The tiny Gulf nation of the United Arab Emirates has long been known to punch above its weight internationally. With a native population of about one million and in possession of the world's seventh largest oil reserves, this is certainly achievable. Ever ambitious and forward-thinking, the Emirates also serves as a financial, trade and tourism hub for the region. A recent report this month has shown that the Emiratis have also excelled in running a "vast and immensely influential" lobbying and PR campaign in Washington, which shapes US policy and helps to ensure that the global reputation of the UAE remains intact, whilst hiding its indiscretions. However, unlike other powerful lobbies, it lacks organic, grassroots support and, therefore, legitimacy.
"The UAE lobby in the USA, UK and France works relentlessly in order to cultivate support for their military adventures abroad, particularly in Yemen and Libya, and in order to whitewash their widespread and systematic human rights abuses at home, where a complete crackdown on civil society has been taking place since the Arab Spring. This aggressive lobbying ensures that the UAE can continue to act with impunity," rights group ICFUAE told MEMO.
Although the ailing Khalifah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan is President of the UAE, his half-brother Mohammed Bin Zayed has been de facto ruler for the past decade, taking an even more active role since President Khalifah's stroke in 2014. One implication of this leadership change has been an aggressive foreign policy which includes interventionism in regional affairs, representing a departure from the wise diplomacy of his father and founder of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed (1918-2004).
A similar development was replicated in neighbouring Saudi Arabia under Mohammed Bin Salman after he was made Crown Prince by King Salman in 2017. Like his mentor Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Saudi Prince is considered widely to be in charge of the day to day running of the Kingdom. Spurred on by perceived US overtures to Iran via the 2015 nuclear deal, inaction in Syria and abandonment of Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak to democratic forces ushering in Muslim Brotherhood rule, the Saudis realised that America was no longer wholly reliable for their security and stability and decided to take a more assertive role in Washington, as unprecedented as that may be. The ongoing Qatar blockade was also initiated under the pretext of ending Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood and relations with Iran.
The most audacious albeit disastrous of joint Saudi and UAE interventions to date, of course, is the war in Yemen, embarked upon in an attempt to push back the Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa and other northern provinces, seen through the prism of a zero-sum war against Iran, which has fostered relations with the Shia Zaydi movement there over the years. What is little-publicised and less known, however, is that despite being labelled the "Saudi-led" war in Yemen or blockade against Qatar, these acts were first sold to Washington by Mohammed Bin Zayed, who is really the chief architect, having encouraged his protégé Bin Salman to proceed with this assertive policy. Bin Zayed is no stranger to Washington, having fostered relations there as early as the Gulf War.
In the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder a year ago, the Saudis have become a pariah, even in some Washington circles, having been dropped by lobby and PR firms while some think-tanks have turned down funding. As a report by the Centre for International Policy (CIP) has noted, though, the UAE has managed to enjoy its privileged status as a staunch US ally, in spite of its military role in Yemen and "abhorrent human rights record". This is largely due to the powerful, influential Emirati lobby and PR machine in America, which feeds into the soft-power of the UAE as a progressive, cultured, postmodern state.
The findings by the CIP's Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative are based on documents filed by organisations working on behalf of clients in the UAE in 2018. Under the terms of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), US law requires agents representing the interests of foreign governments or groups to disclose their relationships and financial arrangements. Scrutinising every "political activity" and campaign contribution available, the report found a multipronged approach involving contact with members of Congress in the hope of maintaining US military support, collaboration with think tanks to which the UAE has donated millions of dollars, and "attempting to shape the narrative of the UAE by contacting nearly every mainstream media outlet".
Of the 20 organisations registered under FARA to act on behalf of the UAE, one PR firm in particular was notable in carrying out the bulk of the "political activities", in the form of mass email blasts to congressional offices and committees with "unabashedly pro-UAE" articles relating especially to the Yemen war. One such article argued strongly in favour of efforts by the UAE to liberate the port city of Hudaydah to enable much-needed humanitarian aid to flow though, while conveniently omitting that such aid had been halted by the Saudi-UAE led coalition.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly in terms of increased normalisation with Israel, among the top ten non-profit organisations most contacted by agents on behalf of the UAE after the Smithsonian Institute was the American Jewish Committee (in second place), Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations.
However, limiting the full extent of UAE influence was a lack of transparency, as the FARA statute requires reported political actions to include a "degree of specificity necessary to permit meaningful public evaluation" of the steps taken by an agent or firm to achieve a foreign power's objectives. This led the writers of the report to state, "Our analysis revealed that many firms failed to meet this threshold, significantly impairing our ability to evaluate the work they did on behalf of their UAE client."
Arguably there were many more firms acting as agents on behalf of the UAE and, as such, the findings are only the tip of the iceberg, especially as they do not address the crucial oil and business interests between the UAE and the US, or the funding of think-tanks and US universities. Financial support for the latter has reached such an extent, that, "When Qatar arrived on the scene in Washington in 2017, the UAE in particular had already seized much of the academic market leaving few options for Qatar to fund projects."
Critically, the UAE also has officials who form part of the inner-circle of US President Donald Trump. The UAE's Yousef Al-Otabia, for example, has been called "Washington's most powerful ambassador" due in no small part to his notoriously lavish parties; he also has close ties to Trump's son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner. This is how a foreign country like the UAE was able to preview and edit one of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign speeches on energy.
The Saudis and UAE spent over $30 million in the US on lobbying and PR last year, with many pro-Iran war congressmen benefitting from handouts. The so-called "IranObserved" programme of the Middle East Institute alone received $20 million from the UAE in 2016-2017. Although the UAE has been steadily distancing itself from US hawks on Iran — not least because trade between the Gulf neighbours last year amounted to $19 billion — the US has shown that it is not exactly a reliable ally. This explains the UAE's reluctance to blame Iran explicitly for the Aramco attacks as Riyadh and Washington did.
Nevertheless, despite the millions spent on lobbying and PR campaigns, as Dania Koleilat Khatib argues in The Arab Gulf States and the West: Perceptions and Realities – Opportunities and Perils, the UAE's lobbying lacks legitimacy, simply because it has no US-based grassroots support. The only remotely thing close to this comes in the form of arms deals or trade transactions which are transient in nature. Among Arab-Americans it is not so easy to find grassroots support for international issues pertaining to the UAE, mainly because such issues are divisive, especially over the issue of Iran. Dearborn and the wider Detroit area, for example, have a large Shia Lebanese and Iraqi community.
While the UAE is seen by the US as a liberal and tolerant regime compared with other Gulf States, Washington's relationship with the Saudis is more of an embarrassment. Issues there are harder to reconcile with US public opinion, such as the treatment of Christians, women's rights and the fact that Wahhabism is the "creed adopted by ISIS". Conversely, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) enjoys grassroots organising in every state, with an important voter bloc in the American Christian right wing which is strongly supportive of relations with Israel.
The global reputation of Bin Salman and Saudi Arabia is beyond repair and the Kingdom is busy playing catch up with regards to opening up to tourism and hosting a wide range of entertainment and sporting events, from K-Pop to heavyweight championship boxing. The Machiavellian Bin Zayed, however, was included among this years' Time magazine "100 Most Influential Characters". Clearly, the UAE's PR efforts have yielded results. Furthermore, the Emirate of Dubai is looking to "host the world for 137 days" in the "world's greatest show" at Expo 2020, giving a whole new meaning to "bread and circuses" as the world collectively forgets the UAE's shared responsibility for the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.