sports’ World Cup coverage, said the network would not cover allegations of migrant labor deaths if they are “ancillary to the story of the tournament.”
Qatar’s public relation platforms in the U.S.
Foreign agents disclosed several public relations activities under FARA, including events in the U.S. that the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy participated in during the lead up to the 2022 World Cup.
The committee’s secretary general gave a talk at the Qatar-U.S. Economic Forum in Miami, Fla., in April 2018 for U.S. companies. The talk focused on opportunities for U.S. companies to collaborate on the 2022 World Cup, but informational materials filed under FARA show panelists came from a variety of industries, including the director of energy policies and international cooperation at Qatar Petroleum and the CEO of the Qatar Development Bank.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy also established an annual innovation award in 2015, the year Qatar started ramping up U.S. influence and lobbying efforts. According to informational materials filed under FARA, the award “aims to promote regional innovations that at the same time enhance the infrastructure and visitor experience for the 2022 World Cup.”
But not all of the Qatari government’s public relations efforts fall neatly under FARA.
Concordia, a U.S. nonprofit organization that promotes social impact partnerships, hosted an annual summit in New York City in September 2022 where the secretary general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Hassan Al Thawadi, spoke with reporter Reshmin Chowdhury.
“If a nation truly exploits the opportunity, it gets to push forward and accelerate a lot of its agenda, whether we’re talking about infrastructure development or social reforms,” said Al Thawadi. He also encouraged tourism to Qatar, saying “we welcome the world” when asked about Qatar’s criminalization of same-sex relationships.
Concordia did not register as a foreign agent of the government of Qatar, exploiting what Rosenstein called “FARA wiggle room” surrounding nonprofits and ongoing work with foreign governments.
Event materials clearly state Qatar’s Supreme Committee is a “principal programming partner.” Rita Lockheart, senior communications manager at Concordia, told OpenSecrets in a written statement that the Qatari government did not have editorial control over the interview, but added their status as a principal programming partner means Concordia undertakes a “year-round focus on the Supreme Committee’s Generation Amazing work.”
During the summit, the Supreme Committee and Concordia signed a memorandum of understanding to “raise awareness” of future legacy committee projects. In a press release, Al Thawadi called the Concordia summit an “invaluable platform to share the story of Qatar’s World Cup,” adding, “We look forward to working with Concordia as we strive to achieve our legacy goals.”
Lockheart declined to share a copy of the memorandum with OpenSecrets, citing confidentiality reasons. She said Concordia does not undertake lobbying efforts, but seeks to use its platform to raise awareness and identify opportunities for public-private partnerships.
Sports diplomacy overshadows human rights concerns
Since the International Federation of Association Football awarded Qatar hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup in 2010, allegations of bribery, lack of fundamental freedoms and accusations of unsafe working conditions for migrant workers have clouded the global celebration. Qatar has drawn criticism for “sportswashing,” a term used to describe when governments or regimes use sports to improve their reputation, enhancing their legitimacy despite allegations of wrongdoing.
In February 2021, an explosive report from The Guardian estimated 6,500 migrant workers have died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup. The Gulf State poured over $200 billion into stadiums, metro rail lines and other infrastructure projects to prepare for the tournament.
The Qatari government has disputed those figures, originally insisting only three deaths were linked to work constructing the World Cup stadiums. But on Nov. 28, Al Thawadi told British journalist Piers Morgan that the official figure was between 400 and 500.
Amid increased international pressure to reform labor practices in 2017, the government of Qatar awarded a $1.3 million grant to Harris County, Texas, for the construction of three soccer fields in Alabonson Park. Hurricane Harvey devastated neighborhoods in the county, and the Qatar Harvey Fund was meant to “provide much needed athletic and recreation space for the community,” according to its website.
In a pamphlet disseminated by foreign agents of the Qatari government in August 2022, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis is quoted as saying, “I am extremely grateful that Qatar has been here for our city after we faced one of the greatest challenges in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.”
The grant was part of a $30 million Qatar Harvey Fund, which a fact sheet disseminated by Qatari foreign agents says is similar to their $100 million Qatar Katrina Fund established in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That fund also awarded a grant to reconstruct hospitals damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
“Not only are you giving a gift that helps our area recover from Harvey, you’re giving a gift that’s going to serve generations and generations to come,” former judge Ed Emmett is quoted as saying in informational materials disseminated by Qatari foreign agents in May 2022.
By highlighting these acts of goodwill and sports diplomacy, foreign agents elevated Qatar’s relationship with key government officials in the United States, even as journalists and advocates cried foul on human rights abuses and the lack of fundamental freedoms afforded to women and the LGBTQ community in Qatar.
Qatar has also paid for congressional delegations to visit Doha. During these visits, Qatari officials – including members of the Supreme Committee on Delivery and Legacy – discussed “the benefits of deep political, economic, educational and military cooperation between the U.S. and Qatar” with lawmakers, according to a press release from Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who led a bipartisan delegation to Qatar in 2019.
Draft schedules included in informational materials filed under FARA show plans for lawmakers to meet with the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy “to discuss effects of the World Cup and Qatar’s vision for sustained economic growth after the event” as well as tour World Cup soccer stadiums that were under construction.
Ahead of the World Cup game between Wales and the United States on Nov. 21, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered remarks at a “Sports Diplomacy Event” in Oxygen Park on the Education City campus in Doha.
“[W]hat’s so wonderful about the work that all of you are doing is that it started well before the World Cup, and it’s going to continue long after the World Cup,” Blinken said.
Qatar’s top lobbyists
While the Qatari government has spent less money on foreign agents than it did at its peak in 2017 and 2018, it has significantly bolstered its roster of foreign lobbying firms from five in 2015 to 23 so far in 2022.
Qatar is one of the least free countries in the world, according to the nonprofit human rights watchdog Freedom House. But the image painted by Qatari foreign agents is one of a country that respects human rights and is a valuable strategic and commercial partner in the Middle East.
The government of Qatar has paid more money to Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough than any other lobbying firm registered under FARA, an OpenSecrets analysis found. The firm received more than $9.3 million from the government of Qatar since 2017, and Qatar has been the firm’s top country represented every year since 2018.
Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough provides research, government relations and strategic consulting for the government of Qatar, according to an updated copy of the contract filed under FARA in November. Foreign agents also communicate with Congress and the White House “to advance the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and the State of Qatar.”
According to a supplemental statement filed on Nov. 30, foreign agents with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough held several in-person meetings with members of Congress to discuss the World Cup. The firm reported an “at length discussion of Human Rights and Labor conditions in Qatar in the context of World Cup preparations” with Rep. Don Beyer (D–Va.) on Sept. 22.
Former Rep. Jim Moran (D–Va.) is registered as foreign agent of Qatar. In 2018, Moran circulated an email on “progress on international labor rights,” highlighting reforms that the Qatari government made to labor practices that include allowing migrant workers to leave the country without permission or permits.
Moran was the senior legislative adviser at McDermott, Will & Emery, which has received more than $840,000 from the government of Qatar for federal lobbying. The former congressman received $40,000 a month from the government of Qatar from July 2017 through August 2019, according to his foreign agent registration paperwork on file with the Justice Department. He is now a senior policy adviser at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, where he is a registered foreign agent for Qatar.
Former Rep. Bart Stupak (D–Mich.) is also registered as a foreign agent for the Qatari government with the lobbying firm Venable LLP in 2019. His team has worked to highlight 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,” according to an email on file with FARA circulated in 2019.
Neither Moran nor Stupak returned requests for comment from OpenSecrets.
The former Serbian ambassador to the U.S., Vladimir Petrović, also registered as a foreign agent for Qatar with Praia Consultants in October. Qatar has paid Praia Consultants $1.7 million since 2020 – including almost $1 million in 2021 alone – and the Gulf State was the only country represented by Praia Consultants from 2020 to 2022.
A Center for International Policy report by Ben Freeman, former director of the center’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative and current foreign influence research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, mapped out 2018 influence campaigns by the government of Qatar and other foreign principals in Qatar such as the Qatar Foundation. The 33 firms working on behalf of Qatari clients – including non-governmental clients – received a combined $18 million that year.
Qatari foreign agents contacted the offices of more than two-thirds of all members of Congress, the report found, and 59 members of Congress received campaign contributions from firms that contacted their offices on behalf of Qatar. Three of those contributions came on the same day foreign agents contacted the office.
Foreign agents contributed more than $1.2 million to nearly 1,000 campaigns in 2018, a midterm year, the report found.
Reporting Intern Filip Timotija contributed to this report.