The Gulf crisis: A lesson in reputation management

Lurking below the surface of the Gulf crisis, are rival, yet troubled, attempts by Qatar and its detractors to use sports to boost soft power and/or launder tarnished images of their autocracies.

Ironically, the crisis threatens to have levelled the playing field in a bitter media and public diplomacy war that was covert prior to the seven-week-old Saudi-UAE-Bahraini-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. If anything, the Gulf crisis has emerged as a case study of the pitfalls of reputation management in which sports is an important tool. On balance, it so far has had different effects on the reputations of three of the key protagonists.

It has also served to highlight the pot-blames-the-kettle-character of the Gulf crisis, most recently with the disclosure that North Koreans were employed not only in Qatar on World Cup-related projects, but also on a UAE military base that hosts US forces. The disclosure of relations with North Korea is awkward at a time of increased tension between North Korea and the United States over the pariah state’s ballistic missile and nuclear program.

A Washington-based Saudi dissident group, the Institute for Gulf Affairs, recently published a memo reportedly from the State Department as well as emails from the hacked account of Yousef al-Otaiba, the high-profile UAE ambassador to the United States, that asserted that a UAE company, Al-Mutlaq Technologies, had bought $100 million worth of weapons from North Korea for use in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

Qatar, plagued by allegations that its successful bid for the 2022 World Cup hosting rights lacked integrity and that its migrant labour regime amounted to slavery, has scored reputational gains in the Gulf crisis despite the recent revelations related to North Korea. While the revelations reinforced concerns about Qatar’s policies and labour regime, they also suggested that issues at stake in the Gulf crisis constituted regional problems rather than exclusive concern about just one of the Gulf states.

The UAE, a driving force in the anti-Qatar campaign that uses the hosting of international sporting events to boost its image, has suffered because of its failure and that of its alliance partners to garner widespread international support for its tactics and demands that were perceived as unreasonable, unactionable, and designed to undermine Qatari sovereignty and independence. The UAE’s North Korea link as well as allegations by human rights groups,  denied by the government in Abu Dhabi, that the UAE was backing the abuse of prisoners in Yemen has done little to enhance the Gulf state’s reputation.

Qatar and the UAE’s North Korean links could put the two Gulf states in the Trump administration’s firing line as it considers how to respond the Pyongyang’s most recent ballistic missile test that the pariah state claims would allow it to target any US city. Pressuring countries to back away from economic relations with North Korea, the Trump administration recently extended sanctioning of Sudan for among other things not being fully committed to implementing United Nations sanctions on the country.

Saudi Arabia promised Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, during a visit earlier this month to the kingdom as well as the UAE, that it would continue to see improvement of relations between Sudan and the United States despite the African country’s refusal to join the Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar.

Neither the Gulf crisis nor sports has done much for Bahrain, its image tarnished by its brutal suppression in 2011 of a popular revolt with the help of Saudi and UAE forces, and its subsequent repression of opposition forces and continuous violations of basic human rights. Worse even, the Gulf crisis has focussed attention on Bahrain’s failed effort to use sports to polish its tarnished image and put it in the spotlight as an example of the degree to which smaller Gulf states risk losing their ability to chart an independent course.

As the quarrelling Gulf states pour millions of dollars into hiring public relations and lobbying firms in Washington and elsewhere with the UAE as the largest spender, Qatar can shrug off in both reputational and financial terms a $51,000 fine by world soccer body FIFA. Qatar was fined because its national team wore jerseys in a World Cup qualifier against South Korea that featured a drawing of Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The drawing has come to symbolize a wave of Qatari nationalism sparked by the Gulf crisis.

The public diplomacy war has expanded beyond a constant diet of allegations against one another in state-controlled media of the Gulf protagonists into Saudi-sponsored tv spots on US television and rival advertisements on London’s famous black cabs, alternatively featuring a pro-Qatari message, a Saudi soccer match, and the UAE’s Emirates and Ettihad airlines.

Qatar, in the latest move in the public diplomacy war, hired a Washington lobby firm originally established by former Trump election campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Mr. Lewandowski has since left the firm over a dispute with his partners, who include Barry Bennett, a Trump campaign adviser and others with ties to the president as well as George Birnbaum, an American-born former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who has close relations with the Republican Party establishment.

Qatar separately contracted the services of a company, Information Management Services, that specializes in digging up dirt on U.S. politicians.

For its part, the UAE in the years running up to the Gulf crisis hired a US firm established by former Treasury Department officials to influence US media reporting on Qatar.

The media war potentially could enter a new phase with the acquisition by a relatively unknown Saudi businessman, Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, of an up to 50 percent stake in Independent Digital News and Media, the holding company that publishes Britain’s left-wing The Independent daily. The Independent has consistently been critical of the kingdom. Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian owner of the Independent’s parent company, ESI Media, recently saw his shareholding fall below 50 percent.

At the bottom line, the escalating media and public diplomacy war between Qatar and its Gulf detractors is as likely, as is evident with the revelations about North Korea, to put on public display the protagonists’ hidden skeletons, as it is likely to contribute to attempts to polish tarnished reputations and influence attitudes and policies in Western capitals.

A key tool in the protagonists’ quivers, sports is proving to be a double-edged sword as it too has the potential of shining the light on practices and policies Gulf states would prefer to keep out of the public domain.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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