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Doha's American Influence Operation
How Qatar shapes public opinion while avoiding scrutiny.
This is a The Dossier contributor article by Pedro Gonzalez, an outstanding journalist who publishes Contra, which is also on Substack. You can subscribe to Contra here.
The dust from a deadly terrorist attack launched by Hamas from Gaza against Israel had not settled when Khaled Meshaal, who led the group between 1992 and 2012, called for global demonstrations of Muslim unity.
“To all scholars who teach jihad,” he said, “to all who teach and learn, this is a moment for the application (of theories).”
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But although Hamas is based in Gaza, Meshaal is not. Like several other Hamas officials, he operates out of Qatar, a tiny country, smaller than Connecticut, with the fourth-highest GDP per capita in the world that claims the third-largest natural gas and oil reserves. It is also home to America’s largest base in the Middle East.
Americans always hear about Iran and how it sponsors terrorism around the world. Rarely do they learn, however, about Qatar, although it is closely linked with groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The obscurity is by design. The Gulf country has spent billions of dollars in the U.S. on a highly effective influence operation that has helped it evade public scrutiny.
Influence is multi-faceted. There are different components to it: political, economic, and cultural. It’s not just dumping dollars into lobbyists—although Qatar does plenty of that.
Between 2015 and 2022, the Qatari crown spent $72.3 million on its U.S. lobbying operation, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of Foreign Agents Registration Act filings. That’s more than Apple or the National Rifle Association paid lobbyists in the same period. But that figure is dwarfed by the money Qatar has spent on cultivating cultural capital.
It hosted the most expensive World Cup ever, spending $300 billion on the event in 2022. This summer, as part of a $4.05 billion deal, the Qatar Investment Authority moved to acquire a stake in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBA’s Washington Wizards, NHL’s Washington Capitals and WNBA’s Washington Mystics. According to Sportico, which first broke the story, it marked “the first time a sovereign fund has invested in major U.S. team sports.”
China is probably the best example of how a country can insulate itself from criticism by investing overseas in sports and entertainment. It’s well-known that agents caution NBA players, so outspoken on American domestic politics, against talking badly about the Middle Kingdom. Likewise, Hollywood is notorious for kowtowing to the demands of Chinese censors.
Qatar is essentially following the Chinese model, down to spending big on higher education.
An analysis published last year by the National Association of Scholars found that Qatar recently became the top foreign funder of American universities, donating at least $4.7 billion since 2001. “The top recipients of Qatari funds have something in common: they all have branch campuses in the country,” wrote Neetu Arnold, a research associate with the association.
Northwestern University, for example, has received more than $600 million since it was approached by Qatar in 2006. Northwestern University in Qatar, NU-Q, opened in 2008. Cornell tops Northwestern with $1.7 billion since launching its Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar branch in 2001.
In Northwestern’s case, the partnership with Qatar is designed to build the country’s media presence (and influence) in the United States by cultivating the next generation of journalists. “At first, this purpose was largely unstated,” wrote Arnold. “In 2013, however, NU-Q entered a formal agreement with the Qatari-owned news outlet Al Jazeera designed to train journalists for the outlet. NU-Q and Al Jazeera signed a Memorandum of Understanding that created Al Jazeera scholarships for NU-Q students and established journalist exchange programs and training workshops in which the students could participate.”
Although Al Jazeera America shuttered in 2016, AJ+, a social media outfit owned by Al Jazeera Media Network, still reaches English-speaking audiences, pushing progressive politics in the West that are at odds with both the Islamic extremism backed by the Qatari government and the reign of the conservative monarchy at home. Promoting leftism abroad is a way of subverting rivals.
But this time, Qatar’s influence operations might not be enough to avoid a reckoning. The Oct. 7 attack that left 1,400 Israelis, mainly civilians, dead and kicked off a war in the region has thrust the country into the spotlight due to its relationship with Hamas. Qatar has long played with fire, and it might finally get burned.
Pedro Gonzalez is the publisher of Contra on Substack. He has written for many publications, including The New York Post, The Washington Times, Fox News, and The National Interest. Pedro has also appeared on shows such as Tucker Carlson Tonight and The Hill’s Rising with Krystal & Saagar