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Qatar And Saudi Arabia Take Their Feud To The Airwaves, Internet


If you've turned on cable TV lately or looked at a national newspaper online, there's a good chance you've seen dueling ads by Saudi Arabia and the tiny nation of Qatar. The ads are part of a 2-month-old feud between the Persian Gulf neighbors. NPR's Jackie Northam has more.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been lobbying for international support in their ongoing spat since early June. That was when Saudi Arabia and several of its allies cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, alleging, among other things, it funds terrorist organizations. It's a point driven home in this television attack ad launched by a pro-Saudi Arabia group.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One country in the Gulf region is a threat to global security - Qatar.

NORTHAM: The dramatic commercial shows fires burning, the aftermath of a bombing, and militants training.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A country that finances and protects terrorists.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The nation of Qatar has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.

NORTHAM: Qatar is taking a bit subtler approach, placing ads in online newspapers that highlight its strong relationship with Washington. The U.S. has a huge air base in Qatar where it runs its aerial campaign against ISIS. Eleven thousand American troops are based there. James Russell, an associate professor of national security studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, says the Qatar ad takes a dig at Saudi Arabia, which asked the U.S. to leave a Saudi air base.

JAMES RUSSELL: It's worth remembering, you know, that the United States left Prince Sultan Air Base back in 2003 because the Saudis did not want American troops stationed in the kingdom anymore.

NORTHAM: The Qatar ads were paid for by the embassy here in Washington, D.C. The embassy also recently hired two lobbying D.C. firms to help get its message out. One firm, Avenue Strategies Global, was founded by Corey Lewandowski, President Trump's former campaign manager. The Saudi ads were funded by the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, a PR and lobbying group which gets its funding from online subscriptions. Neither firm returned calls for comment.

DANIELLE PLETKA: There is a lot of money being funneled into public relations firms and communications efforts that are fueling this nastiness.

NORTHAM: Danielle Pletka is a senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute.

PLETKA: Just in terms of the messaging campaign, we're talking about splashing around millions and millions of dollars, whether it is being paid to lobbying firms, PR firms, friends, think tanks. And that is unnecessary and, in a certain way, also corrupting.

NORTHAM: Pletka says in the past six months alone, two new think tanks dedicated to Gulf affairs in Washington have opened. One of them is the Arabia Foundation, an independent organization funded by corporate donors in Saudi Arabia. But as executive director Ali Shihabi says, the attack ads just divert from the important issues for Saudi Arabia, such as terror financing.

ALI SHIHABI: It's easy to raise money for these sort of things because everybody gets excited, and so you get these melodramatic ads. And certainly I think they confuse things and they muddy the waters because they confuse the issue.

NORTHAM: But Pletka says the ads are a way to try and sway opinion. And they have a narrow target audience.

PLETKA: They are absolutely focused on Washington policymakers. I don't think that normal people are paying any attention to this at all.

NORTHAM: Pletka says with so much at stake, she expects there will be many more attack ads in the feud between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.