by Andreas Krieg
In the era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” the European Union has woken to the disruptive potential of disinformation and weaponized narratives—particularly in the context of the Kremlin’s covert attempt to disrupt liberal discourse in Europe. Yet, Brussels has paid little attention to the covert influencing campaign of another authoritarian player trying to distort liberal discourse in Europe’s capital: the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The UAE is a small Gulf state with extensive financial power levers and an assertive regional foreign and security policy: “little Sparta,” as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis once referred to it. Despite its size, the UAE has built an extensive disinformation network in the region and in the West, which goes beyond conventional lobbying. Spearheading the counterrevolutionary campaign to restore authoritarian rule in the Arab world post-Arab Spring, Abu Dhabi has activated a disinformation network of media outlets, troll and bot nets, think tanks, and policy makers to not just conduct public diplomacy but to sell the region and the West a narrative of “authoritarian stability.” This narrative frames political Islam as terrorism and civil society in the Arab world as destabilizing.
The UAE’s extensive meddling in Washington has been well documented. Stories about how the Emirati ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, equipped with a blank check from Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ), had been able to buy-off conservative think tankers and court former policy makers, started to appear after leaks from the ambassador’s emails revealed the extent of Emirati meddling in American policy discourse.
Otaiba was asked to find a means to repackage Abu Dhabi’s phobia of a mobilized civil society in the Arab world. According to the fear-based narrative of authoritarian stability, the revolutions of the Arab Spring were covert Islamist conspiracies to install Sharia-based caliphates. This narrative borrowed the simplistic conveyer-belt theory to frame moderate political Islam as an “entry drug” to salafi-jihadist terrorism, a spin that resonated well among neocons with an antipathy toward Islam. UAE-sponsored think tanks would provide the narrative with credibility while their revolving door to strategic policy-making provided the access. When it became apparent in 2016 that the next tenant in the White House would build his Middle East policy on a right-wing basis, Abu Dhabi’s disinformation network went into overdrive. Subsequently, during the Gulf Crisis in 2017, Crown Prince MbZ could rely on the administration’s ear and initial support when branding the UAE’s action against its neighbor Qatar as fighting “terrorism.”
In Brussels, the UAE’s disinformation network is still in its infancy. But in Westphalia Global, Abu Dhabi has found two conservative PR men, Tim Eestermans and Timo Behr, who have worked in the UAE’s Foreign Ministry for years and share the Emirati fear of political Islam. Westphalia Global is a small boutique strategic communications firm whose primary client appears to be in Abu Dhabi.
On the think tank side, the newly created Bussola Institute promises to provide Abu Dhabi with both a hub to legitimize its narrative of authoritarian stability and a platform to tie senior, exclusively conservative, EU policy makers to the Emirati agenda. Board members José María Aznar and Anders Rasmussen allow the institute to tap into their Brussels networks. So far, events organized by the institute have merely been used to promote “tolerance” in an effort to whitewash the image of a country that frequently incarcerates activists, journalists, and academics. But the first published reports on its website suggest that Bussola promotes the same fear-mongering strategic narrative that frames political Islam in the region as terrorism.
The UAE narrative, promoted by a Muslim country on a vendetta against civil society in the Arab world, paradoxically resonates among conservatives and right-wingers in the European Parliament (EP) with Islamophobic leanings. In the complex, post-revolutionary context in the Middle East, the UAE’s attempt to shape perception in Brussels is increasingly dangerous as the Emirates are looking for ways to find moral and political support for their authoritarian protégés in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
The UAE’s lobbying campaign is having an effect, a political advisor in Brussels tells me. A range of conservative MEPs recently abstained from condemning the UAE’s catastrophic war in Yemen, while the populist government of Italy tried unsuccessfully to lobby for the UAE to be removed from the EU’s blacklist for tax havens in March.
If the UAE’s impact in Brussels proves to be as disruptive as its operations in Washington, the alliance between conservative populists and the UAE lobby could be more subversive to EU politics than its infant network currently suggests. Much depends on whether the UAE chooses to lobby to the right of the European People’s Party, potentially empowering forces that oppose the idea of a liberal Europe altogether.
Andreas Krieg is an assistant professor at the School of Security and Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London.