Earlier this summer, Qatar hired at least three firms to help shake off accusations of terrorist affiliation fired against its government by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE.
One of them, Avenue Strategies, was founded by Corey Lewandowski, a former campaign manager to President Donald Trump and includes George Birnbaum, a former chief-of-staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It will be costing Doha $150,000 (Dh551,000) monthly to provide “research, government relations, and strategic consulting services.” The contract adds that the PR firm may provide “communications with members of Congress and Congressional staff, executive branch officials, the media, and other individuals.”
The second firm is headed by former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, who held office at the time of 9/11. At a high cost of $2.5 million, he will audit Qatari efforts at halting terrorism funding.
The third and last firm, Information Management Services, will get paid $1.1 million for a renewable 3-month contract. Given their close ties to the White House, the three firms might try to mend broken political fences between Doha and Washington DC, given that President Trump has singled his siding with the Saudis while his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to stand on neutral ground in the Gulf crisis.
Pro-Qatar ads have already started appearing inside the famed black cabs of London, saying: “Lift the blockade against the people of Qatar.” Meanwhile, the Saudi-American Public Relations Affairs Committee has reportedly fired back with its own campaign, buying 30 seconds of television spots on NBC-4, for $138,000.
This is not the first time that Arab countries have resorted to western public relations agencies to polish their image. Former Tunisian President Zine Al Abedin Bin Ali had hired a leading British PR firm to polish his image and that of his country long before the “jasmine revolution” brought down his regime in January 2010. Before that he made sure that a positive article ran in the London press about Tunis, showing that the country was child-friendly, or welcoming to tourists, for example, rather than repressive of dissidents or run by an oligarchy loyal to the president’s family.
Such actions usually work when one wants to market his country to the outside world but this is not the case with Qatar. The tiny country’s image in the West is positive — certainly in no need of polishing. The purple and white colours of the Qatari flag are now immediately associated either with the 2022 Fifa World Cup or with prestigious American universities that have opened at Doha’s Education City, like Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon. Doha’s Hamad International Airport continues to receive international awards, while Qatar Airways is showered with praise. Simply: Qatar doesn’t need PR in London or New York — it needs it closer to home, in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama.
This is where the problem started and where serious work needs to be done to rebrand the country’s political orientation. No PR firm can do the job — it can be done by one person only, being Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
Only he has the power to change his country’s image in the eyes of its neighbours, and it’s not hard at all. No territorial concessions are required here — no 100-year leasing of ports or gas reserves, no snatching of sovereignty or destruction of economy. No extraditing of any Qatari top official, no toppling of the emir, and not even the changing of a single minister.
Dumping Hamas, Al Qaradawi
All Qatar needs to do is walk away from Hamas and Yousuf Al Qaradawi, while revamping Al Jazeera TV’s editorial policy. It also needs to stop sending money into Syria and elsewhere, which is finding its way into the pockets of Al Qaida, Jabhat Al Nusra, and Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. Shaikh Tamim can do it just like others have done before him, like Hafez Al Assad, who averted a military confrontation with Turkey by expelling Kurdish dissident Abdullah Ocalan from Syria back in 1998 — although it had hosted him and his notorious PKK for years.
So far, Qatar’s PR outburst to the Gulf states and wider Arab world has focused on milking the Palestinian cause — investing heavily in the latest standoff at the Al Aqsa Mosque — to show just how committed Doha and its emir are to justice in Palestine. After a wave of agony swept the Arab World since 2011, this doesn’t sell any longer throughout the region. In fact, it sounds and reads as cheap, cliché, and very outdated.
Somebody needs to whisper in the ear of the emir — and senior management at Al Jazeera — that they need to do a better job to polish their image; rather than spend millions on agencies in London and Washington, it’s far more urgent — and less costly — to do the job at home.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.