Martha Lee and Sam Westrop
On June 4, the Washington Times published a “special section” of articles lavishing praise on Qatar, its institutions, and its global influence. Each of these articles was labeled as “sponsored,” although the Times neglects to say by whom. At first glance, this is a surprising insertion in a conservative paper whose editorial board has previously been critical of the Middle Eastern state.
While Qatari money is everywhere, in previous years its influence had been perceived mostly on the American left. Qatar’s media empire Al Jazeera, for example, operates a social media platform named AJ+, which has partnered with hard left-leaning American outlets such as the Young Turks.
Meanwhile, prominent think tanks such as the Brookings Institution have received tens of millions from Doha. Brookings got $15 million in 2013, and at least $2 million in just the past year — perhaps much more. Such generosity has afforded Brookings a plush center in Doha. Meanwhile, the Qatari regime enjoys a steady flow of academic papers downplaying the kingdom’s patronage of violent Islamism and painting its ties to designated terror groups as nothing more than earnest attempts at dialogue, carried out in an attempt to acquire influence for the sake of benevolence.
But institutions such as Brookings — along with many American universities (including public colleges) that enjoy similar arrangements — are not Doha’s only playthings. Over the past few years, there have been noticeable Qatari attempts to win friends and influence people outside the usual ambit of the Left.
The most prominent (and curious) example that received some public attention in the last few years has been the offers of cash and travel invitations presented to leading American Jewish organizations since 2017.
The Zionist Organization of America was widely denounced in Jewish media after it initially accepted Qatar’s invitations and funding. Doha thought, incorrectly it seems, that it could both fund Hamas and win American Jewish support.
At the time, the media noted that prominent Republican Mike Huckabee also accepted $50,000 and a trip to Doha. Huckabee’s inclusion in Qatar’s subornations was explained by the media as a consequence of his longstanding ties to pro-Israel Jewish organizations. But, apparently to few people’s notice, Qatar has been placing unabashedly pro-Qatari messages in American conservative media for a while now. It seems Huckabee was not just sought for his Jewish connections, but for his conservative standing.
The splash of pro-Qatari messaging in the strongly conservative Washington Times on June 4 was significant, but not new. Of the 25 articles published, five were written by Times columnist Tim Constantine, who is a regular at Republican gatherings and has some influence as a talk radio host of “The Capitol Hill Show.” Over the past few years, Constantine has used both his columns in the Times and his radio show to lionize Qatar, give platforms to regime officials, and denounce the iniquities of Qatar’s greatest antagonist, Saudi Arabia.
The most brazenly pro-Qatari piece by Constantine is a May 2018 article that offers a series of Qatari regime announcements about the wonders of Qatar, lists the miraculous triumphs of its businesses and societal institutions, and explains to readers why the Saudi Arabia-led blockade of Qatar is so innately wicked.
On his website, Constantine describes himself as a “breath of fresh air in today’s world of mindless talking points.” And yet his 2018 column reads almost exactly how one would imagine a press release of a duplicitous, despotic regime with a competent media department would sound.
“The desire to be the best, to invest in the future, to seek out experts in every field from all over the globe, and to respect ancient traditions and religious sensibilities while simultaneously embracing the modern world — it is all nothing short of amazing,” he writes. “Whether it is the architecture, the infrastructure, educational opportunities, sporting events, health care or a new national library, Qatar is clearly committed to being the very best.”
Neither this article, nor any of Constantine’s articles on Qatar-related topics before June 2019, have been labeled as “sponsored.” And Constantine neglects to mention in his May 2018 article that he had just visited Qatar, where he met with the spokesperson for Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, Lolwah Al-Khater. It seems Constantine has a rather good relationship with this particular regime spokesperson — inviting her to present (unchallenged) Qatari talking points on his radio show, and moderating a discussion with her in March 2019 at the Gulf International Forum, a Qatari-linked think tank in D.C.
Indeed, as part of her visit to D.C. in March, Al-Khater visited the offices of the Washington Times to meet with reporters and editors, who followed up with a rather complimentary report of the visit. And less than one week after the June 4 “special section” on Qatar, the Times gave column inches to Jassim Bin Mansour Al-Thani, Qatar’s “media attaché,” who once again laid out the case against Saudi Arabia and its allies.
When we asked the Washington Times about the June 4 “special section” on Qatar, we were told the newspaper could not confirm who the sponsor was. We then asked Constantine if he had accepted money from the Qatari regime to write his articles. He told us he’s “not comfortable having that conversation.”
Constantine is far from the only example of Qatari influence in conservative circles. Sohrab “Rob” Sobhani, a former lecturer at (Qatari-funded) Georgetown University, has published paeans to Qatar in the Washington Times, The Hill, the Weekly Standard, and National Review going as far back as 2002.
In December 2018, the Washington Examiner‘s Tom Rogan had cottoned on to Sobhani’s game. Rogan wrote, “In a particularly ludicrous article for the Washington Times on Tuesday, Rob Sobhani offers a love letter to Qatar. While it reads like the work of a lobbyist, neither Sobhani nor his company is listed as such with the U.S. government. So, we must assume the author’s assertions of love for Qatar’s government are heartfelt.”
In fact, we found that Sobhani previously served as a President of the Qatar Foundation, one of the regime’s most important institutions, which manages to bestow tens of millions of dollars on American schools and universities (which subsequently make use of pro-Qatari teaching materials) while also hosting senior Hamas officials at its headquarters in Doha.
But Rogan was correct. The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires anyone serving a foreign government in a political capacity to disclose this information. Sobhani does not appear on any filings that would indicate he is a paid lobbyist for the Qatari regime. Nor does Constantine or most others who openly parrot Qatari talking points in American media.
Qatar relies on the longstanding, reasonable belief among conservative Americans that Saudi Arabia is the chief source of terror and extremism. Qatar advances the narrative that it is under siege from other countries in its region because they are opposed to Doha’s progressive, moderate beliefs.
But the very opposite appears to be true. Qatar, the world’s second most famous Wahhabi regime, has a long history of enabling terror and funding extremism. It shares much in common with Saudi Arabia, but it also possesses the media savvy to persuade Americans otherwise. American news outlets should not be willing partners to this deception.
Martha Lee is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Sam Westrop is the director of the Forum’s Islamist Watch project.