The World Cup and lobbying don’t mix

Qatar’s headaches with the World Cup labor controversy just got worse because of an unrecognized Washington lobbying angle

David Andrew Weinberg
David Andrew Weinberg
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The World Cup is watched by almost half of humanity, so the stakes for host countries can be quite high. This is certainly so for Qatar, a tiny country in the Gulf that hopes to use the 2022 World Cup to showcase its emerging soft power. But since winning its bid for the games nearly three years ago, the troubling allegations have piled up: bribery, homophobia, and even slavery-like forced labor.

Yet according to Peter Foster of Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, Qatar’s headaches just got worse because of an unrecognized Washington lobbying angle. The firm Doha hired to conduct a credible investigation into the allegations of forced labor apparently has more baggage than was publicly acknowledged in relation to the case, suggesting Qatar should hire a new firm to diminish any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Foster writes that “DLA Piper has received more than $300,000 (£186,000) in lobbying fees this year from al-Jazeera America according to official filings in the U.S., raising questions over whether it could conduct an unbiased assessment into allegations that have cast a pall over preparations for the 2022 World Cup.”

In late September, after horrific allegations of forced labor were presented by the Guardian against Qatar in its preparations for the World Cup, the country’s claim to the games seemed seriously under threat. Twenty-four hours before international soccer federation FIFA was expected to take up Qatar’s case, the country’s labor ministry announced it was hiring DLA Piper to “undertake an independent review of the allegations and provide a report on their veracity to the ministry.”

After follow-up reports by Amnesty International and the Washington Post produced similar indications of forced labor, Qatar recently doubled down on DLA Piper. A spokesperson for Doha’s foreign ministry rejected a European Parliament vote late last month as “premature” because “DLA Piper’s investigation is on-going.”

If Qatar wants to reassure the international community that it will genuinely tackle these abuses, it would have been wise to choose a firm that was not being paid by al-Jazeera, its media outlet

David Andrew Weinberg

But what the Qataris failed to mention is that DLA Piper has been hard at work this year as a lobbyist for al-Jazeera America (AJAM). According to official documents, DLA Piper registered as a lobbyist for AJAM’s Qatar-owned holding company effective January 2, declaring payments during the first three quarters of 2013 for $120,000, $100,000, and $90,000 respectively. And while it is not clear if this relationship is ongoing, newly released documentation indicates DLA Piper had not terminated the connection by at least the start of October.

Exacerbating concern

Revelations about DLA Piper’s Qatar connections are likely to exacerbate concern among skeptics who already worry the country is not taking allegations against it seriously enough.

The Guardian’s labor study revealed particularly worrisome information about conditions experienced by Nepalese workers in Qatar. Yet rather than working with Kathmandu’s ambassador to improve their lot, Qatar successfully got her fired.

Qatari officials flatly insist “there is no slavery or forced labor in Qatar.” The country has threatened legal action against its detractors and dismissed the meticulously-documented claims as exaggerated.

Now add the Telegraph’s revelation that “a person at the firm with first-hand knowledge of the review... describ[ed] the ‘independent review’ more as a legal assessment on behalf of the Qatari government.” If so, this raises more questions about whose interests DLA Piper is really being hired to serve.

DLA Piper has advocated for Gulf clients accused of human trafficking before. In August 2007, the firm was retained as a lobbyist by First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Company, a contractor building America’s new Baghdad embassy. According to the National Journal, DLA Piper was hired partly to help First Kuwaiti with a U.S. investigation on charges of human trafficking at the site.

Former employees of First Kuwaiti gave Congressional testimony suggesting the company had kidnapped and smuggled South Asian workers into Iraq. One had previously observed that “I’ve never seen a project more f***ed up. Every U.S. labor law was broken.” Press quoted an anonymous company insider claiming “all of the passports are kept in the offices”.

By mid-2008, DLA Piper had made half a million dollars lobbying on behalf of First Kuwaiti, and a leaked U.S. cable suggests Kuwait’s government acted to discourage an investigation. According to State Department reporting, Kuwait still does “not comply with the minimum standards” against trafficking and is “not making significant efforts to do so”.

It may be too late to hold First Kuwaiti responsible for potential abuses, but it is not too late to keep Qatar to account.

If Qatar wants to reassure the international community that it will genuinely tackle these abuses, it would have been wise to choose a firm that was not being paid by al-Jazeera, its media outlet. At this juncture, hiring another firm to investigate its record – one which is not linked to the state’s interests – should be a top priority.

Further, DLA Piper might consider whether its interests are best served by maintaining relationships with both AJAM and Qatar’s labor ministry simultaneously.

As for the questions raised about the World Cup, forced labor, and Qatar’s reputation – putting them to rest will prove challenging. Certainly, this episode will not be seen as progress for the small, wealthy nation’s goal of building up soft power through positive, global brand recognition.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a Democratic Professional Staff Member at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs at U.S. Congress. David holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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