By Jack Detsch September 12, 2018
The United Arab Emirates is shattering lobbying records as it courts new allies in its diplomatic standoff with Gulf rival Qatar.
The federal government and the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Ras al-Khaimah spent a combined $21.3 million last year trying to influence Washington policymakers, according to a review of public disclosures by Al-Monitor. That’s twice as much as the UAE spent in 2016, before the country joined Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in June 2017 in a campaign to isolate Qatar over its ties to Iran and Islamist groups.
As part of the effort, the UAE has notably stepped up its wooing of politically influential US Jewish groups, trying to promote itself as a haven of tolerance — in contrast with Qatar, which hosts leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas as part of its independent foreign policy. Doha has responded with its own public relations operation targeting Jewish groups.
Much of the UAE’s Jewish outreach has been managed by longtime UAE lobbyist Harbour Group, which arranged a Gulf trip in February for several Jewish groups, including the Council of Presidents and the American Jewish Council (AJC), to meet with high-ranking officials and religious leaders. A UAE-led religious delegation that came to Washington for a State Department event on religious freedom in July sought out the AJC and other prominent groups.
“We are especially admiring of the government’s commitment to fighting extremism and modeling diversity,” Jason Isaacson, the AJC’s executive director for policy, told Al-Monitor.
The Harbour Group is one of a trio of firms, alongside the Camstoll Group and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, that together pulled in the bulk of UAE lobbying dollars in 2017, with $19.5 million. In addition to the government spending, Dubai-based strategic communications firm Lapis Middle East and Africa, which does work for the government, paid $235,000 to two US firms to produce an anti-Qatar film distributed to guests at an event last fall at the conservative Hudson Institute featuring Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist.
The lobbying blitz has had little visible impact.
Despite early tweets in support of the Qatar blockade, the Trump administration has since urged the opposing sides to work out their differences and present a unified front against Iran and the Islamic State, while praising Qatar’s recent decision to invest $1.8 billion to improve the US air base at al-Udeid. After a diplomatic lull, the White House had been planning a Gulf Cooperation Council summit this fall, but postponed it until early 2019.
Even the UAE’s Jewish outreach has been rocky. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, has called the country’s treatment of Israeli athletes “unacceptable” after they were barred from flying their flag or identifying as Israeli in sports competitions. The International Judo Federation in June stripped the UAE and Tunisia of rights to host international tournaments over the complaints.
“At the broad meta level, an AJC leadership trip to the UAE is a good thing for Jewish-Muslim, Jewish-Arab relationship,” said Joel Rubin, a former State Department official during the Barack Obama administration and a founder of the left-leaning J Street. “Once they start pushing agendas, that’s when it gets tricky.”
The UAE’s other big lobbying spending priority has been to preserve US support for the Saudi-led campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The UAE has embraced the Trump administration’s tough rhetorical stance on Iran and its regional proxies, while warning that it will act alone to defend its interests if Washington gets cold feet.
In a letter to congressional leaders first reported by Al-Monitor in July, Ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba and Minister of State Reem al-Hashmy talked up the UAE’s humanitarian efforts as the UN prepares to release a peace plan from special envoy Martin Griffiths. The push comes as the House and Senate in July unveiled annual defense legislation that for the first time draws attention to Emirati actions when reviewing US aerial refueling of the Arab coalition and other forms of participation in the war.
The Yemen-related lobbying has been spearheaded by the UAE’s former director of legislative affairs in Washington, Hagir Elawad, who left the embassy last year to register as a foreign agent. The offensive has targeted key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as lawmakers critical of the Saudi-led coalition fight in Yemen, including Democratic California Reps. Ro Khanna and Ted Lieu.
“[UAE officials] are very cognizant of what they own in terms of the military campaign,” former US Ambassador to the UAE Barbara Leaf told Al-Monitor. “It’s an extraordinarily fragile humanitarian situation. They’ve come in for significant criticism.”
Despite publicly pushing for a peace settlement in Yemen, the UAE has continued to be a major purchaser of US weapons systems, seeking $2 billion worth of Patriot PAC-3 missiles and GEM-T missiles in 2017. The UAE also received approval to purchase 300 Sidewinder missiles in March, which can be fired from Apache helicopters bought from the United States in 2016.
Separately, Emirates Global Aluminum, the largest producer of the metal in the Middle East, hired the Carmen Group in February 2017, less than a month after Trump’s inauguration, to lobby on trade matters. The firm was paid $220,000 in 2017.
Since this spring, the Carmen Group has also been lobbying for an exemption to the president’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, joining fellow Gulf countries Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Dubai-based ASM International General Trading briefly hired Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm close to Trump, in March to lobby on trade policy but Ballard ended the contract a month later (after receiving $150,000) after the Daily Beast revealed ASM's ties to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
The UAE was the third largest exporter of aluminum to the United States in 2017, according to the Congressional Research Service, with $1.4 billion worth of exports (8% of total US aluminum imports). The country also exported $218 million worth of steel in 2017 to the United States; this was 0.8% of total US steel imports.
Meanwhile a trade fight that threatened UAE airlines’ access to the US market appears to be dying down after they struck a deal in May with the Trump administration and US airlines to be more transparent. The agreement for now silences accusations that UAE airlines are getting unfair government subsidies while doing little to stop the carriers from adding flights to the lucrative routes between Europe and the United States in the future. Emirates and Etihad dropped three of their six lobbying firms last year, still shelling out almost $310,000.
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