With just short of 100 speakers and guests, the security conference in Istanbul’s Marriot Hotel last month was convened for discussions on some of the weightiest topics facing policymakers today.
The AlSharq Forum considered a radical overhaul of Middle East security frameworks across six sessions. The overall theme was: “Towards New Security Arrangements for the Mena Region.”
The title of the meeting was something of a giveaway. Iran has long pursued a foreign policy centred around the topic. And, since Qatar’s stand-off with the Arab coalition erupted a year ago, the concept has become the centrepiece of Doha’s foreign policy outreach as well.
The venue in Turkey was no coincidence as under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership the country has shifted closer to the radical axis championed by Iran.
Searching the 86-page multi-language programme for the forum, it is hard to discern any trace of Qatar in the event. There are just three references to the emirate, all placed in the biographies of speakers.
But just a few months earlier Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad had endorsed the idea that regional security interests would be thrashed out at a different level outside the Arab League.
Speaking in Munich in February at the city’s annual security forum, which attracted speakers including Theresa May and Antonio Guterres, Sheikh Tamim shrugged off the boycott of his state by the Arab Coalition with an alternative vision for Middle East diplomacy.
"It is time for wider regional security in the Middle East. It is time for all nations of the region to forget the past, including us, and agree on basic security principles and rules of governance,” he said. “All the nations need to agree on a baseline of coexistence, backed by binding arbitration mechanism to take part in a regional security agreement.”
According to one well-placed source, Qatar’s endorsement of the regional framework policy was sealed in a secret five country meeting that included Iran and Turkish foreign ministers on the island of Kush in early February. At that time Qatar’s stance on the boycott hardened yet further and the role of the US State Department envoy, General Anthony Zinni, became impossible, according to diplomats.
It was no coincidence that the AlSharq conference was championing this same policy. While it is not mentioned, the Forum has been bankrolled by Qatar since it first emerged on the scene in 2014. It was founded by Wadah Khanfar, once the director-general of Dona-based Al Jazeera, and included among its attendee guests who work for Qatar-funded organisations.
On its website, there were instances of how AlSharq operates to try to influence long-standing think tanks. A panel carries the logo of Chatham House and other prominent bodies. Last year AlSharq co-sponsored a one day conference with Chatham House that was held off The Strand in London at the grand Royal Society of Arts. The topic was the migration crisis buffeting Europe.
Again scattered through the panellists were guests from the Qatari-funded nexus, including speakers from the US think-tank Brookings, which has a long relationship with Doha.
Brookings’ Doha branch has long been a source of influence for Qatar, as has the state’s relationship with another British institution, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). It too used to operate an office in Doha and has done extensive training work for Qatari officials, as has the public relations firm Portland, which is run by Tony Blair’s former Downing St spokesman Tim Allan. Since the crisis, Mr Allan has acted as a gatekeeper for Western journalists seeking access in Doha.
RUSI headquarters in London provided Qatar with a platform in January as it held a “special briefing” for members with Khalid Bin Mohammad Al-Attiyah, the deputy prime minister with responsibility for defence. A few weeks earlier the body staged a one-day conference that included Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the foreign minister of Qatar, and British ministers.
A panel also included Britain’s then deputy national security adviser Patrick McGuiness, who has since been seconded to the Qatari government as an adviser on security. Access to the venue, the 17th-century Banqueting House on Whitehall, was only possible through an underground tunnel from the RUSI building next door.
A spokesman for RUSI said the events were among many that the institute hosted for all voices from the region and beyond.
“As part of its remit, RUSI acts as a platform for debate of all security questions in the Gulf, and engages in cooperative activities with all Gulf states,” the spokesman said. “Over the past year, the Institute welcomed many delegations and conferences, from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, as well as Qatar”.
While the Qatari government has long sought affiliation with top-ranked institutions, its influence operations have dramatically ramped up in the last 12 months both widening in scope and staging in more prominent settings. While there is no evidence that these institutions have been editorially influenced, there is clearly the potential for a conflict of interests.