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Why Was the U.S. Report on UAE Influence Leaked?
It's a warning for officials to get their loyalties straight as the Biden administration comes into conflict with the Gulf states.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council has been circulating a report on attempts by the United Arab Emirates to manipulate U.S. politics, the Washington Post revealed a few days ago. Anonymous sources described the classified paper but refused to give the Post a copy. According to those sources, the report described both “illegal and legal attempts to steer U.S. foreign policy.”
Emirati influence is a well-known issue in Washington, so the report is nothing earth-shattering, although it may include some juicy details. The really significant part is that the U.S. security apparatus has started to treat Emirati influence as a systemic threat, rather than business-as-usual with a few corruption cases mixed in. It may indicate a real desire by the Biden administration to cut the Gulf monarchies back down to size.
Circulating the intelligence report is a message that members of government have to get their loyalties straight, and those on the fence are being watched. The report did not mention people by name, according to the Post, making it more of a warning shot than the beginning of a purge. Whoever leaked the report, however, made the warning very hard to take back.
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When readers hear the phrase “intelligence” or “classified report,” they think of some super-secret dossier that spells out exactly what happened behind the scenes. In reality, these papers lean heavily on public information and guesswork. There are a lot of phrases such as “likely.” The secrecy is often more about the “sources and methods” used to collect the information than the information itself. An intelligence analyst’s job is to stitch together public and secret details into a complete image.
And indeed, the UAE’s “illegal and legal attempts” to influence U.S. politics have already been subject to a lot of public scrutiny:
Several former U.S. officials also plead guilty to providing sophisticated cyber-warfare tools to an Emirati contractor.
What’s new is reviewing these cases in a systematic way, and bringing the resources of the entire U.S. intelligence community to bear on the problem.
There are indications that the intelligence report goes beyond public information. It “closely [examined] interactions involving U.S. officials,” including “a meeting of a senior U.S. and senior UAE official who commended each other for ‘single-handedly’ salvaging the U.S.-UAE relationship,” according to the Post.
The phrase “‘single-handedly’ salvaging the U.S.-UAE relationship” is very revealing. A faction of the American elite treats the U.S.-UAE relationship as a structure that has to be kept up for its own sake, rather than the sake of any particular American interest. Washington and Abu Dhabi are not seen as the capitals of separate nation-states, but two parts of the same superstructure.
Or, to put it more cynically, two ends of a conveyer belt moving money and influence back and forth.
Neocon grand vizier John Bolton2 identifies this mindset as “clientitis,” an “affliction where the foreign perspective becomes more important than that of the U.S.” His definition is not quite right. The sufferers of clientitis simply see no difference between the two sides. What’s good for America is good for Abu Dhabi is good for me.
The political higher-ups’ patience is wearing thin, however, as the UAE’s political maneuvering starts to hurt much more important interests than the careers of Middle East experts. The recent jockeying around oil prices left many American elites with a feeling that the Gulf monarchies want to help Russia’s war effort and ratf**k the Democratic Party.
The decision to go after the UAE is an interesting one. Saudi Arabia has always been the weak link in the chain. The in-your-face repression, the persistent questions about Saudi involvement in 9/11, and the image of Saudi Arabia as the Islamic theocracy make it an easy target for American politicians’ frustration about Middle Eastern client states.
There has also been some political and legal pushback against Qatari influence. Qatar’s regional policies — particularly its flirtation with Islamist populist movements — have attracted the ire of pro-Israel and pro-UAE factions like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. That fight has not really trickled down into the popular consciousness, however.
On the other hand, most Americans know the UAE as a luxurious Instagram backdrop. Foreigners who invest, travel, and party there have an easy time ignoring the misery the Emirati system produces. And the long, continuous U.S. military presence there has ingratiated the monarchy to American military brass, who call it “Little Sparta.”3
The UAE’s relatively favorable image allowed it to lobby Washington much more quietly and effectively than Saudi Arabia. For lack of a better term, UAE-backed institutions are considered less “edgy” in Washington than their Saudi counterparts. No one bats an eye at an expert working at the Middle East Institute or a journalist writing for The National.
Going after the UAE’s influence is a sign that the Biden administration is serious about reassessing its relationship with the Gulf monarchies. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
The UAE is able to pull the weight it does because of the structure of U.S. presence in the Middle East. The U.S. political class has decided that it neither wants to “abandon” the region nor include Iran in any grand bargain. That means guarding the regional order and rolling back its enemies through military force, which will be based out of places like Abu Dhabi.
And there’s the small matter of Israel, which enjoys more favor in Washington than any Arab state. The Abraham Accords have allowed Israel and the UAE to lobby under the same umbrella. Confronting the pro-Israel movement is a much more controversial move in U.S. politics than rolling up Emirati networks, to say the least.
The tens of thousands of American troops in the region will likely stay, and billions of dollars will continue to flow through defense contractors, all giving the UAE leverage over its erstwhile patrons. The conveyer belt is real, and carries a lot heavier cargo than George Nader’s campaign donations.
Nader, a convicted pedophilic sex criminal, plead guilty to election finance charges related to laundering Emirati money into the 2016 presidential campaign.
Broidy plead guilty to illegal lobbying on behalf of a Malaysian businessman. Prosecutors have not pursued charges related to his alleged lobbying for the UAE, which included helping Nader funnel money into the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Barrack was acquitted of acting as an unregistered Emirati agent.