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Qatari Government Gets Nice Press Hit in the New York Times

Silly me for expecting the Times to weed this kind of blatant puff piece out before it hits print.

Doha Stadium Plus Qatar

The New York Times is the largest and most important newspaper in the world; the things it publishes often have massive reach and influence in both public opinion and the private halls of power. The assumption is that the Times operates at a standard higher than its competitors, in line with its power and influence. The problem is, as critical readers of the paper (including us) often point out, the Times does not meet these standards.

Yesterday I was browsing the paper’s front page, as I do most days to compile news roundups or look for story ideas, and this piece caught my eye:

This is an innocuous blog, right? To be honest, I think I would have glazed over it completely had it not been the World Cup reference. For people who do not obsessively follow international soccer, any positive connotations toward the Qatari World Cup in 2022 is about as big of a red flag as you can get, as the event has been marked by open corruption and the brutal, borderline-slavery labor abuse of migrant workers building the tournament’s stadiums. You can read about these things in the New York Times!

So I clicked on the blog. What followed is one of the most blatant PR hits I have seen in a long time. Let’s dive in.

The piece focuses on Qatar’s role in the negotiations that allowed the U.S. to safely extract some, but not nearly all, of its citizens and allies from Afghanistan’s Kabul airport after the city had been taken by the Taliban. It notes that Qatar was able to do this because it is often an intermediary between western governments and terrorist organizations, effectively serving as a Swiss banker type situation for geopolitics, which lets it leverage its massive oil wealth into political influence. To be fair to the Times, yes, this is punching above their weight! This is also exactly what Qatar wants everyone to talk about.

We then get to the first quote:

“Qatar has always wanted to be a global player, whether that is hosting huge sports events or signing major players, or presenting itself as a regional linchpin for global politics and diplomacy,” said Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an expert on Gulf politics. “They have not always got this balance right, but at the moment they seem to have taken the right initiatives at the right time.”

Just for fun I did a quick google on Michael Stephens, the “expert on Gulf politics.” Here’s a screenshot from his LinkedIn.

RUsI, for reference, is a massive British think tank/ consultancy firm that takes contracts from governments all over the world including Qatar (it’s RUsI’s website lists Qatar’s ministry of foreign affairs as a £200,000 to £499,999 funder and it’s ministry of defense as a £100,000-199,000 funder). So anyway Stephens spent about nine years working for or running RUsI’s branch in Doha. Huh!

We then get a nice quote from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken:

“Many countries have stepped up to help the evacuation and relocation efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference in Doha on Tuesday.

“The partnership between Qatar and the United States has never been stronger,” he added.

Again, just doing some quick googling to see if Blinken would have any other reasons to be generally friendly to the Qataris. I just typed in WestExec Advisors (Blinken’s firm before he became SecState) and Qatar, and immediately got the staff page for Senior Advisor Dana Shell Smith, the Former U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar, who “successfully advocated for billions of dollars in U.S. business and investment opportunities in Qatar, and Qatari investment in the U.S. to over $70 billion.” All right!

(The Times points out that the Trump administration ratcheted up tensions with Qatar largely because it was more aligned with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have beef with Qatar, and that Biden’s state department generally reversed that policy, anyway, we are getting into the weeds here.)

The byline on the piece is Ben Hubbard, the Times‘ Beirut bureau chief, who is ordinarily a solid and dependable reporter, which is why this blog is so disappointing and absurd. Most reporters, at some point in their career, will get suckered into publishing PR fluff (lord knows I’ve done my fair share), but it seems pretty unusual for someone as experienced as Hubbard to put out something like this.

The disappointing thing here is that there is an interesting news piece to do on Qatar’s relationship to various parties in the Middle East at this time. For all I know, Hubbard is working on it. But this piece appears to have immediately fallen into the familiar trap of source selection that a large subsection of the media has been wallowing in around the Afghanistan withdrawal for weeks. Along the way, it also happened to make the Qatari government look really good. Clearly, someone in their labyrinth of PR firms, consultants, and press officers is doing great at their job. It’s a pity the paper of record can’t say the same.