Defense, Middle East, New in Lobbying, Regional conflicts

Qatar lobbies on F-35 sale to rival UAE

The Donald Trump‘s proposed sale of F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates is taking flak from another close US ally in the Middle East.

Even as Israel now says that it’s “very comfortable” with the proposed $10 billion sale of 50 of the advanced stealth fighters to the Gulf Arab state, UAE rival Qatar has been raising concerns behind the scenes. A new lobbying filing reveals that lobbyists with South Carolina-based Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough reached out to four key House Democrats in September and October regarding the proposed sale.

The push follows years of rivalry between Qatar and the UAE, which joined with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in June 2017 in cutting diplomatic ties and blockading the country over its support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups in the region. Since then the two nations have spent millions of dollars lobbying against each other in Washington, with the UAE notably pressing the Trump administration to force regional media powerhouse Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent of Doha.

The Senate is expected to vote on several resolutions opposing the sale this week. It’s not clear however if the House will have time to act before adjourning for the end of the year.

Nelson Mullins’ first contacts on the F-35 came in early September, when the firm reached out to the office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) around the time she penned an op-ed in the Miami Herald opposing the sale in part because of its potential to weaken Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. Wasserman Schultz chairs the panel that controls spending on military construction and is the Chief Deputy Whip of the Democratic Caucus.

“In addition to the possibility that a future UAE government could be hostile to Israel, the UAE is the locus of thousands of regular Iranian travelers, including intelligence operatives, who will seek sensitive information about the F-35,” she wrote. “Clearly, a more militarized region is not safer for Israel or for US interests.”

The firm also disclosed phone calls with three other House members in October regarding the F-35 sale and a potential meeting with Ambassador Meshal bin Hama Al Thani: House Defense Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.); Appropriations Committee member David Price (D-N.C.); and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

Former Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) is leading Nelson Mullins’ lobbying on Qatar.

He told Foreign Lobby Report that his discussions with lawmakers about the F-35 were aimed at gathering information about their position rather than lobbying them in any particular direction. Still, he made it clear that the Qataris share concerns expressed by some congressional members of both parties about the UAE’s military involvement in the conflicts in Yemen and Libya.

“It’s possible the Qataris would see the need to protect themselves if other neighbors got that kind of capability,” he said. “In a region where you’ve got some hot heads, they’re the responsible adult.”

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Qatar has asked to be able to acquire the F-35 following Trump’s proposed sale to the UAE, Reuters reported in October.

Meanwhile dozens of non-governmental organizations have joined on a letter to Congress and the Trump administration against the sale, in part because of the UAE’s actions in Yemen and Libya.

The UAE has responded with its lobbying offensive. A 13-page report that UAE lobbyists shared with policymakers argues that the country has deployed its current fleet of F-16s in support of numerous US-led missions in the region and proved itself to be worthy of being the first Arab country to field the F-35.

“The sale of the F-35 to the UAE is much more than selling military hardware to a partner,” the report states. “It is about advancing a more stable and secure Middle East. It enables the UAE to take on more of the burden for collective security from the United States.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said the spat over the F-35 wasn’t tied to any real concerns over a possible confrontation between Qatar and the UAE, which are ideological but not military foes.

“It’s been an opportunity for Qatar to harass the UAE,” he said. “But they can’t block this.”

Ibish said the sale looked likely to go through, leaving President-elect Joe Biden with a “fait accompli” that he would have little motivation to overturn — especially amid growing signs that the UAE and Qatar will finally bury the hatchet during the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council later this month.

Qatar’s lobbying on the F-35 was disclosed in a semi-annual lobbying filing that covers the six months through October. During that time Nelson Mullins disclosed $800,000 from the government of Qatar.

In addition to the F-35 issue, the firm also disclosed a May phone call with Department of Justice Assistant Director Steve Gillingham regarding a request to “investigate and prosecute purveyors of media disinformation directed at Qatar.” The topic of “UAE disinformation campaign against Qatar” and “UAE lobbying against Qatar” also came up in discussions with foreign policy advisers for Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

In May the firm organized phone calls with Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) regarding the Defense Appropriation bill. Lobbyists also spoke with House Foreign Affairs Committee members Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Bill Keating (D-Mass.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) about a range of issues include the Trump administration’s stated interest in designating Qatar a major non-NATO ally, preferential access to U.S. military equipment and technology.

Finally Nelson Mullins partner Vinoda Basnayake accompanied Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Jim Hines (D-Conn.) on a trip to Qatar in October funded by the government of Qatar.