A close aide of former US President Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to working as a foreign agent for the United Arab Emirates. The 74-year-old billionaire investor was charged last week with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and making multiple false statements to the FBI, in a case that is likely to shed light on Abu Dhabi's relentless drive to shape US policy in the region.
Thomas Barrack entered his not guilty plea during his first court appearance in New York City. "As you'd expect, the system is working… you'll all see that I'm 100% innocent," Barrack is reported saying as he left court.
Barrack was released last week on a $250 million bond after reaching a deal with federal prosecutors. He was also ordered to surrender his passport and wear an ankle bracelet.
Prosecutors warned he could be a flight risk, as he has access to private aircraft, Lebanese citizenship, and "deep and longstanding ties to countries that do not have extradition treaties with the United States", the Independent reported.
Matthew Grimes, a former executive at Barrack's company, and UAE citizen, Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, were also accused of unlawfully trying to promote UAE government interests by using Barrack's connections to influence officials and media appearances. They also allegedly promoted the candidacy of a UAE-favoured individual as US ambassador to Abu Dhabi.
Grimes has pleaded not guilty to the charges while 43-year-old Alshahhi remains at large according to the BBC.
Details of the Barrack's case have opened a window into what analysts see as a period of freewheeling American diplomacy under the Trump era which coincided with an aggressive effort by the UAE and other Middle Eastern nations to gain influence in Washington after years of testy relations with former US President Barack Obama.
The UAE in particular has gained notoriety in recent years over the way it has allegedly gone about trying to gain influence in the US. A report published in 2019 revealed that the UAE's apparatus of influence involved 20 US firms that were paid $20 million. It said that Abu Dhabi's influence operation targeted legislators, non-profits, media outlets, and think tanks as part of an effort to improve the image of the UAE, a key ally of Saudi Arabia.
Details of Barrack's role in lobbying on behalf of Abu Dhabi have been obtained by the Financial Times through interviews with officials and people in his circle. The FT said it had reviewed hundreds of pages of testimony, documents, and analysis made public by congressional committees over the past two years, to provide an account of the alleged lobbying on behalf of a foreign state.
Getting the US to side with the UAE over the Gulf states' blockade of Qatar featured in the FT's account of the alleged lobbying case. Apparently, when some US officials hoped that a summit with Middle Eastern leaders at Camp David, outside Washington, could resolve a conflict that pitted US partners in the Gulf against each other, Abu Dhabi sought to nix any such summit to keep up the pressure on Doha. Barrack allegedly tried to help by insisting Trump not go ahead with the meeting.
Last July the International Court of Justice (ICJ) backed Qatar in the dispute with its four neighbours that imposed an air blockade against Doha in 2017. Doha had filed a complaint with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in October 2017, four months after the boycott began, arguing Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE had violated the international convention on the free passage of passenger planes through foreign airspace.
Getting the Muslim Brotherhood proscribed was also high on the UAE's agenda. On 23 January 2017, prosecutors said, Alshahhi told Grimes about a "great opportunity" for the US to list the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, while Trump was in office. The Trump administration reportedly considered the move, but it did not label the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.