Prominent U.S. Lobbyists Have Not Commented on Qatar Ties

Key figures in Gulf crisis end relationships with Doha after emir’s embrace of radical Islamic preacher

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani / Getty
June 7, 2018

After multiple people central to Qatar's efforts to win influence in the United States severed ties with the Persian Gulf country this week, influential U.S. lobbyists with connections to Doha have not said whether they plan to follow suit.

Key figures who helped Qatar improve its standing in the U.S., make politically useful investments, and gain favor with the American Jewish community ended their relationships with the Qatari government after the country's leader embraced a prominent Islamic scholar who has called for the killing of Jews and Americans at an event last week.

However, at least two big-name lobbyists receiving money from Qatar are not saying whether they'll do the same.

Neither Jim Courtovich, Washington-based lobbyist and founder and managing partner of Sphere Consulting, nor Florida-based lobbyist Brian Ballard, president of Ballard Partners, responded to requests for comment on details of their business relations with Qatar and whether they are considering amending or terminating those relations.

Courtovich previously signed a deal to represent Qatar as a lobbying client, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing from February. Under the deal, Sphere Consulting's sister firm, Sphere Government Relations, receives $40,000 a month and "provide[s] government and public relations services for Qatar with regard to bilateral issues pertaining to the relationship between Qatar and the United States. Such services may include outreach to the United States Congress, the federal government, and the media."

Ballard Partners earlier this year signed a contract with Qatar's embassy in the United States under which the firm "provide[s] strategic consulting and advocacy services" to the embassy "in connection with its business with the executive agencies of Florida governmental [and] private entities located within the state of Florida and the United States government." Such services can cover areas including "enhancing U.S.-Qatar bilateral ties, developing trade, investment, and business opportunities."

The agreement became effective on March 29 and runs through March 31 of next year. Under the contract's terms, the Qatari embassy pays Ballard's firm $175,000 a month for its duration, not including "reasonable costs associated with the representation" such as travel expenses. The second $175,000 monthly payment was due on May 1. It is unclear whether the firm intends to remain in the agreement for the full year or whether it has received payment beyond the initial $175,000 upon signing the contract.

Multiple top Qatari agents recently cut ties with Qatar, Politico reported Thursday. New York businessman Joey Allaham, a restaurateur born in Syria, had helped Qatar gain favor with the American Jewish community and make "politically useful investments" until he ended his relationship with the country.

"Qatar enjoys portraying themselves as the purveyor of peace in the region, but this could not be further from the truth," Allaham told Politico.

Allaham had become a crucial behind-the-scenes figure in the Qatari effort to gain the United States's support in the current Gulf crisis, a dispute between Qatar and other Middle Eastern states. The rift began last June, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism and close relationship with Iran.

For the past year, the countries involved have launched major influence operations to gain support within the United States.

Allaham was working closely with Nick Muzin, a former adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who also stopped working for Doha.

"Stonington Strategies is no longer representing the state of Qatar," Muzin wrote on Twitter. "I am proud of the work we did to foster peaceful dialogue in the Middle East, to increase Qatar's defense and economic ties with the United States, and to expand humanitarian support of Gaza."

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, also shut down any potential future work with Qatar. "I've lost confidence that they're at all serious about changing," he said.

Klein traveled to Qatar in January with prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz to discuss improved relationships with the Jewish community. Israeli officials and many American Zionists condemned the move, citing Qatar's ties to Iran and support for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

Both Klein and Allaham cited Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani's decision to invite Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the aforementioned Islamic preacher, to a banquet as a major reason for their new positions on Qatar.

Al-Qaradawi, a radical Egyptian preacher and Muslim Brotherhood leader based in Doha, was banned from visiting the United States because of his calls to kill Jews and Americans. He previously issued a fatwa stating that Muslims who are killed fighting U.S. soldiers in Iraq are martyrs and in 2009 expressed hope for another Holocaust, calling Adolf Hitler's attempted genocide against the Jews "divine punishment" for their "corruption."

Al-Thani on Wednesday hosted al-Qaradawi and other religious leaders at an iftar banquet for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Photos emerged from the event showing al-Thani hugging al-Qaradawi and giving the preacher the seat of honor next to him.

Since the Gulf crisis began, the Qatari government has received intense scrutiny for financing Islamist terrorist groups. President Donald Trump called Qatar a "funder of terrorism" and backed its Gulf rivals last year, before calling the emir a "great friend" during a warm meeting between the two men in Washington, D.C., in April. At the meeting, both leaders promised to work as allies to stop terrorist funding.

Experts have long noted Qatar's ties to terrorist financing and have accused Doha of spreading anti-American propaganda by funding the media network Al Jazeera.