The strange case of UN envoy turned-Qatar lobbyist

Neither the United States nor the United Nations recognised Benomar “as a diplomat entitled to any form of immunity” until October 2018.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Under scrutiny. Former UN official Jamal Benomar. (AP)
Under scrutiny. Former UN official Jamal Benomar. (AP)

WASHINGTON - A former high-ranking UN official has been accused of receiving millions of dollars from Qatar for orchestrating a campaign to discredit an influential US critic of the Gulf country by hacking and releasing the critic’s e-mail.

The former official, Jamal Benomar, was the United Nations’ special envoy to Yemen from 2011-15 and tried to negotiate a political settlement as Iran-backed Houthi rebels were taking over parts of the country. Benomar, a Moroccan-born British citizen, had other senior positions during a 25-year career at the United Nations.

Around the time he left the United Nations in July 2017, Benomar allegedly began working secretly with Qatar and its lobbyists in the United States to publicly embarrass a businessman who had close ties to US President Donald Trump and was highly critical of Qatar, court filings indicate.

The businessman, Elliott Broidy, was a leading fundraiser for Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign and held a senior post raising money for the Republican Party. Broidy became publicly critical of Qatar in June 2017 when a quartet of Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, imposed an economic boycott of Qatar over its alleged support of Islamic extremism and close ties to Iran.

After Broidy urged the Trump administration to take a hard stand against Qatar, Trump expressed support for the boycott and publicly criticised Doha’s policies. He subsequently wavered in his stance.

Early in 2018, Broidy was silenced and forced to quit his position with the Republican Party after the publication of a series of embarrassing articles based on e-mail hacked from his accounts. One article reported that Broidy, who is married, paid a former Playboy magazine model $1.6 million to remain silent about their sexual relationship.

Since then, Broidy has filed lawsuits accusing Qatar, its US lobbyists and Benomar of orchestrating the hack and releasing the e-mail messages.

Broidy says in court papers that Benomar “helped to mastermind” the release of the e-mails and received millions of dollars from “Qatar or affiliated entities for his efforts to punish and silence a perceived antagonist of Qatar, Mr Broidy.”

Broidy was considered “a significant impediment” to Qatar’s foreign policy objectives in the United States, which aimed mostly to end the boycott, because he is influential in Republican and Jewish circles.

In September 2018, Benomar was appointed to the supervisory board of Lagardere, a multinational media corporation in Paris. Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, owns 13% of Lagardere, the Financial Times reported.

Broidy’s lawsuit claims that Benomar was appointed “at the behest of the Qatar Investment Authority” and that the appointment was compensation for Benomar’s involvement in Qatar’s campaign to disenfranchise Broidy.

The lawsuits produced a trove of telephone and messaging records suggesting that Benomar had extensive contact with Qatari lobbyists who were allegedly involved in the hack and dissemination of the e-mail.

One Qatari lobbyist allegedly involved in the hack acknowledged in a deposition that he exchanged messages and e-mail with Benomar from June 2017-March 2018. The lobbyist, Joseph Allaham, described Benomar as “an ally” in the deposition.

Broidy says in legal filings that Benomar and Allaham spoke by telephone “at least 80 times” from June-November in 2017 as they developed a strategy to improve Qatar’s standing with the United States as part of efforts to end the boycott of Doha by its neighbours.

Broidy’s lawsuit also says Benomar was biased in favour of Qatar while he was working for the United Nations trying to broker a political settlement in Yemen.

“During his tenure at the United Nations, Benomar utilised his official position to advance the Qatari agenda,” the lawsuit states. “While serving as the United Nations envoy for Yemen, Benomar invariably sided with Houthi rebels backed by Qatar and Iran against the lawful Yemeni government.”

Benomar has denied any involvement in hacking or releasing Broidy’s e-mail. His lawyer said in court filings that Benomar “continues to be a respected, internationally recognised diplomat who has devoted his life to the peaceful resolution of conflict.”

Benomar acknowledged in a recent court filing that he advised Qatar after he stopped working for the United Nations and joined the UN mission of Morocco but he said he offered the advice only “as a Moroccan diplomat” and only on the subject of how to “resolve” the anti-Qatar boycott and “bring an end to the war in Yemen.”

“This was one of many issues that I became involved with when I began my work at the [Moroccan] Mission in November 2017,” Benomar wrote in a 10-page declaration he filed in court on October 31. Benomar says he joined Morocco’s UN mission in November 2017 as “minister plenipotentiary,” which ranks just below the ambassador.

Benomar’s assertion that he advised Qatar in his diplomatic capacity is a key legal point because Benomar says he should be protected from Broidy’s claims based on diplomatic immunity.

It does not, however, shield him from political and ethical accusations of conflict of interest as he provided consulting services to one foreign client suspected of taking sides in the Yemen war so soon after the end of his UN assignment as a mediator in that same war.

Benomar asked a judge to dismiss Broidy’s lawsuit in October, shortly after the United States granted Benomar “diplomatic privileges with immunity” based on his work for Morocco.

“Mr Benomar is absolutely immune from suit in this country as a diplomat of the Kingdom of Morocco,” Benomar’s attorney wrote in recent court papers.

Earlier this year, Qatar convinced a judge to throw out Broidy’s lawsuit against it based on diplomatic immunity.

Broidy says Benomar should not receive diplomatic immunity from Broidy’s lawsuit because he was not working for Morocco when he was advising Qatar and helping orchestrate the hack and release of e-mail. Broidy says Benomar sought diplomatic accreditation from Morocco only after Broidy filed his lawsuit against Benomar, in July.

Broidy’s court filings say that neither the United States nor the United Nations recognised Benomar “as a diplomat entitled to any form of immunity” until October 2018.

The UN Blue Book, which lists diplomatic personnel from each of the United Nations’ 193 members as of August 2018, does not list Benomar as among Qatar’s nine-member delegation, although the book notes that it does not contain names of all diplomatic and administrative staff. Diplomatic protocol experts say it is highly unusual for a diplomat with the rank of “minister plenipotentiary” not to be on a country’s official list of diplomats.

The US government registered Benomar as a representative to Morocco’s UN mission “with diplomatic privileges and immunities” on November 13, 2018, a US State Department e-mail that Benomar’s lawyer filed in court indicated. In court papers accompanying the e-mail, the lawyer does not say when Benomar sought accreditation but says that because Benomar is a diplomat with legal immunity, “the case must be dismissed.”