An Arab nation looking to invest in South Carolina has set up an aeronautics firm with a Charleston headquarters, but the company's intent isn't clear and none of its principals are talking.
Qatar, a tiny oil-rich country along the Persian Gulf, has created a business called Barzan Aeronautical that is registered to a West Ashley accountant and lists its principal business address as 170 Meeting St., according to documents filed with the state and federal government.
One of those documents, filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, says the aeronautics firm's purpose is "development and production of surveillance aircraft."
That has some speculating that Qatar is quietly building a spy plane in Boeing Co.'s backyard. Jordan Schachtel, national security consultant for the Conservative Review website, was the first to report on the aeronautics firm's ties to Charleston. Other websites, some with anti-Qatar stances, have followed with their own reports.
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace and defense analyst with The Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., says those reports either misinterpret or sensationalize the facts.
"There are dozens of niche companies" that do such work, he said, and most of the time it involves modifying existing aircraft for surveillance duties.
"Every country has some of these, and there are many modification shops out there creating them," Aboulafia said. "It's very easy for some people to get overheated on this, for no good reason at all."
The paper trail
Barzan Aeronautical is part of Barzan Holdings, which is owned by the Qatari Ministry of Defense. According to Barzan Holdings' website, the entity "is responsible for empowering the military capabilities of the Qatari Armed Forces" through partnerships with international companies.
The aeronautics company has hired the K Street lobbying firm Ott , Bielitzki and O'Neill of Washington, D.C., according to a filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The firm is supposed to provide counsel on legal, contract and export matters as well as possible briefings with congressional offices and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Christopher Ott, a principal with the lobbying firm, did not respond to a request for comment.
Barzan Aeronautical is paying the lobbying firm a flat fee of $75,000 per month, according to an open-ended contract between the entities. The company also has paid it $272,268 for air travel, hotel costs and other fees, most recently in January.
Gerald Straughn, an accountant who is listed as Barzan Aeronautical's registered agent, also is listed as the lobbying firm's chief financial officer. Straughn, whose West Ashley office is on Savannah Highway, did not respond to a request for comment.
Richard Craven told U.S. officials in a filing last month that he is CEO of Barzan Aeronautical. Craven, a citizen of the United Kingdom, stated his role is to "aid in the procurement-development of airborne ISR systems," a reference to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. Craven, whose LinkedIn page says he took the CEO job in December, also did not respond to a request for comment.
No one responded to an email The Post and Courier sent to the address listed on Barzan Aeronautical's website. An online database shows the domain name for that website was registered April 3 by GoDaddy.com, which keeps contact information for the site private under its "Domains by Proxy" program.
Barzan Aeronautical executives could not be reached Thursday at their Meeting Street offices, which are in a co-working space operated by Regus.
The company was registered with the South Carolina Secretary of State about a month after Qatari leaders met with South Carolina politicians, business executives and Boeing Co. officials — including Kevin McAllister, CEO of commercial airplanes — at Boeing's 787 Dreamliner plant in North Charleston.
That meeting was to announce the intention of investing some of the state-owned Qatar Investment Authority's billions of dollars in the Palmetto State.
Another delegation of Qatari leaders traveled to South Carolina a few weeks after the aeronautics firm was registered.
It's not clear if any Qatari officials from those meetings are involved in Barzan Aeronautical. Those officials made no public mention of an aeronautics venture during the Boeing luncheon.
Boeing has declined to comment. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, who met with the Qatari officials a day before the Boeing luncheon, declined to comment.
South Carolina Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt also met with the Qatari delegation. His spokeswoman said the agency "is not able to discuss projects that may or may not have been discussed in the context of an economic development meeting."
The mystery has some observers thinking conspiracy.
"The Qatari regime's pernicious tentacles are finding a new home in the Palmetto State," Josh Hammer wrote for dailywire.com, which says it targets "a new generation of conservatives."
Others are skeptical that a hush-hush foreign military venture could be taking place on Charleston's peninsula.
"The national security issues would seem obvious," said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst who closely follows the industry but had not heard of Barzan Aeronautical.
"ITAR alone would seem a major obstacle," Hamilton added, referring to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations designed to keep military technology out of the wrong hands.
Aboulafia of The Teal Group said the Barzan Aeronautics venture could be something as simple — and innocent — as adding cameras or other sensors to an already-in-production prop jet.
Hamilton said he doesn't see how the U.S. would allow development of a foreign spy plane as described by some website reports.
"But under the Trump Administration, stranger things have happened," he added. "It's hard to get your head wrapped around this."