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How Saudis, Qataris and Emiratis took Washington

It was a bare-knuckle brawl of the first order. It took place in Washington, DC, and it resulted in a KO. The winners? Lobbyists and the defense industry. The loser? The United States. And, odds on, you didn’t even know that it happened.

Few Americans did, which is why it’s worth telling the story of how Saudi, Emirati and Qatari money flooded the nation’s capital and, in the process, American policy went down for the count.

The fight began three years ago this month. Sure, the pugilists hadn’t really liked each other that much before then, but what happened was the foreign-policy equivalent of a sucker punch.

On the morning of June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain announced they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, the small but wealthy emirate in the Persian Gulf, and establishing a land, air and sea blockade of their regional rival, purportedly because of its ties to terrorism.

The move stunned the Qataris, who responded in ways that would later become familiar during the Covid-19 pandemic – by emptying supermarket shelves and hoarding essentials they worried would quickly run out. Their initial fears were not unwarranted, as their neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were even reported to be planning to launch a military invasion of Qatar in the weeks to come, one that would be thwarted only by the strong objections of the US secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson.

To make sense of this now three-year-old conflict, which made political footballs out of aspects of US policy in the Middle East ranging from the war in Yemen to the more than 10,000 American military personnel stationed in Qatar, means refocusing on Washington and the extraordinary influence operations the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris ran there.

That, in turn, means analyzing Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) documents filed by firms representing all three countries since the spat began.

Do that and you’ll come across a no-punches-barred bout of lobbying in the US capital that would have made Rocky envious.

The Saudis come out swinging

The stage had been set for the blockade of Qatar seven months before it began when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Just as his victory shocked the American public, so it caught many foreign governments off guard.

In response, they quickly sought out the services of anyone with ties to the incoming administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.

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