If you’ve ever considered doing business in Qatar—and particularly with those who have connections to its royal family—you may want to think twice.
As Qatar’s political influence grows in the United States, from the Brookings Institution to Al Jazeera, can the Qatari regime be held accountable for wrongdoings it commits against American citizens? In other words, what are the practical hurdles to having your day in court, if you’re seeking damages from an emir or his immediate family?
A recent lawsuit filed in federal court in Florida reveals the challenges of Americans holding those in positions of power accountable in the monarchies of the Middle East, particularly if these happen to be part of the Al Thani family, which has ruled the tiny Gulf emirate since 1825.
The lawsuit provides a window into the impossibility of serving foreign nationals who occupy positions of power abroad. Two Americans who had been employed as a bodyguard and a paramedic for a Qatari sheik filed a complaint against their former boss, alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Florida Labor Law, the Florida Constitution, and the California Labor Code. The complaint details the alleged abuses suffered by the plaintiffs at the hands of Sheik Khalid Bin Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the brother of the current ruler of Qatar.
According to the complaint, one plaintiff, Matthew Pittard, was solicited by the sheik to kill two individuals, a request he adamantly refused. Pittard later came to the aid of two American citizens the sheik was allegedly holding captive in his residence for several days in July, as noted in the complaint:
During Pittard’s period of employment, from approximately July 7-10, 2018, Defendant Khalid and his private Qatari security staff held an American citizen against the American citizen’s will on at least two occasions in one of Defendant Khalid’s personal residences. At Defendant Khalid’s request, the American citizen was arrested and jailed at the Onaiza Police Station in Doha, Qatar. Pittard and the United States Embassy came to the aide of the American citizen, and helped the American citizen reach a point of safety, and eventually safely depart from the country of Qatar.
After the sheik learned of Pittard’s role in liberating the captive, the sheik allegedly told Pittard he would kill both him and his family. Pittard alleges he was then kept against his will by the sheik’s security forces, stripped of his electronic devices, fired from his job, and forced to pen new employment documents while a Glock 26 firearm hung above his head.
His plight was not dissimilar from that of his coworker, Michael Allende, who says he was also subjected to the wrath of the sheik. Allende’s predicament, he says, included sometimes working for 20 to 36 hours straight, with little to no time for meals or sleep. Allende says he eventually escaped the sheik by scaling an 18-foot perimeter wall, an act that landed him in the hospital, free but injured.
In instances such as these, filing suit may feel satisfying. However, it can do little to hold the alleged perpetrators accountable if it’s impossible to serve them.
Rebecca Castaneda, Pittard’s lawyer, sees service of process in this case as highly challenging within the current boundaries of American law and international diplomacy. Castaneda explained, “In international litigation, the success of a case can depend upon the diplomatic relations with a foreign nation. Are they strained? Is it a partner nation? Are we working towards developing a stronger relationship with the country involved? Other factors to consider are bilateral agreements and mutual legal assistance treaties to which both nations are parties. These types of agreements encourage the sharing of evidence between the nations and provide relatively simple mechanisms for service of process and, in criminal cases, extradition.”
In the case of Qatar, there are no bilateral agreements or mutual legal assistance treaties that might allow for a sharing of information between Qatar and the United States.
The court’s ability to hear a case rests upon proper service of process. This requirement, outlined by Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, exists so a defendant has been given adequate notice of the court’s proceedings. In other words, Rule 4 protects individuals from matters to which they are a party being litigated without their knowledge.
The service of process requirement may be satisfied a variety of ways, although most common method is the physical delivery of the summons and complaint by a marshal, deputy marshal, or court appointee to the defendant or a registered agent. Ultimately, compliance with the service of process requirement relies upon a “best effort” for determining whether the plaintiff was successful in attempting to notify the defendant.
Castaneda elaborated, “Federal rules and case law define and determine successful service of process. It can seem straightforward in traditional U.S. plaintiff versus U.S. defendant cases but in circumstances such as ours, it’s a bit more challenging.” When serving a defendant in a foreign country, the requirement remains roughly the same: someone can be served in a foreign country through either procedures outlined by international agreements, like those in the Hague Convention; by the laws of that foreign country; or procedures practiced in the United States.
But as Castaneda shared with me, serving the royal family of Qatar has presented uniquely frustrating challenges, as Khalid has done his utmost to abuse the U.S. justice system by evading service—from physically avoiding service to having his registered agents lie about their status as his agents. Indeed, after the complaint by Pittard and Allende was filed, Khalid reportedly left the United States.
Castaneda’s problems aren’t unique. Individuals in the past have similarly struggled to serve the Al Thani family, one source telling me he offered thousands of dollars while trying to find a willing individual to serve a member of the royal family. No one was willing to do it.
Because the defendant in this particular case is a royal, there is a diplomatic process for carrying out service of process through the foreign country’s judiciary system, but, as Castaneda pointed out to me, the diplomatic route seems to exist only to provide an illusion of justice. After the judge-approved request cycles through the U.S. State Department, it must travel to the Qatari Embassy, where it then awaits approval.
This waiting process can take six to twelve months, at which point it inevitably becomes clear that no one in the Qatari Embassy has any interest in serving the royal family. Of course, no embassy staffer will approve such a thing, for the same reason prior individuals have turned down thousands of dollars: it’s simply not worth one’s head. Castaneda explained, “It can be challenging, as you are asking another country’s judicial system to exercise a function that ultimately would hold the ruling family of a country to, at the very least, answer the complaint filed.”
The plight of Castaneda and her plaintiff indicates the capacity of foreign rulers to subvert the U.S. justice system, with ordinary Americans doing business with Qatar as the victims. In an age where concerns over foreign influence have become commonplace, it seems stunningly pernicious that a member of a country’s ruling family can commit alleged crimes against American citizens and face no possible repercussions.
Pittard’s case exposes gaping holes within the American national security apparatus and reveals the utter helplessness of American citizens in confronting lawless political figures abroad. As dismal as Pittard’s tale is, let it be a warning to those seeking to do business or perform work in Qatar — for better or for worse, the U.S. justice system may stop at the door.