By Avery Beam and Thomas Low
Following the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi lobby’s efforts to gain influence in Washington have been placed under greater scrutiny. However, Saudi Arabia is not the only country cozying up to the Trump Administration and seeking to manipulate U.S. foreign policy. There is another key player in this ongoing struggle for influence, one that is closely linked to Saudi Arabia—the United Arab Emirates.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have friendly ties with the U.S. government, safeguarded by political contributions and the promise of high-priced arms deals. And much like Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s campaign for influence, largely centered on public relations, has permeated Washington. According to documents filed with the Department of Justice, firms registered under the UAE spent nearly $20 million lobbying on behalf of Emirati interests in 2017 alone.
Propagating a narrative that demonizes Qatar, supports the war in Yemen, and portrays Emirati leadership as a progressive U.S. ally lies at the crux of the UAE’S crusade to capture Washington. Although Saudi Arabia’s efforts to influence U.S. policy have become more apparent in the aftermath of the Khashoggi tragedy, it is crucial that we examine the UAE lobby as well—because they are often working hand-in-hand with the Saudis.
In order to push their agenda, the UAE has employed vast swaths of lobbyists and designed an intensive PR campaign, with the UAE’s ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba acting as its principle architect. For years, Otaiba has cultivated a prominent reputation in Washington and has closely aligned himself with the current administration, specifically President Trump’s senior advisor (and son in-law) Jared Kushner.
Since their meeting over a year ago, Kushner has become Otaiba’s mainline to the White House, both men keeping in consistent contact with one another. Jodi Kantor of the New York Times aptly describes their relationship as that of a student and teacher, “with Mr. Kushner playing the student, asking Mr. Otaiba for his impressions of shifting forces in the Middle East, Syria, Iran, extremism, relationships.” And just as Kushner is Otaiba’s link to the White House, Otaiba has proven to be Kushner’s link to the Emirati crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). Reports indicate that Kushner even spoke to MBZ—as well as Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS)—through WhatsApp in a clear breach of government norms, which has raised security concerns among senior administration officials.
What’s more, these backroom talks and informal counsel are not exclusive to Otaiba and Kushner. George Nader, the UAE’s chief political advisor, and Elliott Broidy, the deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, are also key players brokering influence on behalf of the UAE. According to a series of uncovered emails, Broidy met with Trump regarding Nader and held multiple meetings at the White House with Kushner and Steve Bannon. It was discovered that Broidy sent a memo lobbying the president to set up an informal meeting with MBZ to back the UAE’s hawkish policies in the region, and to fire then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It has been reported that Nader wired $2.5 million to Broidy in order to bankroll efforts to influence U.S. policy toward Qatar. According to these emails, Broidy gave $600,000 in political contributions to Members of Congress backing anti-Qatar policies, and sent a spreadsheet to Nader that outlined a comprehensive public relations campaign against both Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. The campaign’s estimated cost was $12.7 million.
It appears that the UAE has spent millions and is willing to spend millions more to exercise every avenue of influence, demonstrating that their efforts to steer foreign policy are not confined to the White House. The UAE has used extravagant fundraising events and substantive donations to think tanks and other institutions as successful bargaining chips to gain political influence, as well.
According to a report by the New York Times, as a part of their $12.7 million PR campaign, Nader and Broidy have given large sums to Washington research institutes on behalf of the UAE. In 2017, Nader paid $2.5 million to Broidy for “consulting, marketing and other advisory services rendered.” This payment was intended in part to provide funding for conferences at the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, conferences that proved highly critical of Qatar.
An examination of the UAE’s reported political activity indicates that firms lobbying for the Emiratis consistently contacted think tanks, including the Atlantic Council (which receives funding from the UAE), Foundation for Defense of Democracies, American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for American Progress. The UAE has also contributed over $500,00 to both Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
As of last year, the UAE donated approximately $20 million to the Middle East Institute to augment policies toward Qatar. According to a report by the Gulf Institute, Otaiba and Richard Clarke, the chairman of MEI and the former counter terrorism czar under President Bush, exchanged emails regarding the donation, showing that the money came directly from MBZ himself. Otaiba has also forged a close relationship with the Center for a New American Security. A series of hacked emails reveal that, in early 2017, Otaiba paid CNAS to write a report that aligned with the interests of the UAE. The emails also show that CNAS collaborated with the Harbour Group—one of the UAE’s top firms, which received approximately $4.8 million from the Emiratis in 2017—to organize a UAE study tour for a number of Washington’s think tanks in order to strengthen their perceptions of the region later that year.
The UAE has also exerted its influence in the United States through academia. There have been numerous reports of the UAE making large donations to a number of American universities. According to the Department of Education’s foreign gifts report for 2017, the UAE donated over $6 million to prominent universities, including George Washington University, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California, Los Angeles. New York University is consistently the UAE’s top recipient, with donations of nearly $2 million in 2017 and over $4 million in 2016. In step with the Saudi lobby’s strategy, the UAE is effectively using monetary contributions as a tool to leverage Washington’s major policy influencers.
UAE in Yemen
The U.S./UAE military relationship has received little to no attention in Congress, the media, or the public. Saudi Arabia tends to get most of the media heat, in large part because of the use of U.S. arms in its brutal bombing campaign in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilian targets, including a bus full of schoolchildren and a wedding, have been well-documented. However, the United States should be concerned about Emirati activities in the region as well.
In 2017, an investigation by the Associated Press found at least 18 clandestine lockups run by the UAE in Yemen where interrogation techniques included abuse and torture, most notably by “the grill” where the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire. U.S. officials denied that there had been any abuse when U.S. forces were present at these facilities.
The UAE is also responsible for the involvement of mercenaries in the war in Yemen. The UAE financed and provided logistics for 1000 Sudanese mercenaries to travel to Yemen. This reportedly included members of the Janjaweed militias, who are under U.S. and international sanctions for human rights abuses and war crimes.
The UAE has provided ships to the naval blockade that has made it difficult to get humanitarian aid into Yemen. The coalition’s ships are preventing essential supplies from entering Yemen, even when the ships are not carrying weapons, exacerbating the famine and cholera outbreak that has already devastated the country.
To be fair, the UAE does have a large charitable giving network around the world. According to a new report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the UAE was the largest giver of development aid relative to national income in 2017. Even in the United States, the UAE is deeply generous when it comes to disaster-relief. The UAE pledged $10 million following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to Texas and Florida to help with state and local recovery efforts, and provided $100 million in disaster-relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. The UAE has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate polio, and in 2017, the UAE Embassy partnered with the American Cancer Society (ACS) to celebrate the release of the Cancer Atlas in Arabic, a tool that consolidates research from 185 countries and is used by the public and experts alike.
The UAE wishes to demonstrate to the United States and the world that it is adapting to the liberal world order and is trying to contribute to a better future. Donating millions to international aid and healthcare is but one way the UAE attempts to do this.
Another is through the media.
Yousef Al Otaiba, known to some in the lower levels of the State Department simply as “Brotaiba”, has been slowly but surely cultivating the UAE image in Washington. Profiles of Otaiba have appeared in the Huffington Post and The Intercept, and his name has been in and out of the media since he became UAE ambassador in 2008. Otaiba has had op-eds in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and has been the leading advocate of aggressive intervention in the Middle East in Washington. From his Huffington profile, we learn that Otaiba has
headlined a cancer research gala in New York with performances by Beyonce, Alicia Keys, and Ludacris, and when he threw a birthday party for Joe Scarborough it led the next edition of Playbook…Otaiba told the glossy D.C. magazine Washington Life in 2012 that having people over to his home in Alexandria often entails “having a Cabinet secretary stepping carefully over [his son] Omar’s lego set, or an admiral scratching the ears of our dogs Coco and Marley, or shooting a game of pool with a member of Congress.”
In his op-eds, Otaiba relentlessly defends the UAE’s presence in Yemen as necessary to counter al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) and the Iranian-backed Houthis, saying “It is difficult and deadly work, but the UAE, United States and the international community are safer because of it”. Otaiba also maintains that Qatar is a bad actor. Since 2017, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other countries have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar over its alleged links to Islamic terrorism and Iran. Hacked emails between Otaiba and Robert Malley, then a top advisor to President Obama, show Otaiba reacting unfavorably towards incoming president Donald Trump. Al Jazeera, a news agency out of Qatar, broke that story. Since then, Otaiba, the UAE, and even President Trump (before he evidently realized that the U.S. has a massive military base in Qatar) have been adamantly condemning Qatar.
In conclusion, the United Arab Emirates–while small–has an aggressive and far-reaching agenda in DC. The UAE wants to be seen as the United States’ indispensable ally in the Middle East, a partner in the War on Terror, and a contributor to a better world. This can be seen in the UAE’s forceful stance on Iran and al-Qaeda, both in Yemen and elsewhere, and in the UAE funneling millions towards international development aid. To push this narrative, the UAE retains countless lobbying firms to advance their policy interests on the Hill, funds large numbers of top U.S. think tanks and universities, and thrusts Yousef Al Otaiba–the driver of all things UAE–into the media fray, to woo everyone in sight.
Fighting Islamic extremists and giving millions in development aid sounds good. When you have billions to spend on marketing and public relations, you can put a positive spin on anything. While the U.S. is focused on the UAE curtailing Iran and terrorist groups, we do not see the gross human rights abuses in underground prisons and the thousands of starving children in Yemen. While the UAE spends lavishly on international aid, it also spends millions on lobbying groups, think tanks, universities, and politicians in DC peddling for influence.
According to the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy (CIP), since the start of the intervention in Yemen in 2015, the United States has delivered almost $4 billion in arms sales to the UAE. Does the United States want to continue to subsidize a regime that secretly strings prisoners up on “the grill” and is partly responsible for causing the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world”?
According to 2017 FARA filings, the UAE spent almost $20 million on lobbying in the United States. Do we as a nation want to be blind to how much influence the UAE has over our politicians and especially our presidential administration?
The United States needs to affirm that it stands for a free, democratic world in which money doesn’t undermine U.S. foreign policy. . If the UAE’s policies do not align with the ideals and values this country was built on, then we need to reevaluate our relationship.
Avery Beam is a research associate at the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy. Thomas Low is a research associate at the Center’s Arms and Security Project.