Qatar has parted ways with a longtime lobbyist who helped the Gulf nation build ties to NASA even as the space programs of its regional rivals are poised to reach new heights.
The Gallagher Group stopped lobbying for the Qatari Embassy in Washington effective March 27, according to a new filing. Firm President James Gallagher, a former senior legislative staffer at the Department of Defense and the office of then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), had represented the embassy since February 2015.
Gallagher first began to reach out to the National Aeronautics and Space Agency last August, past lobbying filings show, and eventually met with NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard on Oct. 1, 2019. Records indicate that the pair discussed the “Qatar-NASA relationship,” but offer no further details.
Neither Gallagher nor the Qatari embassy responded to a request for comment.
Qatar has been locked in a pitched battle for influence in Washington against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since June 2017, when the two countries began their ongoing blockade of Doha over its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. The rivalry has played out across the US political spectrum, with each side spending millions of dollars to get the Donald Trump administration, Congress and the media on their side.
“It would be naive to think that these countries pursuing space exploration are doing so without geopolitical rivalries factoring into the equation,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO Washington geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics. Cafiero added that technical partnerships among the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — including in space exploration — were a shared vision when the body was first established in 1981, but with today’s tensions each country is left to go it alone.
For now the momentum in the Gulf space race appears to reside with the United Arab Emirates, which is gearing up to launch its Hope Probe (“Al Amal” in Arabic) to Mars this summer from Japan, with a scheduled arrival date of February 2021. Last year, the UAE’s $6 billion space program garnered international headlines when Hazza al-Mansour spent eight days in space, the country’s first astronaut to go to space. Mansour flew to the International Space Station on a Russian spacecraft launched from a Kazakh spaceport leased to Moscow. The UAE space agency has also been cooperating with the United States, signing a new arrangement with NASA in October 2018 that outlines cooperation across a range of areas related to space exploration and human spaceflight.
In a May 7 blog post for the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW) co-authored with Kristian Alexander, Cafiero writes that the UAE has visions of become a leader in space exploration that can compete on an equal footing with established Middle East programs in Israel and Iran.
“In the Emirates, the narrative is partly about this initiative factoring into the broader context of international partnerships and cooperation,” the authors wrote. “The UAE seeks to bring together other Arab countries with the UAE taking the lead via the Arab Space Cooperation Group, focusing on environmental and weather-related projects.”
Saudi Arabia’s ambitions and ties to NASA go back even further. Saudi Space Commission Chairman Sultan bin Salman Al Saud was aboard the Discovery space shuttle when it launched into space in 1985. More recently in 2009, the US space agency and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) signed a joint statement that allows for collaboration in lunar and asteroid science research.
Qatar’s ties to the US space program have lagged behind. After relying on a European rocket to carry its first satellite into space in 2014, Doha chose a US delivery mechanism for its second one in 2018 — a Falcon 9 operated by private entrepreneur Elon Musk‘s SpaceX.