By Jack Detsch December 12, 2017
One of Washington’s most powerful Middle East operators is fast becoming one of its most over-exposed.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has developed a sophisticated lobbying and public relations enterprise over the past decade that has helped position the oil-rich country as a key economic and counterterrorism partner for the United States. At the heart of the operation: Yousef al-Otaiba, the 43-year-old adviser to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan who has served as the UAE’s ambassador to Washington since 2008.
In recent weeks, however, Otaiba’s easy rapport with US policymakers, journalists and opinion-makers of all political stripes has become a source of headaches amid a steady drip of leaks from the ambassador’s personal emails. The damaging disclosures have laid bare the UAE’s yearslong campaign to isolate Qatar, confront Iran and buy influence in Washington.
Emails hacked and shared with US news outlets by an outfit called Global Leaks reveal that Otaiba has worked with several think tanks to help advance its agenda in the nation’s capital. Those efforts are in addition to traditional lobbying that topped $10.7 million in 2016, according to an Al-Monitor review of lobbying records.
Leaked emails obtained by The Intercept show Otaiba collaborated with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies to target businesses interested in doing business with Iran while paying the Center for a New American Security $250,000 to help the UAE obtain military-grade drones. The UAE is also reportedly on course to pay the Middle East Institute $20 million to “augment its scholar roster with world class experts in order to counter the more egregious misperceptions about the region, inform U.S. government policy makers, and convene regional leaders for discreet dialogue on pressing issues.”
The leaks have sprung just as the UAE has banded with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt to accuse Qatar of meddling in their affairs and destabilizing the region with its support for political Islamists. Despite its massive lobbying operation, the UAE has so far failed to get Washington squarely on its side in the regional dispute while suffering much of the blowback. Instead, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in skipping a recent gathering of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), opting instead to form a rival entity with Riyadh.
US President Donald Trump initially endorsed the UAE’s accusation that Qatar has been soft on terrorism in a series of tweets after his visit to Riyadh. Otaiba is reported to speak weekly with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, while the president himself has conferred with Crown Prince Al Nahyan on at least three occasions since taking office while lavishing praise on the UAE in a speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit.
“The United Arab Emirates has reached incredible heights with glass and steel, and turned earth and water into spectacular works of art,” Trump said. “The United Arab Emirates has also engaged in the battle for hearts and souls — and with the U.S., launched a center to counter the online spread of hate.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, has since sought to act as a neutral arbiter. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported in July that US intelligence agencies have concluded that the UAE precipitated the Gulf crisis by hacking Qatari government sites to plant false quotes attributed to the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The UAE denies the charge.
The UAE is also under US pressure to end its intervention in Yemen, where it is fighting alongside Saudi Arabia against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and faces charges of torturing prisoners. Otaiba, who is well-aware of Washington’s growing impatience with the war and its humanitarian toll, reportedly told former US officials earlier this year that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also “wants out” of the conflict and would welcome US engagement with Iran, according to more leaked emails.
“I do not think we will ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country,” Otaiba emailed former US special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations Martin Indyk in April. “Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of Saudi [Arabia]."
The UAE is also facing pushback from US lawmakers who have sided with the Big Three domestic airlines — American, United and Delta — in their yearslong quest to punish the Gulf airlines for their alleged reliance on government subsidies. In letters drafted by the US airlines and sent to several US Cabinet officials in July, House members from Illinois and Texas took issue with Emirates for planning direct flights between the United States and Europe. Dubai-based Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad in turn spent a combined $539,000 last year lobbying Washington against revoking their rights under Open Skies Agreements with the United States.
Despite those frictions, the UAE remains a crucial US military partner.
It was the first Persian Gulf country to purchase the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from the United States, in 2012. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also briefly worked as a military adviser to the UAE after retiring from the Marines. At the Dubai Air Show last month, the UAE was also reported to be the likely first recipient of the US-made F-35 fighter jet in the Gulf.
The United States is getting a significant return on its investment. The UAE houses approximately 5,000 American troops, primarily at Al Dhafra air base, home of the Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, and offers logistical support to American naval forces in the region.
The UAE has also offered its assistance in many critical US military missions around the world, including the current effort to root out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It even houses State Department staff focused on democratization throughout the Middle East.
The strength of that enduring relationship has led Middle East watchers to believe that relatively small bilateral squabbles, such as gripes over airline routing, will not jeopardize ties.
“There’s always a fear that something could get out of hand,” Danny Sebright, the president of the US-UAE Business Council, told Al-Monitor. “I think [the UAE] believe as long as people are dealing with the real facts and the situation doesn’t become overly political, they will be OK.”
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