Belgian police swooped across Brussels, the European Union’s seat of government, in early December, raiding offices and apartments, and seizing €1.5 million in cash—money that prosecutors claim was bribes from “a Gulf state” widely thought to be Qatar, given in exchange for favorable decisions in the 27-nation EU Parliament, in the run-up to the World Cup.
The so-called “Qatargate” scandal left Europe’s politicians reeling as it shook the bloc’s foundation. “European democracy is under attack,” warned EU Parliament President Roberta Metsola, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen fretted that “corruption like that erodes the trust of the public in the institutions.” Many EU politicians, Michiel van Hulten, Brussels director of Transparency International told Reuters, “think the ordinary rules do not apply to them.”
As the seismic impact of “Qatargate” rumble on, the reaction in Washington’s halls of power was that, with its clear rules and regular asset declarations, the U.S. could never suffer such a blatant influence-peddling scandal.
Yet despite that, corruption experts in Washington warn that the U.S. is not entirely protected from foreign influence peddling.
Defining what’s legal or not in the U.S. has become intensely complicated, they say, as lavish spending on “soft power” and PR have hugely increased, especially by oil-rich Gulf states—and even more especially Qatar, since the tiny country won hosting rights to this year’s World Cup, back in 2010. They add that some foreign governments have seized on loopholes in U.S. laws, which have badly lagged behind the age of online and streaming media.
No vote-buying per se
Brazen vote-buying in the U.S. Congress, like the Qatargate allegations, is indeed unlikely. “That activity would be independently regulated under U.S. law,” says Washington attorney Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a leading expert on the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA; enacted in the 1930s to catch Nazi and Communist spies, FARA requires lobbying firms to register some work they do on behalf of foreign governments, with the Department of Justice. A separate U.S. anti-bribery statute also restricts politicians being wined and dined by foreign governments—something the EU lacks.
“There are very strict limitations on gifts and items of value they can give to government officials,” Rosenstein tells Fortune. “The general assumption is that members of Congress and their staff cannot accept anything of value from a registered foreign agent,” he says.
Ample room for influence
But that leaves ample room for deep-pocketed countries like Qatar—with the world’s third-biggest natural gas reserves—to try influence U.S. politicians, including funding congressional visits, to show U.S. politicians around the country; a storm erupted in Washington last year after Democratic lawmakers and their wives were photographed riding camels in Qatar, on an all-expenses trip.
“Since 2015, when Qatar ramped up its influence operation in the U.S, we started seeing tens of millions of dollars reported every year,” says Taylor Giorno, money and politics reporter at Open Secrets, a Washington NGO that tracks lobbying. “They tapped this image of Qatar as the partner in the region against terrorism,” she says. “There was also influence related to soccer and tech innovation, and a lot related to culture,” she told Fortune.
The FARA registry shows Qatar has spent $72.3 million on Washington lobbying since 2015—more money than Apple or the National Rifle Association spent during the same period, according to a report written by Giorno, out this month.
There are also “gray zones,” she says, like advertising. Before and during the World Cup, Qatar’s state-run tourism board, Qatar Airways, and the government’s Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy, which oversaw the construction and management of the World Cup, ran frequent TV ads, extolling the country’s tourist and cultural offerings.
But since broadcasters are exempt from registering with FARA, Qatar’s ad buys were risk-free. “I think that’s a really big loophole,” Giorno says. “It is clearly intended to influence the opinion of the U.S. public.”
Sports: The “really big loophole”
Fox Sports, which held U.S. broadcast rights to the World Cup matches, said they would not air any coverage of the deaths of migrant workers while constructing stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament, the government’s alleged corruption, or the suppression of LGBTQ rights, instead broadcasting glowing pieces on Qatar, and interviews with top government figures, which the late soccer writer Grant Wahl called “regime-aligned.” (NBC’s Telemundo network, the BBC, CNN, and others, all discussed Qatar’s human rights at length.)
With its World Cup host status, Qatar’s soft power extended to sports, even funding local soccer clubs in Texas, as part of its $30-million Qatar Harvey Fund, a government donation to recovery efforts after the 2017 Hurricane Harvey.
There are significant military ties, too, with about 8,000 personnel stationed on a large U.S. base in Qatar. And amid the World Cup, U.S. and Qatar signed a $1-billion arms deal on November 29—at half-time during the U.S.-Iran World Cup match.
“Archaic and unclear” U.S. law
The country has also contributed millions to Washington think tanks, whose reports often align with issues before the U.S. Congress—and which are largely exempt from registering with FARA. Qatar is believed to have given millions of dollars to the Brookings Institution in Washington to launch its outpost in Doha; in June, Brookings president, retired four-star Marine general John Allen, resigned, amid a federal investigation into whether he was secretly lobbying for Qatar, in violation of FARA laws.
But there have been only a handful of convictions during FARA’s 85-year existence. “The law is very old, and the language is archaic and unclear,” says attorney Rosenstein. “It doesn’t translate well to modern campaigns, websites, and digital work.”
For all that, Europe’s anti-corruption groups say the U.S. laws are vastly better than in the EU, and are pushing for the bloc to replicate them. Europe’s Transparency Registry for lobbyists has no legal sanctions, and far different from members of Congress, EU lawmakers can continue their outside business while serving. Qatargate, they say, was inevitable.
“Tip of the iceberg”
“This latest scandal is not a shock, or even a surprise; it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” the Brussels NGO Corporate Europe Observatory, which monitors lobbying, wrote in a post last week. It says repressive governments have manipulated EU politicians for years “without real fear of sanction.” Belgian authorities have charged four people with corruption. Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.
Among those arrested was one of the EU Parliament’s 14 vice presidents, Greek delegate Eva Kaili, who was stripped of her position; the EU is weighing removing her diplomatic immunity. Kaili trumpeted Qatar’s “historic transformation” in the EU before the World Cup (she was in the VIP box for the opening match) and pushed to give visa-free travel to Qataris.
On Thursday, the EU is set to vote on suspending all access by Qatar’s representatives—a move that Qatar warned would have a “negative effect” on global energy supplies, at a time when the EU is trying to replace Russian gas imports.