The UAE’s seedy influence operations are a footnote in the Mueller Report
Washington DC, April 23 — Last week, the redacted text of the Mueller Report dropped—into a Capitol Hill that will spend much of the rest of the present Congressional session dealing with its fallout.
Robert Mueller’s investigation was into allegations only of Russian interference in U.S. politics. But at one point his report highlights some highly questionable (Russia-related) contacts that people close to Trump’s transition team had with representatives of another government that has intervened massively in U.S. policymaking in recent years: the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE is a small but very wealthy federation of seven tiny emirates (princedoms) strung out along the coast of the Gulf. Through the wily hawkishness of its powerful Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the UAE has played a major role in prolonging the war in Yemen, fomenting and supporting the conflicts in Syria and Libya, overthrowing (in 2013) the elected government in Egypt—and in persuading Pres. Trump to walk out of the key de-escalation/denuclearization deal the United States concluded with Iran in 2015.
MBZ may have only the title of “crown prince”, but he has dominated the UAE’s policymaking for more than a dozen years now. And back in early 2015, when the ageing King Salman became king of neighboring Saudi Arabia, MBZ reportedly played a big role in boosting the elevation of one of Salman’s younger sons, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), to the powerful role of crown prince… and we have seen some of the ruthlessness that MBS brought to that role.
Like MBS, MBZ doubtless views himself as a very “modern” crown prince. As part of that, his pursuit of his chosen, ultra-hawkish policies in the Middle East has been accompanied by massive lobbying efforts in Washington, designed to try to keep the world’s sole remaining (if somewhat fading) superpower on his side. So if the Justice Department and relevant congressional committees want to investigate interventions that foreign entities have been making in the US political process, then the role of the UAE government– as well as the Saudi and Israeli governments—should certainly also be examined.
Muzzling the discourse
“Interventions”, in this sense, should include not only direct lobbying for or against various policies but also the attempts these outside actors make to frame, skew, or on occasion outright muzzle the elite discourse in this country. These actors accomplish this in a number of ways, including by hiring PR firms and through the investments they make in various think-tanks… those specifically Washington institutions that generate and support “experts” whose analyses and views then—if the think-tank is successful—get widely quoted in the corporate media, thus becoming part of the country’s “conventional wisdom.”
Over the past decade, the UAE became a big player in the think-tank scene in Washington DC, which had previously been dominated, on matters Middle Eastern, by the large ranks of big, pro-Israeli American funders like Haim Saban—and to a lesser extent by the Saudis.
In the early 2000s Saban, an Israeli-American entertainment mogul (and close Clinton buddy), used his money to take over the previously professional Middle East studies department at the Brookings Institution, which renamed it the “Saban Center”. Saban was the guy who once told an audience in Israel that the “three ways to be influential in American politics,” were “make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets.” He has also repeatedly said, “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”
Not surprisingly, when MBZ wanted to “be influential in American politics”, he followed as much as he could of Saban’s playbook. Not being an American citizen meant that following some of Saban’s three paths to success was a little harder and more complex—but he had two trusty lieutenants to help him out.
George [not Ralph!] Nader
One was George Nader, a veteran Lebanese-American fixer who has worked for MBZ for many years and who is also a close associate of big GOP fundraiser– and Trump buddy– Elliot Broidy. Section IV (B) 2 of Volume 1 of the Mueller report described how, just a week before Trump’s inauguration, Nader and MBZ had set up a meeting in the Seychelles between Putin intimate Kirill Dmitriev and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, whom Nader thought was close to the Trump transition (and who anyway had a long history of working with MBZ in the UAE.) But Erik Prince apparently demurred from playing any immediate further role in establishing a secret Trump-Putin “back channel.”
Back in the 1980s, I knew Nader as an ambitious young man who cut quite a figure as the editor and publisher of a very glossy, Washington DC-based magazine called Middle East Insight. It carried intriguing interviews with a broad range of movers and shakers in Middle Eastern politics (and was suspected by many of us actual journalists in Washington of being a CIA front.) He and the magazine then dropped out of sight. Child pornography charges were reportedly involved. Years later, he resurfaced in the Czech Republic having been convicted there on several charges of child molestation… More recently, he resurfaced again as a key bagman for MBZ, including in relation to some non-trivial arms dealing.
Last year, after investigators on Mueller’s team subpoenaed the contents of Nader’s phone, he began to sing. (Scores of the footnotes to the relevant section of Mueller’s report are attributed to texts found on Nader’s phone.)
In April 2017, however, Nader was still busy doing his influence-peddling for MBZ. As the AP would later report, that was the month that Nader wired $2.5 million to Elliott Broidy through a company in Canada. The AP’s sources indicated that Nader sent the money to underwrite efforts to win US support for the campaign Saudi Arabia and the UAE were launching against Qatar. Those efforts included a Broidy-funded, anti-Qatar conference held by the ultra-right-wing think-tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and campaign donations of nearly $600,000 that Broidy made to anti-Qatar political bodies and campaigns.
Another, even higher-level US bagman for MBZ has long been the UAE ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba. He has also worked diligently to follow the Haim Saban playbook for how to win friends and influence policy in Washington—including the campaigns to control think-tanks.
Otaiba was named ambassador in March 2008. Just one month later an associate of Amb. (retd.) Wendy Chamberlain, the head of Washington’s venerable Middle East Institute think-tank, reportedlyreached out to ask Otaiba to support a major MEI capital campaign. Eight years later, Ms. Chamberlain finally got her reply: a $20 million donation from the UAE, which has now nearly finished completion of a large-scale refurbishment of its headquarters.
The past twelve years have seen numerous examples of such think-tank investments being made by rich Arab states—especially by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. Sometimes, these states followed the path of “capturing”—or, heavily investing in—existing think-tanks, as Saban had at Brookings and Otaiba did with MEI. Or sometimes, they followed the path pioneered in the 1980s by the big, pro-Israeli donor Barbi Weinberg, who worked with former AIPAC staffer Martin Indyk to create her own, wholly new think-tank: the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the FARA-reported influence operations of these three Arab states in 2017-2018 totaled $90.3 million, compared with $63.5 million reported by Israel. Influence operations funded by Israel are of course generously supplemented by those funded by US individuals and entities deeply supportive of Israel, like AIPAC. On many issues, including Iran, the campaigns of Saudi Arabia and the UAE push in the same direction as those of Israel.
In the case of the big Gulf-Arab donors, their battle for influence heated up considerably in mid-2017, after MBZ and MBS decided to try to knock the Emir of Qatar off his throne and divvy up the $320 billion-worth of assets of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund that he controlled. By then, Qatar’s own pet DC think tank, the Arab Center of Washington, was already well established. But Saudi Arabia (which had also invested in MEI, and which also owned and controlled a couple of smaller think-tanks in town) and the UAE then created two entirely new think-tanks to combat Qatar: the Arabia Foundation, and the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. The battle of narratives was royally joined!
(MBZ and MBS overlooked the fact that the largest number of US troops anywhere in the region are deployed in two massive bases in Qatar, and the Pentagon definitely doesn’t want to remove them. So though Pres. Trump expressed some initial support for the Saudi/Emirati plan to unseat Qatar’s Emir, the US government as a whole never followed through.)
Controlling the narrative on Yemen
All these shenanigans on the behalf of the Gulf-Arab super-rich are important– for a number of compelling reasons. First, the investments that all of them have made, over the past several years, have had a strong effect on public understanding of key issues in the Middle East, and on policy. As noted earlier, these issues include Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iran.
Of these issues, Yemen is the one regarding which these Gulf Arabs have—recently—been least successful in controlling the narrative. Their argument that the Houthi alliance that has controlled the capital, Sanaa, and considerable surrounding areas for many years is illegitimate, is totally controlled by Iran, and is solely responsible for the country’s suffering—and that therefore Americans and everyone else should support the Saudi/UAE alliance that has been battling the Houthis, has finally been exposed on every count. Just last week, finally, the US Senate supported a resolution to end the support the US military has been giving to the Saudi war effort in Yemen. That was a real victory for the antiwar forces. Trump vetoed the resolution, but Sen. Sanders is hoping to win enough support to over-ride the veto. Stay tuned…
But MBS (help from MBZ and the Pentagon, under Obama) launched Saudi Arabia’s large-scale military push into Yemen back in March 2015. It has taken four years for the US Senate to get to where it is on the Yemen issue, which is a shockingly long time. In the meantime, more than 70,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed, and millions more face imminent threats of cholera and starvation.
Secondly, the capture by these ruthlessly ideological forces of so many of the Washington think-tanks that previously had long reputations for fair-minded, objective research means it is almost impossible these days for anyone reading their output—whether directly, or indirectly, through the way they get quoted in the media—to get anything like an accurate picture of the situation in the countries being described.
This applies particularly to Syria, where since 2011 the bought-and-paid-for think-tanks have rigidly suppressed any viewpoints that challenge the view that Pres. Bashar al-Asad is uniquely evil and has to be overthrown. As someone who has worked on Syria-related issues since the 1970s, I have seen this happen at first hand. In my last appearance at an MEI event on Syria, in summer 2011, I pointed out that Pres. Asad still retained considerably more support from Syria’s citizens than the “regime change” crowd claimed, and that the “opposition” was splintered and in disarray. I was right. But MEI notably never invited me back and even refused to host other experts on Syria whom I had suggested for their programing.
Bottom line: If you read something from someone billed as a “think-tank expert” look carefully at their institution’s funding before you judge the value of their work.
And a final takeaway from the whole sorry saga of these Gulf states’ ridiculously large investments in think tanks? Consider the opportunity costs involved. Imagine if these states had spent this amount of money funding some of the sorely-needed debates, studies, or other interventions on the Palestine Question! (Imagine what Mondoweiss, or Just World Educational, or Palestine Legal could do with $20 million…) But no. The institutions that have received hefty Gulf-Arab funding have done pitifully little programing on Palestine, leaving that “field of discourse” open for the Zionists’ continued domination.
So George Nader may have been just a minor bit-player in the Mueller investigation’s saga. But the phenomenon of Gulf-Arab intervention in US politics and discourse that he represented was a much more serious matter.
Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.