No-holds-barred campaign to free Marsha Lazareva jeopardizes KGL’s #Iraq contract

| January 30, 2020

This January, the US Department of Defense (DoD) quietly reopened the bid for a $138 million contract to feed American troops stationed in Iraq. The region’s primary supplier, Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co., or KGL, will continue to be the bridge supplier until a new contract is finalised.  According to Anham, the Dubai-based supplier which held the contract before KGL, the company was allegedly recently shut out from one of the critical warehouses it stores food in. KGL has denied the reports that they have been evicted from their own infrastructure, but the company is embroiled in a broader legal and political crisis following an embezzlement scandal which has landed two of its former executives in prison.

KGL’s credibility as a supplier has taken a particular hit after former executives Saeed Dashti and Marsha Lazareva were found guilty in 2017 of misappropriating $500 million stemming from the sale of an asset in the Philippines into which Kuwait had invested public funds. Initially, Dashti was sentenced to 15 years in prison and Lazareva to 10 years of hard labour, while the pair was jointly fined some $73 million.

Following Lazareva’s arrest, KGL launched the Persian Gulf’s most intense global lobbying campaign to secure her release, attempting to put international pressure on the Kuwaiti government. The multi-million dollar campaign has left no stones unturned by bringing together high-profile American, British and Russian public figures, generating misleading media coverage, painting the Russian businesswoman as a victim of sexism and anti-Christian politics in Kuwait, and even organizing fake protests to “support” Lazareva.

The campaign continues—as do the KGL executives’ legal problems. Kuwaiti courts overturned the Russian CEO’s conviction in May 2019 and she was freed on bail in June—but Lazareva and Dashti were convicted again in November 2019; other charges remain pending.

Flexing all muscles to prove Lazareva’s innocence

Among the who’s who of political elite supporting Lazareva’s case is Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. She gave a passionate press statement claiming that Lazareva’s arrest was incredibly unjust as it would separate her from her 4-year-old son, a US citizen, on top of setting a dangerous precedent for women’s leadership in the Middle East. Blair’s law firm, Omnia Strategy, has even gone as far as to file a petition with the United Nations requesting an investigation into Lazareva’s detention.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Neil Bush, the son of former U.S. president George H.W. Bush, former FBI director Louis Freeh, and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher have all put their hands on the deck to defend Lazareva. Framing the charges against Lazareva as an international human rights violation, Neil Bush wrote a dramatic opinion piece in The Washington Times, even calling on the legacy of his father ‘who helped liberate Kuwait’ and urging Kuwait to reconsider its decision to prosecute who Bush claims is an innocent mother.

Trying every trick in the book, Lazareva’s campaign has also played the religion card. Toufic Baaklini, the president of an NGO which works to protect the rights of Christians in the Middle East wrote a stirring article published in the conservative Washington Examiner. He claimed that Lazareva—“a Pennsylvania mom”, according to him—was denied the right to practice her religion as she was forced to wear a burqa and attend court proceedings on auspicious days such as Easter Sunday. Other mainstream conservative outlets, such as Fox News, picked up on this angle and deployed pitying headlines to portray Lazareva as a “Christian businesswoman” imprisoned in Kuwait.

Indeed, it’s no accident that such a wide variety of American news outlets have been echoing the same narrative to drum up support for Lazareva. Through Marathon Strategies, the New York-based public affairs firm working for KGLI, the embattled company has spent millions to pay writers and bloggers to generate articles, columns and TV segments. To generate further media coverage for their cause, Lazareva’s supporters even organised a protest outside the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington. The demonstration garnered sympathetic coverage from right-wing site the Daily Caller—but it turned out that the “protesters” had been assembled by a Californian ‘crowds on demand’ company.

Need for a reliable supplier to feed American troops

It is surprising that American political heavyweights are ready to pick bones with the government of Kuwait, long one of America’s staunchest allies in the Middle East, at a time when the region is mired in hostility. Members of the US government, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have had no qualms about even parroting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s demands to release Lazareva.

Whether the gargantuan lobbying effort Lazareva’s backers have mounted will help her defend her case is a debatable issue but what it surely is doing is bringing KGL under the limelight. The firm has repeatedly faced charges of corruption, non-payment of debts and been accused of receiving illicit flows from Russia, Iran, and Syria. Back in 2018, US Senator Marco Rubio even wrote to the Department of Defense calling for investigations into KGL’s alleged circumventing of American sanctions on Iran by providing the Islamic Republic with logistical support and illegally selling aircraft parts to Iranian actors.

Perhaps the real issue that politicians like Bush and the media should focus on is the American military’s long-term association with a problematic supplier like KGL. The DoD’s decision to reopen the bid for the Subsistence Prime Vendor contract in Iraq reflects the need for a reliable supplier in the region—particularly given the complicated security situation left behind after the US killing of Iran’s top military commander. With KGL allegedly evicted from its warehouses and ensnared in legal issues in Kuwaiti courts, it’s becoming increasingly clear that KGL cannot be that reliable supplier.

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