Dispatch

My Booze-Soaked, $12,000 Round-Trip Junket to Nowhere

Qatar Airways sits reporters in vibrating seats, loads them with 39-year-old wine, and never explicitly asks for glowing press coverage.

Judging by Washington's staid social standards -- or really, any standard -- the party sounded utterly bizarre.

Qatar Airways, the state-owned carrier of the Persian Gulf petro-garchy, had invited a small number of guests to a four-course meal -- designed by celebrity chefs and accompanied by premium wines -- all served in the business-class cabin of a Boeing 777 parked on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport.

The plane wasn't leaving Northern Virginia. But we would be treated to the same luxury service that, at current rates, would set you back $11,721 for a round-trip flight from D.C. to Doha. Perhaps because of where I work, or the elegantly written invitation, I had imagined that this event was to "celebrate" Qatar and promote its tourism industry, and that it would be attended mostly by government officials and business executives. You will appreciate my profound disappointment, followed by the dawning suspicion that I had either been tricked or not read the fine print, when I looked around the dimly lit cool blue cabin and saw … a bunch of journalists.

I should have known. This fete was like so many boozy boondoggles for print reporters, a mutually beneficial if occasionally ethically dicey exchange of good copy for free publicity. I had hoped the crowd would be a mix of Washington heavies and foreign dignitaries. And given that we'd be essentially trapped in close quarters for two hours with nothing to do but eat rich food and drink expensive wine, I imagined an in-flight bacchanalia of elegant flight attendants dropping black cod with miso by Nobu Matsuhisa into the overserved mouths of Qatari Foreign Ministry officials while pouring Krug champagne out of a gold opera slipper. Scoops would fall into my Frette linen napkin.

"Of course that's gonna happen!" I thought to myself. "I should go."

Instead, my 25 or so companions on this five-star grounding were the top tier of Washington's food, travel, and society reporters. I've run alongside this crowd over the years, always as the guest of a guest at various book parties, restaurant openings, and the occasional gala. My fellow passengers worked for, among others, the Washington Post, Capitol File, Washington Life, Bloomberg, and Washingtonian magazine, where I used to work. I was the plus-1 of a former colleague, who had been invited by the airline's PR team.

I had to give Qatar credit. These are exactly the people you'd want trapped in a climate-controlled aluminum tube if you owned a small luxury airline trying to woo wealthy Washingtonians into your fully reclining, vibrating leather seats. Which, I realized when I sat down, are awesome. I knew that I was of limited use to the publicity mavens who had engineered this uniquely strange evening. I occasionally write about airplanes, but not like this. Still, when in Doha (or Dulles)…

We settled into our magic-finger massaging pods and pulled out burled wood tray tables. We were served two perfectly chilled glasses of Champagne, Billecart-Salmon brut and Bollinger rosé, because, you know, who can choose?

Our sommelier -- who said he once carted bottles of red wine and Champagne to the base camp of Mount Everest to see how they taste at high altitude -- informed us that the dry, recirculated air of the cabin dulls one's palate. So for Qatar Airways, he had selected stronger wines than he might serve in a restaurant that doesn't fly. Oakier Bordeaux. Sharper sauvignon blancs. I assume that these wines also lose their potency aloft, and that's why he poured so many of them.

My black cod was almost as good as the fish at Nobu New York. I had a "mint and pea" soup that tasted of neither peas nor mint, but was redolent of turmeric and tamarind and tasty enough to put on the menu of my favorite Indian restaurant in D.C. My beef fillet was, as expected, overcooked and dry. There's only so much you can do in an airplane galley kitchen. But when it comes paired with a 2006 Château le Bon Pasteur, who cares, baby?

It was at this point in the evening that most of us discovered the adjustable foot rests and my companion wondered whether they'd let us watch a movie on our personal video screens. I eyed the embroidered blanket in the neat plastic pouch. We asked a flight attendant to take pictures of us "sleeping" in the fully kicked-back seats that now became beds. I was seriously contemplating putting on the pajamas that came in my swag bag and thought it would only be prudent to moisturize with that Ferragamo face cream they gave us. It's very dry in airplane cabins, I reminded myself, as I sipped the Colheita port. Its 1974 vintage made it older than I am.

As I lingered over my roasted chocolate wafer fascination, I thought about a good friend who frequently flies from Washington to Asia for work and only travels business class. The reason to do it, he said, is not to be spoiled. It's to eat marginally better food, have a decent wine and maybe a cognac, and then drift into a mildly comfortable booze-assisted sleep so you don't feel like a zombie when you land after a 14-hour flight. It's not luxurious. It's a battle against jet lag.

My friend is full of crap. If you had the choice and the means, you would always -- always -- fly this way. Are you kidding? On the flight from Doha to Washington, passengers in front are served Château d'Yquem. For all non-wine snobs, this would be like Uber picking you up in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. It exceeds the bounds of necessity and propriety.

This is, of course, exactly what Qatar Airways wants me to tell you. That was the point of this entire evening. And you would be very happy indeed to sit in that chair and fly on that plane. Would you be happier than if you flew on Qatar's competitors, Etihad Airways and Emirates, which are respectively based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai? Maybe. But those are cities that, unlike Doha, people routinely visit for pleasure. "Comparing Dubai to Doha, it's like New York vs. Huntsville, Alabama," a companion remarked. So maybe it really is about the destination, not the journey.

I'll say this for the airline. No one made an overt sales pitch. There was no PowerPoint marketing presentation in place of the preflight safety briefing. It was a gracious, very odd little diversion, and at no point did anyone ask me whether I planned to write about it. I also have no plans to travel to the Gulf in the near future.

But later, I was told that some journalists aboard had taken complimentary flights from Qatar in the past -- in business class -- as had at least one of their bosses. I wasn't surprised. This kind of trade happens. Not a lot, but it happens. In my experience, it's more on the business side of publications than the editorial.

For a reporter, there's never an overt quid pro quo in covering events like this. The journalists who do it best don't take more from their hosts than dinner and the occasional cheesy gift bag. Often they'll give away the contents to co-workers the next day or put it in a pile that's donated to charity.

But if you want to come back, there's an expectation that whatever you write will be, if not entirely flattering, not remotely vicious. I don't write travel stories, and I don't cover the airline industry. I'm pretty sure I won't be invited back the next time the Qatar Cafe is back in town. (I'd love to be proved wrong.) But the reminder that I wasn't really a guest on this first-class flight made for a rough landing.

Courtesy Public, NYC

Dispatch

London Underground

Inside the Muslim Brotherhood’s hush-hush propaganda office in the U.K.

CAIRO and LONDON — The Muslim Brotherhood is reeling. Its headquarters in Cairo were gutted in August raids. Its leaders have been jailed. And in the latest move against the party of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, an Egyptian court on Monday issued an injunction dissolving the venerable Islamist movement and ordered its assets seized.

The ongoing suppression of the Brotherhood has driven party activists still in Egypt underground. But it has also prompted volunteers to take over the party's work from what might perhaps seem an unlikely location: North London.

Buried in the depths of the British capital at an undisclosed address, the Muslim Brotherhood's London press office has steadily become one of the most active arms of the Islamist group, coordinating with worldwide offices in Egypt, the United States, and Europe to send out the latest press statements, organize protests, and come up with new strategies -- including hiring hotshot British lawyers to coordinate legal challenges to the new Egyptian government.

In some ways, London is a natural home for the Brotherhood outside Egypt. It was already the head office of the Brotherhood's English-language website, "Ikhwanweb," which was launched in 2005 as the Western-friendly face of the organization. The first incarnation of the Islamist group in London dates as far back as the 1990s, when it opened a "global information center," which sought to communicate the group's message to the world's media. The Brotherhood spokesperson for Europe, Ibrahim Mounir, resides in the British capital, and Gomaa Amin, the Brotherhood's second-in-command and most senior member not in jail, is currently seeking refuge in London, after visiting for medical treatment just before the mass arrests began.

It's still not entirely clear what role the London branch of the Brotherhood plays today. Those involved are cautious about providing details for fear of repercussions against family members back in Egypt. According to Cairo-based, English-language daily the Egypt Independent, it has taken over the international media output of the outlawed group entirely.

A spokesperson, Salma, who asked that her real name not be used, said that together with a coalition of expat groups, the Brotherhood organizes weekly protests in London in support of Morsy, which in the past have included creative demonstrations like a human chain down the city's main shopping district, Oxford Street.

But the London Brotherhood also takes on potentially more weighty tasks: It recently employed a dream team of internationally renowned British lawyers -- including Michael Mansfield, who represented Mohamed al-Fayed in the inquest into the death of Princess Diana and families of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre -- to start legal proceedings against the Egyptian government, potentially in the International Criminal Court.

The lawsuit filed by the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and members of the dissolved Shura Council accuses the military and the interim Egyptian government of crimes against humanity, focusing on events like the violent Aug. 14 dispersal of Cairo's two pro-Morsy sit-ins, where over 600 people were killed.

"The people who have instructed me have come under attack from the regime," says Tayab Ali, solicitor and partner of leading London human rights law firm ITN Solicitors. "My instructions have been modeled in such a way that even if I lose communication with every member of the FJP or Shura Council I will finish my investigations."

Salma, who is currently finishing her Ph.D. in Britain, refuses to disclose the number of people involved in the London office, saying only, "There is a hierarchical organization; we are organized and very structured, and very well informed."

"We have always been here, for a couple of decades now," she says. "The Brotherhood is an international organization; it is not only in Egypt."

The Brotherhood clearly has a London set stretching back generations. Its leaders began fleeing to Europe in the 1950s, when then President Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a crackdown on the organization, says Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Anani believes that Egypt is witnessing a repeat of Nasser's 1954 crackdown on the Brotherhood, which could cause a fresh wave of Islamist members to move back to Britain. "After Monday's ruling they will be more vulnerable."

Khairat al-Shater, a leading Brotherhood member who is currently in prison and was seen by many as the power behind Morsy's throne, was in exile in London in the mid-1980s together with Essam al-Haddad, a presidential aide who was detained in mid-September by security forces of Egypt's military rulers.

Essam's son, Abdullah al-Haddad, is now an active member of the Brotherhood's London wing. The Haddads are not the only family with powerful links to Brotherhood networks in London and Cairo: The brother of Salma, the spokesperson, was part of Morsy's presidential team and is currently being held in an undisclosed location.

Even from the relative safety of London, members of the British Muslim Brotherhood operate with caution. The Egyptian authorities are reportedly keeping a watchful eye on the Islamists' activities in the British capital.

"We cannot be quoted by name anymore; it is huge security problem even here," Salma says. "We all have families in Egypt, so the security issues are personal -- there are family pressures. I do not wish any of my family back in Egypt to be affected by my activism."

The Egyptian expatriate community in London is not all pro-Brotherhood, Salma admits. There have been counterprotests supporting the military in London, and most Egyptians living in Britain actually preferred Hosni Mubarak's former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, in the presidential election. "The majority didn't vote Morsy," says Salma, referring to London's ex-pats.

But with Brotherhood supporters fleeing to London as the government continues its crackdown, the number of Morsy supporters may be catching up with their rivals. Salma maintains that she and fellow Brotherhood activists will eventually return to Egypt -- but as the crackdown continues to mount, that moment seems far off.

"Hundreds of Egyptians like me thought we could get a better education in London [and] then go back to build a democratic Egypt," she says. "But [the government] may keep me away from my family."

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