Dubai: About a month ago the top of the iconic New York tower, Empire State building, was lit with colours of the Qatari flag.
That was to mark 10 years since Qatar Airways’ first flight to the American city.
The event was hailed by Qatari media, and other media outlets funded by Qatar, amid the diplomatic turmoil caused by Qatari statements reinforcing its policy of supporting terrorism and extremism.
Last August, Qatar Investment Fund — the country’s sovereign wealth fund — bought a stake (9.9 per cent) in the company that owns the Empire State for over $600 million (Dh2.2 billion).
A few days ago, Qatari media — including the Al Jazeera satellite channel — ran a story giving the impression that black-cab drivers in London were backing Qatar in the dispute over its support for extremist groups, which has led to a boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.
Some of the cabs carried ads saying: “Lift the blockade against the people of Qatar”.
Advertising agencies in the UK buy space on public transport vehicles to place their clients’ adverts — content which drivers are not necessarily aware of!
The Al Jazeera story didn’t include any clips from cab drivers, as it would have been embarrassing to ask one about a country he’d never heard of.
Yet, buying ad space on London’s black cabs doesn’t mean buying the sympathy of London’s cab drivers.
As Qatar owns the Shard, London’s tallest building, lighting it up with Qatar’s flag wouldn’t necessarily mean that London is backing Doha in the diplomatic row with its neighbours.
That approach of “money talks”, or “money buys it all’ is part of the Qatari way of advancing its policies — some of which are so harmful to the region and the world to the extent that its ‘brethren’ countries are boycotting it.
From the early years of Al Jazeera, many officials and prominent figures in the region and the West were keen to appear on its screen.
Some of them meant to send a message to the wider Arab audience, but some were seeking a permanent role.
Those later became ‘tied’ to Qatar — not only through the interview fees paid by Al Jazeera, but through other ambiguous roles as “advisers”, “consultants” or on-retainer pundits.
From individual ‘influencers’ — even before social media became so big that the term is associated with it — to think tanks, Qatar cultivated a circle of voices who would, if not support it, at least not criticise it even if the rest of the world did.
An example of that is the Brookings Institution, which now has a branch in the Qatari capital Doha.
That think tank alone got almost $15 million of Qatari funding since 2013.
The think tank is home to former American envoy to the Middle East Martin Indyk, who is its vice-president and director for foreign policy.
The Brookings Institution is an example of research and study centres in Doha, as well as in various cities from London to Istanbul, that are either fully funded by Qatar or receiving Qatari money in one way or another.
A friend who spent a short work spell in Doha a few years ago said, over the last decade or so, Qatar had a circle of what he called “Qatari Analati” — mocking analysts with the mystical languages of Dan Brown thrillers.
Some of the “money soft diplomacy” have failed — like the Al Jazeera America project and similar projects in the Balkans.
All this is different from the billions thrown on militant groups and individuals on almost all continents, as the countries boycotting Qatar have stated in many dossiers documenting its financial support for extremism.
As one of those who once worked for Qatar said: “Money can buy you an army of voices that defend your position, but it’s all useless if you’re stretching that position beyond what the fundamentals of geography and history allow.”
And that seems to be the problem of Doha, that London cabbies or Manhattan spectators don’t have a clue about it.
— Dr Ahmad Mustafa is an Abu Dhabi-based journalist