Saudi Arabia and its new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman enjoyed a short time in the Washington sun. Bin Salman was introduced through Thomas Friedman articles and 60 Minutes specials as a visionary modernizer who would take a country with medieval traditions and bring it into the twenty-first century. Now, after the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, increased coverage of the disastrous effects of the Yemen War, and Congress’s failed attempt to pull U.S. support from the conflict, both public and political establishments are questioning Saudi influence in Washington as never before. Meanwhile, a different Gulf country’s influence is flying largely under the radar.
In the past month, President Trump has backed Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar in his assault against the United Nations-recognized interim government in Tripoli. The New York Times has reported that the Trump administration is working to label the Muslim Brotherhood, a longstanding pan-Islamic group that has stood in multiple Egyptian elections, a terrorist organization. The administration has also labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization; the first time a foreign government’s military has been so designated by the United States. National Security Advisor John Bolton seems itching to provoke a war with Iran, claiming that when Iranian-backed groups like the Houthis attack oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia, Iran is effectively threatening U.S. interests. And one country benefiting from each of these U.S. foreign policy decisions is the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE is a federation of cities on the Persian Gulf organized into a nation-state ruled by a family in a monarchical tradition. The country sits on large oil and natural gas deposits, and has channeled its wealth into the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority—a sovereign wealth fund valued at 828 billion dollars, the third largest in the world—and two other funds that are each valued at over 300 billion dollars. These sovereign wealth funds have invested in countries around the world, from buying Manchester City football club in England to purchasing Indian airports and European and American real estate.
Contrary to popular perception, the UAE has repeatedly outspent Saudi Arabia when it comes to lobbying money in the United States. In 2017, the UAE government spent over $21 million as compared to Saudi Arabia’s roughly $14 million—a gap that persisted in 2018 as well.
The money has bought them interesting friends on both sides of the aisle in Washington, as well as in other capitals around the world. According to FARA registration, David Rothkopf, the former editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a former Clinton administration official, is being paid $50,000 a month by the UAE for media advice—a relationship that was initially not disclosed in his opinion pieces or television appearances discussing Middle East politics. The UAE has given money to the Center for American Progress, the think tank that was started by John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, and which maintained links to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The DCCC received bundled money from a lobbyist for the UAE in the first quarter of 2019 while House Democrats were unified in voting to pull U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. The UAE and its representatives have also looked to Republican and now Trump administration-tied figures like Elliott Broidy, former deputy finance chair of the RNC, and former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, for influence.
While the killing of former Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and the historic rejection by the United States Congress of support for the war in Yemen, has brought fresh scrutiny to Saudi Arabia’s financial influence and lobbying efforts, the UAE has mostly avoided this backlash. Yousef Al Otaiba, the ambassador of the UAE to the United States is still a constant fixture at parties and fundraisers, hosting an Alfalfa Club after-party featuring several U.S. politicians at Cafe Milano.
What the UAE wants is pretty clear. Its autocratic government fears political Islam and democracy. The Emirati government thus backs Haftar over the UN-recognized government in Libya, a democratically elected but struggling transitional government. It wants the Muslim Brotherhood not only outlawed but labeled a terrorist organization. The UAE is currently trying to influence the peaceful revolution in Sudan by providing direct aid to the military, with Sudanese protestors so clued in to the implications that they chanted “We do not want your aid” at a gathering outside a military base. And while there is a sectarian component to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s conflict with Iran, at this point it has largely been eclipsed by the pursuit of hegemonic influence. Iran is ruled by religious figures who, along with students, Marxists, and activists, rose up and overthrew the Shah, an autocratic ruler. The UAE’s ruling family understandably fears the export of such a revolutionary model across the Middle East.
Gulf influence over U.S. policy was evident in President Obama’s administration, too. According to New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick, President Obama learned ahead of time of the planned coup, organized and paid for by Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, but adopted a hands-off approach, while some in his administration gave a green light to the Egyptian military and their backers. The Egyptian coup to install Sisi, widely regarded as part of a popular revolution, encouraged the UAE in its attempts to influence the rest of Arab world, from joining Mohammed Bin Salman’s war in Yemen to supporting and providing public relations in his muscular rise to power in Saudi Arabia.
In classic international relations theory, a client state is a state that is economically, politically, or military subordinate to another more powerful state. Thus, the United Arab Emirates is at least theoretically a client state of the United States. But while United States provides markets, weapons, and military protection to the UAE, the UAE’s interests and goals seem to be driving United States policy in the Middle East. It exposes a tautology at the heart of current foreign policy commitments: We continue to hold onto the UAE as a partner because we regard them as needed to counter Iranian expansion and hegemony over the Middle East; the UAE requires us to act to protect them from Iran. The result is that the U.S. looks the other way when the UAE intervenes in the Middle East and North Africa region, and American administrations frequently make decisions seemingly contrary to stated foreign policy interests of the United States, which formally values the spread of democracy and human rights.
Now, these ties seem to be pushing the U.S. toward a disastrous war with Iran. On May 5, John Bolton announced that, according to intelligence, Iran was moving to attack U.S. military assets in the Middle East, and the U.S. would dispatch an aircraft carrier and bombers to the region as a precaution. Bolton said he would hold Iran accountable for any attacks on U.S. interests or allies taken by either the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or “proxies.” On May 12, multiple oil tankers were sabotaged in UAE waterways, with the UAE releasing few details. A day later, in a development hard not to read as a deliberate signal, the Pentagon’s war plans in the event of an Iran conflict were leaked to the press. When the Houthis in Yemen attacked Saudi pipelines by drone on May 14, President Trump grew openly bellicose on Twitter. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” he tweeted later that week.
It was a remarkable turn of events, the U.S. both holding the Iranian government accountable for Houthi actions and, implicitly, declaring it a U.S. responsibility to punish the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s enemies. Despite Iran lacking a nuclear bomb and posing no threat to the United States homeland, U.S. officials are now openly contemplating engaging in what would likely be the most devastating war the region has seen. With stakes this high, at this point we should all be questioning the process by which the United States produces its foreign policy.