Media wars, Middle East, Top Stories

UAE lobby sought out congressional hawks on Al Jazeera attack

Lobbyists for the United Arab Emirates were in touch with Congress for months prior to the release of a July report accusing Al Jazeera of being a foreign agent of Qatar, a new lobbying disclosure with the Department of Justice shows.

The interactions shed new light on the close cooperation between the UAE and hawks on Capitol Hill on efforts to tamp down the news channel’s global influence. Critics accuse Al Jazeera of fomenting unrest in the region through its perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood and say its criticism of Israel can veer into anti-Semitism.

The report spearheaded by former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, is dated July 6. Ros-Lehtinen is now a senior adviser with the lobbying firm. The report was first shared with the right-wing Washington Free Beacon.

Akin Gump contacted congressional offices starting way back as February to discuss its “upcoming report” on “foreign media issues,” according to the firm’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing for the first half of the year. The filing discloses contacts with seven congressional offices on the issue:

  • Feb. 12: Meeting with Jonathan Day, chief of staff for House Foreign Affairs MENA panel ranking member Joe Wilson (R-S.C.);
  • March 2: Meeting with House Appropriations member Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and chief of staff Cesar Gonzales;
  • March 3: Meeting with then-House Foreign Affairs member (now White House chief of staff) Mark Meadows (R-N.C.);
  • March 11: Meeting with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and legislative assistant Michelle Schein;
  • March 12: Call with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.);
  • March 17: Call with Jenna Lifhits, deputy policy director for House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.);
  • June 8: Call to Sara Matar, legislative assistant to Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.);
  • June 16: Email to Schein (Sherman);
  • June 17: Call with Matar (Zeldin);
  • June 19: Emails to Matar (Zeldin);
  • June 22: Email to Matar (Zeldin);
  • June 22: Emails to Schein (Sherman);
  • June 24: Calls to Schein (Sherman);
  • June 24: Emails to Matar (Zeldin);
  • June 25: Call to Matar (Zeldin);
  • June 29: Emails to Matar (Zeldin).

The report seeks to refute Al Jazeera’s insistence that it is independent of the Qatari government and insists that it should register under FARA, as have Russia’s RT, China’s CGTN, and Turkey’s TRT.

“The following report gathers publicly available records of the relationship between Qatar and Al Jazeera in one place,” she wrote. “The United States needs to take a hard look at its relationship with Qatar and to compel Al Jazeera the media network that is owned, funded, directed, and controlled by the Qatari government to register with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”

Ros-Lehtinen said much the same thing during her own time in Congress. Her report contains similar arguments and allegations that lawmakers have used in recent years when pressing the Justice Department to force Al Jazeera to register, down to several of the sources mentioned in her report’s footnotes.

Ros-Lehtinen did not respond to a request for comment. Akin Gump declined to comment.

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Congressional pressure has continued since the report’s release. Just last week, Zeldin spearheaded a new letter to Attorney General William Barr urging that Al Jazeera be made to register under FARA. Cotton and Cheney were among those who signed on.

Al Jazeera has pushed back with its influence campaign, part of a broader multi-million-dollar Arab Gulf lobbying battle since the UAE and Saudi Arabia ruptured diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017.

Just in the first half of this year, the company has paid lobbying firm DLA Piper and its subcontractors CLS Strategies and TCK International $640,000 to defend its reputation. The company hired DLA Piper in June 2019 to lobby on “informational communications regarding client’s journalism, press freedom, and other issues impacting client’s US operations.”

The Al Jazeera report only amounted to part of Akin Gump’s UAE lobbying in the first half of the year. The UAE Embassy in Washington paid the firm $800,000 to lobby on US sanctions on Iran, the UAE withdrawal from the war in Yemen, arms sales and the Qatar blockade.

In January, the firm helped organize meetings at the UAE Central Bank, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and Etihad Airways for a US Commerce Department delegation led by Assistant Secretary for Global Markets Ian Steff. And on March 10, the firm helped organize an “introductory meeting” between Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba and Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), Cherie Boustos (D-Ill.) and Bill Keating (D-Mass.).

Finally, UAE lobbyists rushed to respond to concerns from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) regarding Ambassador Otaiba’s June 12 op-ed in Israeli media warning that annexation of the West Bank could set back Israel’s improving ties with Arab countries:

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Akin Gump lobbying disclosure / Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)