UAE linked management consultancy turns attention to UK election

12 December 2019 9 min. read

In a special report, looks into a self-styled London-based ‘management consultancy’ which has strong links to the UAE government and is currently attacking the UK Labor Party at every opportunity – asking the question, who is/are the firm’s paymaster(s)? 

In 2009, Ghanem Nuseibeh founded Cornerstone Global Associates in London, a firm which describes itself as a ‘boutique UK-based strategy and management consultancy’ and lists project management, strategic advisory, and risk advisory & due diligence as its major provisions. It touts UAE government agencies the Dubai Health Authority and Dubai Silicon Oasis as among its roll-call of clients, alongside a subsidiary of the UAE-headquartered Al Tayer Group.

By all appearances, however, Cornerstone acts much more akin to a PR lobbyist than what might ordinarily be considered a management consultancy. Publically at least, Nuseibeh, both personally and through reports compiled by Cornerstone, spends much of his time condemning Qatar (recently describing the nation as a “terrorist organisation ruled by money-laundering Islamist terrorists), and now very much ‘Stalinist’ UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn as well.

“Regardless of the size or scope of your needs, we work from an understanding that everything is connected to everything else,” Cornerstone notably states on its website, citing “various governments around the world” as among its primary clients. The question here is, considering the troubling recent instances of foreign election interference from around the world, is Nuseibeh connected financially to the governments of the UAE and UK while pushing a political message?

Home office funding

A similar question was recently asked of close Nuseibeh associate Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, by media publication Middle East Eye. Nuseibeh is disclosed as a patron of Faith Matters, and he and Mughal together founded and jointly operate another ‘non-profit’ Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, or MAAS. Speaking on behalf of Faith Matters, Mughal himself draws a clear link to MAAS, an organisation he states that “we are proud to have developed.”

Presumably, that pride extends to recent public social media postings from Nuseibeh/MAAS strongly encouraging – to state it mildly – the public to vote against Labour. A recent post, as just one example of the tenor used by Nuseibeh on Twitter; “Corbyn is not simply a far left Prime ministerial candidate: he is the head of a gang made up of Islamist & socialist extremists who want to abolish the monarchy & exterminate anyone who does not conform.”

Tweet from Ghanem Nuseibeh

The report by Middle East Eye (MEE) documents the funding received by Faith Matters from the UK government’s Home Office through its counter-extremism programme Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT), which along with providing grants also offers assistance in social media and communications training to help “amplify” the work of recipients. Those recipients are listed on the GOV.UK website (although groups with expired funding are not included).

Drawing attention to attacks on the Labour Party made or shared by Faith Matters that extend beyond religious criticism, MEE quite reasonably questioned Mughal on the organisation’s use of public funds. Mughal, describing the report as a conspiracy theory, stated that the organisation hadn’t publically disclosed the Home Office funding due to a history of threats made against its staff, and denied that it had received any special media assistance from the Home Office. 

As per a now familiar routine, Faith Matters then aggressively made a tactical appeal to hypocrisy – alleging among a flurry of counter-accusations that MEE is financed through Qatari money, without of course adequately addressing the question at hand. As to the related question of a politically-strident Nuseibeh and his organisational interests receiving money from both the UK and UAE governments, the matter of MEE’s funding remains entirely beside the point.

World Cup campaign

Not long after establishing Cornerstone, in the Arab Spring of 2010, a self-assured Nuseibeh appears in a vanity piece in UAE newspaper The National (at the time directly owned by the official media organisation of the Government of Abu Dhabi) – with the 34-year-old described as a self-confessed socialite carrying three mobile phones and partial to pink shirts and purple suede shoes. He boasts of his collection of business cards and influential Middle Eastern confidantes.

As he prepares for a flight to Qatar, Nuseibeh is excited about meeting his latest client, although he is sworn to secrecy as to who that might be . . . Fast forward to the start of this year, and the New York Times claims that in 2010 Nuseibeh made several rejected pitches to Qatar’s World Cup committee (chaired by the then Emir’s son Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani) offering up Cornerstone’s public relations services to help secure the tournament event.

At the end of that year, Qatar would be awarded hosting rights to FIFA’s world centrepiece without the aid of Cornerstone Global. In the time since the announcement, intra-Gulf politics have increasingly soured, ultimately leading to the bitter UAE- and Saudi-led blockade of Qatar enacted in 2017. The dispute has since spilled beyond GCC borders, played out on the global stage through a well-documented proxy army of public relations agents employed by both sides.

Much of that politicking has revolved around football. While Qatar’s record in certain areas isn’t without legitimate concern, an increasingly vocal narrative sprung up across the international media shortly after the blockade came into effect, contending that Qatar should be stripped of the cup – with most media outlets citing a single, newly released report on the political risks associated with Qatar playing host. The author of that report was Cornerstone Global. 

NYT allegations

In the subsequent Time’s article, Nuseibeh is noted as a relative of both the UAE’s minister of state and its ambassador to the UN. Citing documents received from an anonymous source, the strongest of the accusations from the Times however is of a $1 million transfer to Cornerstone from the UAE in 2015, and the firm later pursuing an agreement with a PR executive who worked on the Qatar bid to disclose damaging information in exchange for a $1 million payment.

Cornerstone later forced a correction. While the documents revealed efforts by the firm to secure the information in exchange for a large sum of money, they didn’t show whether that agreement had actually been reached. The firm also claimed that the Times may have used stolen documents, and that they may have also been doctored –  arguing that it was the victim of a “vicious hacking campaign against a British business with the sole intention of undermining impartial analysis.”

Still, Cornerstone hasn’t outright denied that the reported meeting between itself and the disgruntled PR executive, Mike Holtzman, took place (with the Times claiming to have independently confirmed some of the meetings and conversations described in the documents, a number of which detail the tactics Cornesrstone would employ to discredit Qatar). On the official record: a subsequent meeting between Nuseibeh and UK Conservative Party MP Damian Collins.

According to the Times, referring to a summary in the Cornerstone documents, Nuseibeh during that latter meeting detailed for Collins the information passed on by Holtzman, paid or unpaid, and in particular the claim that Qatar had employed former CIA operatives to undermine rival WC bids. Shortly after that meeting, the UK’s Sunday Times ran with an article headed ‘Qatar in black ops plot to poison rival World Cup bids’. Collins, quoted in the article, had by that time also met with Holtzman.

Recent activities

The Jerusalem-born Nuseibeh has also been a particularly strong supporter of Saudi Arabia, springing into action on social media following the slaying of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; “I’ve never seen such a coordinated attack against a country like Saudi Arabia in past few days, all based on a piece of fake news by an unnamed Turkish official via Qatari media.” Later he posted; “Facts: Khashoggi has died (RIP). Saudi Arabia as a state is exonerated… Time to move on.”

More recently, Cornerstone has turned its attention to British politics (Nuseibeh strenuously maintains that Cornerstone’s analysis is entirely impartial, although the firm only lists one non-founding employee on LinkedIn). Last month, the Daily Mail covered a Cornerstone report claiming that a Corbyn-led government would heighten security threats and could cost 250,000 jobs due to stalled trade with the Middle East. Who commissioned and paid for such a report?

Home office funding aside, it’s permissible, in the UK at least, to accept money from foreign governments to act in a ‘public affairs’ capacity without registering as a ‘foreign agent’ – making it difficult to identify such companies and actors. What sets this possible instance apart is the branding of Cornerstone as strategy & management consultancy, and leveraging that platform to gain greater media access through ‘research’ reports which support an evident political position.