The previous chapter sketched how economic entanglement informs the United States-Abu Dhabi relationship, and why this variable informs the Democratic party’s reticence in seeking redress for wrongs suffered at the hands of the emirate in recent times. In this chapter, a second variable highly relevant to the outcome in question—namely, Abu Dhabi’s influence operations within Washington—will be brought to the foreground.
Per the introduction, Abu Dhabi’s influence operations, like those of other foreign states and special interest groups, exploit conditions and opportunities introduced by decadence’s onset within the American political system. Conceptually speaking, decadence as used here refers to particular changes in the character of the American state and the conduct of governance—changes accelerated though not created by neoliberalism’s rise as an ideology and praxis at the end of the last century.1The American political system has long been animated by the workings of an “iron triangle”, i.e. the interactions between elected officials in the Congress, bureaucrats, and special interest groups. That said, since the 1990s, special interest groups of all kinds have acquired expanding power within said triangle, and the boundaries between corporate entities and both branches of government have blurred considerably. In material terms, decadence’s spread manifested in the American state’s relinquishment of key sovereign prerogatives and in its outsourcing of functions once managed internally, shifts collectively marking the emergence of what can be called the contractor state. As translated into practices of governance, the advancement of decadence saw legislative, deliberative, and administrative processes opened up to external interference to a greater degree than had previously been the case. It also brought about a transformation in the composition and career trajectories of the individuals populating government, as relevant parties began advantaging themselves of the revolving door connecting the state to corporate entities with increasing frequency.
This chapter aims to unwind how Abu Dhabi navigates decadence in promoting its interests inside of Washington. It will begin by appraising the means through which the UAE’s embassy (and the local lieutenants it employs) influence the epistemic environment within which American policymakers operate. From here, it will disassemble how the embassy et alia leverage formal and informal channels to push bureaucrats and elected officials toward desired policy ends. It will conclude, finally, by mapping the diversity of methods through which Abu Dhabi cultivates relations to a milieu of social capital-rich individuals within the field of liberal politics. Together, these forays into decadence will be posited to have contributed to the confounding geniality that the Democratic party exhibits toward Abu Dhabi.
Before commencing, it should be stated that Abu Dhabi is far from the only non-national actor playing this game in Washington. Many of its regional rivals—Qatar and Turkey included—also participate, as do governments from across the world. It should be stated as well that the tactics used by Abu Dhabi in exploiting decadence are wholly legal, with the exception of political donations made to the Trump and Clinton campaigns in 2016.
Shaping How the Modern Middle East is Conceived
Abu Dhabi’s interventions into the epistemic environs of American foreign policy are sophisticated, vertically integrated, and demonstrably efficacious. Collectively functioning to, on the one hand, produce, launder, and disseminate favorable discourses and, on the other, to screen, elide, and discredit unfavorable ones, the emirate’s operations have had considerable effects on cognoscenti and politicians alike, and, by extension, on the United States’ engagement with the Middle East and North Africa.
In producing knowledge contents as in preempting them, Abu Dhabi acts indirectly and with varying degrees of removal. Operationally, this is achieved through leveraging the different forms of financing that the UAE embassy allocates to those institutions ceded much of government’s intellectual labor in the contemporary era of American politics: think tanks. 2The influence of think tanks and similar policy planning institutions is not wholly novel. For their historical function, see G. William Domhoff’s update to his classic work, Studying the Power Elite: Fifty Years of Who Rules America.
Engaging Washington’s Think Tank Industry
“Transparency is lacking as concerns both the identity of institutional patrons and the size of a particular patron’s contributions”
The precise amounts involved in the UAE’s arrangement’s with Washington’s think tanks are difficult to ascertain. By dint of think tanks’ spurious legal designation as 501(c)3 non-profit organizations, they are exempt from needing to report their funding sources to tax authorities.3Of note, the Center for American Progress and the Heritage Foundation, both of whom have received funding from the UAE in recent years, are registered as 501(c)4’s, which allows them to make political donations. In addition, despite receiving significant donations from non-national public and private entities and despite exerting a rather obvious effect on both policy and public opinion, the branding of think tanks as independent, apolitical organizations engaged in scientific inquiry has, to date, stopped the Department of Justice from forcing them to abide by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Consequently, transparency is lacking as concerns both the identity of institutional patrons and the size of a particular patron’s contributions.
With only voluntary disclosures and revelations furnished by investigative journalists to work off, estimates of the UAE’s spending on epistemic outputs are necessarily conservative. Keeping these caveats in mind, Ben Freeman’s report for the Center for International Policy posits that between 2014 and 2018, the UAE donated at least $15.4 million to eight American think tanks of note: the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic Council, the Belfer Center (at the Harvard Kennedy School), the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for American Progress, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the RAND Corporation.
Notably, the figure put forth in Freeman’s study did not account for the $20 million that the UAE allocated to the Middle East Institute between 2016 and 2017; the $250,000 it paid to the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in exchange for a study on the legal regime governing US exports of military-grade drones; or the undisclosed sums it has invested into Emerge85, a research hub hosted at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and led by Afshin Molavi. The methods Freeman elected in making his estimate also excluded from his calculations the more discretionary sums that Abu Dhabi funneled to the right-wing Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies through the person of Elliot Broidy—a (soon-to-be disgraced) Republican operative brought into the emirate’s orbit through a second (soon-to-be disgraced) proxy, George Nader—as part of its efforts to sully Qatar’s reputation. In addition, despite the obvious quality of the author’s work, it is pertinent to register that he did not attempt to appraise moneys indirectly routed to persons otherwise employed at or publishing materials with think tanks. Though difficult to track and verify, such arrangements are of obvious relevance to the broader conflicts of interest affecting the production of outputs at the institutions in question.4The example of Jon Alterman may lend insight into how this works in practice. Beyond serving as Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Alterman is also currently employed by the consultancy Teneo Strategy as a Senior Advisor, a firm holding a $2 million contract with a royal charity controlled by the al-Nahyan family.
Contingent upon the structure of the capital injection itself as well as the recipient institutions’ underlying ideological commitments and financial health, respectively, moneys thusly deployed purchase the Embassy and its lieutenants editorial prerogatives varying widely in breadth. These prerogatives have, on certain occasions, been asserted in ways immediate and tactile, though with the exception of the Atlantic Council5Leaked emails revealed that Bilal Saab, former Director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Peace and Security Initiative, sent UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba advanced copies of a forthcoming report on US Iran policy that was to be published under the name of David Petraeus, and that he allowed al-Otaiba to provide comments and edit the introduction. It has more recently come to light that Bahaa Hariri, who funds the Atlantic Council’s Middle East research department, has agreed to not “publish any articles that concern Saudi affairs.”, bald interventions into the affairs of beneficiaries have proven relatively rare. Editorial influence is more commonly actuated from afar, principally through structuring the incentives of institutions and individual agents in a manner befitting the interests of the sponsor.
In the case of an institution, it would be naive to think that the prospect of the Embassy withdrawing or refusing to renew its commitments would not filter into internal deliberations over research and analysis. Social scientists have long demonstrated that survival and self-reproduction constitute the twin imperatives animating any organization. To the extent that no organization (think tanks included) can survive without mobilizing resources, it follows that acquisitional concerns, which in this instance principally refers to the securing of funding, cannot but mediate leadership’s decision-making. It seems reasonable to assume, moreover, that this mediating effect will be particularly acute for those institutions short on cash reserves and/or lacking a diversified donor base.
In the case of an individual agent working within the small and incestual world of DC think tanks, there are reasons to think that the behavioral impacts of donor money may be even more pronounced. In spreading its contributions as it has, after all, the UAE has enmeshed a large majority of one’s potential employers in relations of at least partial financial dependence. Uneasy with arguments outside the mainstream consensus as the industry of policy research is in the first instance, this enmeshing only heightens the risks further for those considering coloring outside the lines of the Blob’s common sense regarding Abu Dhabi. Indeed, it invests the spectre of a near industry-wide blacklisting with an indubitable realness, most especially for those as yet lacking the parachute of a high profile and/or political connections.6Lest this spectre be thought overstated, Michele Dunne’s coerced resignation from the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in 2013—where Dunne’s position was made untenable due to her refusal to endorse Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s military coup—lends it undeniable realness. Though Dunne’s superlative reputation, earned through the decades she spent at the State Department, ensured she would find a landing spot (she was ultimately hired as Director of Carnegie’s Middle East Program), those devoid of her pedigree would likely have found jumping between jobs far more difficult.
“A majority of the institutions evince notable absences when it comes to contents touching on topics viewed as highly sensitive in Abu Dhabi”
In terms of epistemic outputs, the effect of the UAE’s money is perhaps most pernicious in the silence and disattention it can purchase. This effect can be observed through scrutinizing the discursive archives of implicated think tanks. As such an analysis reveals, a majority of the institutions in question evince notable absences when it comes to contents touching on topics viewed as highly sensitive in Abu Dhabi. Given the obvious importance of the subject matters, these lacunae are most jarring in the cases of the Saudi/Emirati campaign in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.7Emails leaked from the Center for American Progress show that Brian Katulis, a Gulf-expert and longtime client cum consigliere of the UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, personally helped dilute the statement that the think tank was to put out condemning Khashoggi’s murder and recommending serious reforms to the US-Saudi relationship. Ken Gude, one of those advocating for the organization to take a more adversarial position, wound up fired shortly after the press reported on the email leak. As of January 2019, CAP claims to have severed its financial relationship with the UAE Embassy. Unsurprisingly, the institutions that do not show these gaps in research are the ones operating from a position of independent financial strength, namely (i) the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is primarily funded through its substantial endowment; (ii) the Brookings Institute, wealthy in its own right and also receiving support from Qatar; and (iii) the Middle East Institute, which has traditionally managed to secure institutional autonomy through balancing its GCC sponsors against one another.
Promoting Abu Dhabi
Elision and erasure, of course, are not the only yield of the UAE’s investments into the epistemic environs of Washington: its capital has also returned promotional materials of varying sophistication and subtlety. In certain cases, such materials are expressly ordered and specified in the arrangement agreed to by the think tank. The previously referenced Hudson Institute and Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), for instance, were each covertly contracted by Abu Dhabi in 2017 to transmit anti-Qatar messaging via the hosting of public conferences.8Whether directly commissioned or not, one ought note that the FDD also produced a series of publications centered upon Qatar’s involvement with terrorism financing around the same time that it was paid to stage the aforementioned forum. More subtly, the Center for New American Security (CNAS) entered into a partnership of this sort with the Embassy as well when it was commissioned to produce an analysis on the US legal regime around drone exports in 2016. Though the original report was not released for public consumption, months after it delivered the output in question to its client, CNAS disseminated an open-access paper calling for the Trump administration to loosen restrictions as concerns drone proliferation. Whether this second version was published to satisfy the terms of contract agreed to with the Embassy or not, functionally, it saw the think tank leverage the imprimatur of its independent standing in order to advocate for reform proposals highly conducive to the interests of its patron without making any acknowledgment of potential the conflicts of interest that potentially informed its recommendations.
If less transactional in nature, a long-standing funding relationship has procured the embassy sympathetic coverage from the Center for Strategic International Studies9The UAE’s funding of CSIS began after a cynical political attack led by Senator Chuck Schumer amongst others blocked the Dubai-based DP World from purchasing a number of American ports in 2007. Schumer alleged that American ports might be “infiltrated” by terrorists were Dubai World’s purchase to go through. (CSIS), too. Though stopping well short of hagiography, the archive of the organization shows its researchers to be unambiguously generous when it comes to matters proximate to the interests of their sponsor, as is attested rather clearly in their treatment of the UAE’s nation-building project, the regime’s efforts in nurturing an engaged and aspirational citizenry, and the Abraham Accords. Like CNAS, CSIS has also laundered policy reforms desired by Abu Dhabi on a number of occasions. This kind of surrogate-led advocacy was especially apparent in the Jon Alterman and Kathleen Hicks-written “Federated Defense in the Middle East”, which made the case for seismic defense policy changes that would categorically redound to the benefit of the UAE if implemented.10After singling out the contributions that the UAE’s Special Operations Forces make to American counter-terrorism efforts, “Federated Defense in the Middle East” argues that the United States, in seeking to lessen its footprint in the region, ought delegate local allies, the UAE very much included, with greater and greater responsibilities over its regional security operations.
While there is no hard evidence to suggest an extant financial relationship11Emails obtained and released by the hacking group GlobalLeaks did reveal one exchange where Robert Satloff, executive director of WINEP, thanked the UAE Ambassador “for he generous new year’s gift.”, finally, the embassy’s evident closeness to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy12Since 2018, FARA records show that WINEP has routinely ranked amongst the three think tanks most frequently contacted by the UAE’s “foreign agents” (i.e. the lobbyists and public communications consultants paid by the Embassy). UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba has also sought to place UAE officials at WINEP as visiting fellows. Indirect fruit of this effort, WINEP published a propagandistic piece on the “meaning of Muhammad bin Zayed” penned by Mansour al-Nogaidan, an Abu Dhabi based researcher and former jihadist that is frequently lifted up to testify to the merits of the UAE governing model. Lest further testament to the intimacy of the UAE-WINEP relationship be needed, the same cache of hacked emails referenced previously revealed that it was WINEP executive director Robert Satloff who personally connected UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba to Uzi Rubin, reputed architect of the Iron Dome missile defense system. For those unfamiliar with WINEP’s institutional history, Joel Beinin wrote an excellent piece for the Middle East Information and Research Project detailing how the organization emerged out of the American-Israeli Public Action Committee in 1985, and how it was charged with furnishing the intellectual scaffolding that would be used to justify the United States’ unconditional support to Israel in a changing domestic and international environment. (WINEP) has sufficed to secure it favorable treatment from the think tank. Evidence of this include polemics and policy analyses celebrating the Abraham Accords and stumping for a US-led missile defense “Manhattan Project” to protect Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia against Iran and its proxies. It also includes the production of critical contents targeting Emirati rivals. Outputs of this variety were most recently epitomized by an article probing Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, an article published in the immediate aftermath of the Al Ula Statement—a “solidarity and stability” agreement signed by six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council which brought an end to the embargo on Qatar—which Abu Dhabi is known to disagree with.
“For relatively small sums, the UAE has managed to introduce certain frames, arguments, and data points into Washington’s marketplace of ideas”
As it offers insights into how Abu Dhabi leverages access in addition to money in influencing knowledge production in Washington, one should also make note of the relationship that the UAE embassy has developed with WINEP’s Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow Michael Knights. Knights not only has an extensive record of parroting talking points and arguments passed to him by long-time UAE lobbyist Hagir el-Awad; he also authored a series of papers concerning Abu Dhabi’s war in Yemen based on field research conducted while embedded with Emirati troops in the southern theater, an opportunity that had been arranged for him by the Embassy and its local lieutenants in Washington. These works unsurprisingly paint a picture of the conflict that is rather charitable to the parties involved in the organizing of Knights’ data collection process, and that steered away from subjects likely to make those parties uncomfortable—such as the mass torture conducted across a UAE-run prison network or the humanitarian catastrophe that had been precipitated in large part due to Abu Dhabi’s blockades on Yemen’s southern ports.
As this review evinces, for relatively small sums, the UAE has managed to introduce certain frames, arguments, and data points into Washington’s marketplace of ideas, and to at least partially prevent others from entering to no small degree. The production and erasure of discourses and knowledge claims, however, only constitute half of the job for those seeking to influence how government thinks and acts. The second half requires the cleaning, packaging, and distribution of favorable contents; the cordoning off of adverse informational flows before they can reach relevant parties; and the grooming of relevant audiences.
The embassy delegates these downstream operations to a number of public communications and lobbying firms. In terms of a division of labor, the lobbyists tend to handle the last mile delivery (i.e. the transmission of messaging to political stakeholders), while the public communications consultants—the Harbour Group, Camstoll Group13The Camstoll Group is led by a number of former Treasury officials with deep ties to the intellectual networks driving contemporary Islamophobia in the United States., Glover Hering Group, and the Bullpen Strategy Group (formerly Definers Public Affairs), listed in order of relative importance—are charged with directing all that comes before it.
Managing the Media
The first and most important function entrusted to the communications professionals is to manage the media. Furnishing story background, liaising between the journalist and relevant experts, and rationing access to quotable figures relevant to the news being reported, it should be said, has become appreciably simpler in recent times. This is in large part due to changes in the economics of the print media, where revenue declines have resulted in both increasing market consolidation and the shuttering of foreign bureaus. By dint of these industry-wide shifts, there are now fewer outlets covering the Middle East and North Africa, and more and more of the journalists writing on the region are doing so from offices in Washington and New York, a fact not lost on former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.14Per Rhodes, “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
As a vast majority of these parties lack the field experience and language skills needed to access reliable contacts on the ground, for all effects and purposes, they cannot make the news absent the help of external interlocutors, who provide them with the information and interview subjects that are needed to craft a narrative. Given that mainstream press outlets rarely investigate or disclose the financial conflicts of interests that may or may not influence their sources—be they government representatives, public relations men and women, or think tank researchers—one ought also note that readerships are infrequently made aware of the spin they are being exposed to.
As FARA records establish, the Embassy’s most trusted communications consultancy, the Harbour Group, has actively taken advantage of these opportunities to influence the press. In April of 2020 alone, Managing Director Richard Mintz reported five different contacts with Yaroslav Trofimov, the chief foreign affairs correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, four of which appear to have been related to food security issues in Yemen. Between May and September, Mintz reported an additional six contacts with journalists from the New York Times, CNN, and Bloomberg. During the same time period, Mintz’s associates Matt Schubert reported four contacts with The Hill, including three with the publication’s editor-in-chief Steve Clemons; Adam Sharon reported contacts with the Wall Street Journal CNN, and CNBC; and Matt Triaca reported nine contacts on behalf of the UAE Embassy with ABC News, The Hill, Vanity Fair, Fox News, and NBC News. To the extent that there are few investigative and enforcement mechanisms in place at the Department of Justice to ensure that FARA filings are accurate, it seems reasonable to conclude these recorded contacts represent only a fraction of the Harbour Group’s interactions with the media.
“The consultancy made thirty-two contacts with the media on behalf of the UAE Embassy, many of which concerned issues to do with UAE-Qatar relations”
Also taking advantage of these opportunities was the Bullpen Strategy Group (BSG). Per FARA filings from this January, between July and December of 2020, the consultancy made thirty-two contacts with the media on behalf of the UAE Embassy, many of which concerned issues to do with UAE-Qatar relations, and many of which were in service of a cynical (and ultimately successful) effort aimed at forcing AJ+, the local subsidiary of Al Jazeera, to register as a foreign agent in the United States. Parties engaged include NBC News, CNN, Buzzfeed News, The Washington Examiner, Mother Jones, The Daily Beast, The Washington Free Beacon, The Huffington Post, The Bulwark, The Daily Caller, Fox News, The Spectator US, Sinclair Broadcast Group15The Sinclair Broadcasting Group is the largest broadcast company in the United States, owning and operating 192 television stations nation-wide., The New York Times, Business Insider, The Hill, Politico, Vice, USNI News, The Wall Street Journal, Axios, and Inside Defense. In addition,having used a constellation of more sordid practices in advancing client priorities in the past, it cannot be ruled out that BSG’s interventions on behalf of the UAE extended well beyond the media outreach just surveyed.
In influencing the public discourse in the United States, Abu Dhabi has also leveraged two auxiliary mechanisms. The first is David Rothkopf. One of the graybeards of the American foreign policy establishment, Rothkopf regularly appears on television media; publishes frequent columns with The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Financial Times; and currently retains a post as a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. He does all these thingswithout ever making mention of the $600,000 that the UAE Embassy annually pays him for advisory services.16At the time he entered the contract, Rothkopf was officially still listed as a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as well. It is also worth noting that Rothkopf rarely to never discloses his relationship with the UAE when making an appearance on television or publishing a column in print. In addition, the reader ought register that while CEO of the FP Group and Editor at Large of the quasi-Think Tank Foreign Policy magazine, Rothkopf secured lucrative Emirati contracts for his firm (through their arrangement of Peace Games events) and that his wife, Carla Canales, was paid a considerable sum to consult on the Abu Dhabi “Culture Summit.” Given the unique gravity that Rothkopf exerts on mass and elite sentiment and his personal proximity to the Clinton-wing of the Democratic party, his utility to the messaging strategy of Abu Dhabi ought not be diminished.17In this same general vein, one should note that the UAE Ambassdor Yousef al-Otaiba’s close personal friendship with Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC’s flagship morning program. Though not a lobbying arrangement, this personal relationship is still material to the subjects of our concern, as Scarborough has personally relayed statements written by the Ambassador via his twitter account, and afforded the latter the opportunity to appear on his show four times since 2014. In view of how many Democrats wake up with Morning Joe, the salience of Scarborough’s support ought not be diminished.
The second auxiliary mechanism—and the one most responsible for cordoning off of adverse informational flows before they can reach relevant parties—is the cleaning and disinfecting of the internet. This job is primarily handled by Terakeet LLC, a firm the Embassy began employing in March of 2020 for the purpose of “develop(ing) and deploy(ing) (a) search engine optimization strategy including website content with a focus on continental United States-based searches related to the Embassy and its personnel (and) in support of the Embassy’s overall web strategy.” In broad strokes, search engine optimization involves technical interventions aimed at manipulating web browser algorithms for the purpose of increasing or decreasing the exposure that particular pieces of web-based content are given. When done properly, such manipulations can lead to an Embassy press release, say, coming up as the first item generated by a web search, and to a critical expose being buried on the tenth page of a Google search. The effects on discourse ought be self-evident.
Last Mile Delivery: Lobbying Capitol Hill and the Executive Branch
Having crafted a construct of the Middle East through its dealings in the think tank and media worlds, the next step for the embassy is to vest its discursive interventions with an explicitly political valence. Again taking advantage of the onset of decadence, it principally does so by stepping into the widening channels that now allow outside actors to inform, advise, and lobby elected officials and policymakers.
While public communications firms are not entirely absent from these efforts18FARA records show that the Harbour Group is in regular contact with the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a feeder type of organization whose network contains many next generation policymakers., as mentioned, this is a domain managed primarily by the lobbyists under the UAE’s employ. The most relevant of the Embassy’s agents are those retained by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld (henceforth Akin Gump). For dealing with the Pentagon and issues related to arms sales, the Embassy also has access to the firm American Defense International.
“Lobbying emails not infrequently include contents produced through the Embassy’s upstream interventions with think tanks and the media”
In terms of activities, in July of 2020, a slow month in Washington traditionally speaking, Akin Gump’s lobbyists reported making 167 political contacts on the behalf of the UAE. The majority of these were digital in nature, with email representing the most commonly used mechanism for engaging lawmakers and administrators on the behalf of their client. As it speaks to how integrated the UAE’s operation in DC is, it should be added here that disclosures previously submitted to the Department of Justice by Akin Gump’s main UAE-facing lobbyist—the former Director of Political-Military Affairs at the UAE Embassy Hagir El-Awad—show that lobbying emails not infrequently include contents produced through the Embassy’s upstream interventions with think tanks and the media.
Those targeted by the firms’ lobbying—whether through email or in-person meetings—between July and December of 2020 included the chiefs of staff, policy directors, and legislative assistants for Democratic and Republican elected officials in both houses of congress; senior staffers for House and Senate subcommittees; the Dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Eliot Cohen; the Director of International Affairs at the American Israel Public Action Committee (AIPAC); Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; the leadership of the American Jewish Committee; National Security Council members including Senior Director for Gulf Affairs Brigadier General Miguel Correa; the White House Special Representative for International Negotiations; and Senior White House Advisors from the legislative affairs and policy & strategy branches, amongst many others.
In certain instances, these parties were contacted in reference to matters dealing with UAE investments in a Congressperson’s home district. They were more frequently engaged for the purposes of advancing the UAE’s agenda when it came to weighty matters concerning bilateral relations, weapons orders19In November of 2020, Akin Gump lobbyists made sixty-two political contacts in relation to its pending order of F-35s, weaponized drones, and munitions., and regional affairs.
Akin Gump has not merely leveraged its capacities for persuasion in seeking to influence Capitol Hill, but its political donations as well.20Ben Freeman and Ryan Summers’ analysis of the political contributions of lobbyists employed by Saudi Arabia established that in the case of Saudi Arabia at least, lobbyist contributions were frequently timed to coincide with a vote critical to the monarchy’s interests. A report published by the Center for International Policy in October 2019 documented that in the aggregate, the UAE’s “foreign agents” made nearly $600,000 worth of campaign contributions in 2018. FARA filings from this past January, meanwhile, show that Akin Gump and its employees alone made just short of $300,000 worth of contributions in the second half of 2020. Importantly, the lion’s share of these contributions came from the Akin Gump Political Action Committee. This being the case, the figures represent the outcome of an institutional intervention taken by the firm more than they do a collection of personal giving choices.
Whether payments made by Akin Gump’s Political Action Committee (PAC) constitutes a backdoor facility allowing foreign parties such as the UAE to sneak around existing prohibitions concerning campaign contributions can be debated. In spirit if not in letter, the payments do strike as a potential violation of existing laws and regulations. It is difficult to contest, after all, that the business provided by the Embassy to Akin Gump at least partially finances the latter’s PAC. To the extent that this PAC donates to specific elected officials for the express purpose of advancing the firm’s agenda—an agenda which cannot easily be divorced from the agendas of its clients—that the Embassy’s wishes might inform how the firm’s distributes its material support in the halls of Congress strikes as highly credible as well.
In the eventuality where Capitol Hill shows itself to be impervious to the effects of lobbying and/or indirect allocations of campaign financing, finally, the Embassy still has one more means at its disposal for influencing proceedings: the close relations it maintains with the outside parties called to provide expert testimony to both the House and Senate.
“Abu Dhabi’s positioning within Washington’s think tank landscape increases the probability that a friendly voice will be amongst those called to furnish testimony”
As research conducted by Eli Clifton has established, since 2016, think tank personnel have represented a near majority of the non-governmental witnesses invited to testify before the House Foreign Affairs committee. More than that, Clifton’s work also reveals that employees from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a long-time client of Abu Dhabi, represent the single largest contingent within the subpopulation of think tank witnesses called before the committee, and that the personnel of three other think tanks sponsored by the UAE Embassy—the Heritage Foundation, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—are also frequently called to testify. What is more, a 2018 investigation from Lydia Dennett shows the Foreign Affairs committee to be no anomaly in terms of the recruitment of outside counsel: the experts brought before the House’s Armed Services and Appropriations committees exhibit many of the same institutional affiliations. A similar invitation pattern is evinced by the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee, too.
Abu Dhabi of course has no control over how the Chairs of these committees select the outside parties they want to inform members on particular issues. That said, its positioning within Washington’s think tank landscape increases the probability that a friendly voice will be amongst those called to furnish testimony when relevant matters come before Congress. On those occasions where things do work out in this manner, one ought note as well that the individuals receiving the testimony are unlikely to be made aware of the witness’ potential conflicts of interest. The Senate currently has no disclosure rules for outside experts, and though improved, the House’s truth in testimony protocols are still compromised by a number of outstanding problems.21Mechanisms for ensuring compliance in the disclosure of conflicts of interest are still lacking. A Think Tank’s capacity to shroud the identity of its donors also allows an employee of said Think Tank to escape needing to report a relevant relationship between its employer and a special interest group.
Combined with its communications and official lobbying activities, the Embassy’s direct and indirect actions on Capitol Hill constitute another mechanism for influencing how issues are conceptualized and understood, and, by extension, for influencing how policy is made.
Elite Relationship Management
“The emirate has attempted to seize the opportunities furnished by decadence in order to cultivate relations with Republican and Democratic party insiders of high status”
The conditions introduced by decadence—(i) greater migratory flows between government work and employment with think tanks and/or corporate entities on the part of senior public officials; (ii) the emergence of new industries and career paths for bureaucrats and White House/Congressional staffers looking to commoditize their access and knowledge of the state; (iii) the donor classes’ growing gravity within both political parties—create far more opportunities for organizations (and foreign states) to insinuate themselves amongst persons of influence. Whether actively serving in government or not, such persons retain intimate and often informal modes of access to decision-makers. By inculcating their goodwill, external actors can buttress their position within the political classes, and thereby complement the effects introduced through their epistemic and lobbying interventions.
Abu Dhabi, amongst many others, has attempted to seize the opportunities furnished by decadence in order to cultivate relations with Republican and Democratic party insiders of high status. Analytically, the mechanisms through which the emirate has brought social capital-rich Democrats into its orbit can be divided into four categories.
Whether by design or not, the contracting of services has functioned to vest a diversity of individuals holding longstanding ties to Democratic leadership22Other strategy and communications firms employed by the embassy grant it access to the Republican party and the Pentagon. The Camstoll Group’s leadership—Mathew Epstein, Benjamin Schmidt, Howard Mendelsohn, and Ben Davis—are veterans of either the Bush Treasury or Defense Departments. Bullpen Strategy’s leadership, meanwhile, is dominated by Republican political operatives. with a material interest in Abu Dhabi’s continued good standing in Washington. Take the communications and strategic consultancies currently on the embassy’s books (or the books of a second state-connected entity).23The embassy’ preferred lobbying firm—Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld—may similarly provide a way of accessing the social networks of the Democratic party leadership, too. Recent alumni of the firm, after all, include Democratic rising stars Joaquin and Julian Castro, while current employees and consultants include party graybeards like Al From, and Vic Fazio (and the recently deceased Vernon Jordan). Though none of these individuals appear to lobby on behalf of the UAE, the possibility of their practicing a less formal kind of lobbying cannot be ruled out. The executive suites of each of the firms in question are filled by parties intimately linked to the Clinton-wing of America’s center-left political party.
Managing Director of the Harbour Group Richard Mintz, for instance, was a press aide for Clinton’s Inaugural Committee and later served as public affairs director for the President’s first Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. Since that time, his personal friendships with former colleagues George Stephanopoulos and Rahm Emanuel have more than endured. The latter, a one-time Senior Policy and Strategy Advisor to President Clinton and former Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama, is considered one of the most influential players within the conservative faction of the party since the 1980s.
Joel Johnson, the Managing Director of Glover Hering, also served in the Clinton White House as a Senior Policy and Communications Advisor and as Communications Advisor to John Kerry during his 2004 campaign for the Presidency. While exclusively working in the private sector since, email leaks from the 2016 campaign show that Johnson remains a trusted confidante and informal consigliere to senior party personnel, John Podesta included.
“The Embassy’s contracting of particular think tanks has also doubled as means of currying favor amongst high-ranking Democratic apparatchiks”
Andrew Franks, founder and President of KARV Communications, was a political appointee to the Clinton White House as well, where he served between 1992 and 1997. Beyond retaining the social network built during those years, as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Franks also has an alternative institutional mechanism for accessing the Democratic intelligentsia. David Rothkopf, a FARA registered advisor of Abu Dhabi since 2018, was Clinton’s Deputy and (acting) Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade for the majority of his eight years in office. Like Franks, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations as well. Once a mere intern and Deputy Assistant within the White House, finally, Doug Band, one of the founders of Teneo Strategy, would go on to become Bill Clinton’s righthand man following the conclusion of the latter’s tenure in office. Until very recently at least24Band and the Clintons have recently had a falling out, as is covered in this Vanity Fair piece., Band’s access to the inner sanctums of the Democratic party was unsurpassed.
The Embassy’s contracting of particular think tanks has also doubled as means of currying favor amongst high-ranking Democratic apparatchiks. Its aforementioned commissioning of an analysis from the Center for New American Strategy, for instance, not only purchased a publication that could be leveraged to influence policymakers, but a close personal relationship with Michelle Flournoy. Though ultimately passed over for the Secretary of Defense appointment, Flournoy remains one of the most influential voices within the Democratic party when it comes to matters of national security. According to the Revolving Door Project, moreover, at least a dozen of her former employees at CNAS have been appointed to high-level positions with the Biden administration. Though less explicitly transactional, the Embassy’s longstanding budget support to the Center for American Progress, one of the leading waystations for Democrats out of power and a primary hub of Clintonite influence, surely also ingratiated it to many persons relevant to the party’s workings, none the least of which is Neera Tanden.25Tanden was Biden’s original nominee for Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Unlikely to be confirmed due to her combative behavior on social media, she withdrew her nomination in March.
“The individuals and institutions contracted by Abu Dhabi bear considerable social capital within Democratic circles”
Falling within the same category of service contracting would be Abu Dhabi’s patronizing of the American arms manufacturing industry. To the extent that these firms operate one of the most expansive lobbying operations in the capital while also providing a retirement home for high-ranking military officers, Abu Dhabi’s purchases function not only to protect the country’s interests back home, but in Washington as well. One such military officer that is particularly relevant to our concerns is the current Defense Secretary Llyod Austin. Like his predecessors Jim Mattis and Mark Esper, Austin too assumed his position after previously working for one of the United States’ largest weapons exporters.
As ought be clear, then, at a minimum, the individuals and institutions contracted by Abu Dhabi bear considerable social capital within Democratic circles, and are positioned at no more than one degree of removal from the party politburo. Maximally, the persons currently have a direct hand in the Biden administration’s making of policy.
Investment and business partnerships
The UAE’s dealings with Blackrock and the Carlyle Group are the most relevant as pertains to second order effects vis-a-vis liberal politics.26Pertaining to investment partnerships more generally, it is worth recording that Brett McGurk, National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, serves as an independent Board Director for Primer, a machine intelligence company based in San Francisco that Mubadala, the second largest of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds, is invested in. By dint of hires made, its past advisory roles, and the enormous opportunities afforded it in managing the cleanup of the 2008 financial crisis, Blackrock has been described as operating a “shadow government” for the Democratic party. Consequence of this history of intimacy, the firm’s CEO, Laurence Fink, was one of the Biden administration’s leading candidates for the Treasury Secretary nomination. Though Fink ultimately lost out, three of his senior lieutenants—all of whom had been recruited to Blackrock after first serving in the Obama White House—have been appointed to jobs of great importance by the new President. Brian Deese, once Global Head of Sustainable Development at Blackrock, was named Biden’s Director of the National Economic Council. Wally Adeyemo, Fink’s former Chief of Staff, is soon to be confirmed as Deputy Treasury Secretary. Lastly, Michael Pyle, previously Blackrock’s Chief of Global Investment Strategy, is Vice President Kamala Harris’ top economic advisor.
If less connected in terms of personnel, the Carlyle Group—in whom Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s second largest sovereign wealth fund, holds a significant equity stake—is itself a deeply political creature and incredibly useful institutional ally. Long reputed as one of the most influential behind-the-scenes actors in Washington, the firm is still guided by Executive Chairman David Rubenstein, an operator of the highest order who, in addition to his post at Carlyle, also serves as the Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and as the President of the distinguished Economic Club of Washington, DC. Though Rubenstein is no longer flanked by the former Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Defense Secretaries who once populated the Carlyle Group’s offices, his firm remains as formidable as ever when it comes to leveraging its knowledge of the local terrain in order to swing events and persons in a way beneficial to it. Keeping up with the times, in 2020, Carlyle even moved into the murky world of campaign finance by establishing its own Political Action Committee, from which it funneled considerable campaign contributions to a number of senior Democrats in the House of Representatives, including Richard Neal and Steny Hoyer. The private equity giant’s business dealings in the defense industry has also granted it non-negligible sway at the Pentagon and with the intelligence community since the early 2000s, a hardly inconsequential factoid from the perspective of the UAE Embassy.
Also deserving mention as relates to this mechanism of relationship cultivation are the indirect financial linkages connecting Abu Dhabi to the current Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. Prior to taking their posts at the White House, Blinken and Haines worked for WestExec Advisors, a defense-focused strategic consultancy firm founded by a collection of ex-Obama White House officials, Blinken included. The company claims it does not accept consultancy contracts from foreign governments. It does, however, extensively work with American arms manufacturers, and is a strategic partner with Pine Island Capital Partners, a private equity firm with sizable holdings in the defense industry.27One of the firm’s holdings, InVeris Training Solutions (formerly Meggitt Training Systems) has its regional office in Abu Dhabi, and does “extensive” business with the regime. Both of these variables bring the consultancy (and its leadership) into the orbit of Abu Dhabi, which, as discussed in the first chapter of this report, is one of the largest consumers of American weaponry. What is more, with Teneo Strategy’s recent acquisition of a minority stake in the firm, WestExec Advisors is now partially owned by a paid lobbyist of the al-Nahyan regime. To the extent that Blinken and Haines are likely to return to WestExec Advisors upon their departure from government, the firm’s entanglements with the UAE are far from immaterial to our concerns.
“Giving affords an opportunity to cozy up to persons of relevant influence”
Discretionary giving has provided a slightly more subtle (though still useful) means of cultivating ties to elite society in the United States, and, by extension, to the Democratic party. The concentric circles between the boards of the institutions that Abu Dhabi’s royals tend to give to—children’s hospitals, elite private universities, art museums and theaters—and the political donor classes in the United States are, after all, fitted together quite snugly. In this sense, giving affords not only the chance for a photo op to be published in the papers, but an opportunity to cozy up to persons of relevant influence, too.
Nowhere are such dynamics more apparent than in the case of Muhammed bin Zayed’s sponsorship of the Special Olympics. Beyond whatever good press the sponsorship may have generated, the Crown Prince’s $25 million gift more importantly granted the principal direct access to the Chairman of the organization’s board, Timothy Shriver. In addition to many other things, Shriver is scion of the Democratic party’s first family, the Kennedy’s, and long-time friend of and advisor to Joe Biden.
For the better part of a decade, UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba has generally been regarded as one of Washington’s biggest entertainers and more deft managers of what George Shultz once called “garden diplomacy.” Per Ryan Grim of The Intercept, “Otaiba’s dinner parties are a thing of legend in the Washington social scene, occasionally prepared by Wolfgang Puck himself [one of the United States’ most renowned chefs]. The exclusive events are part of the UAE’s strategy to buy influence in Washington, by assiduously flattering and pampering the most influential members of the elite.”
Though Grim’s claims may be subject to overstatement, the ambassador’s hobnobbing within the capital has certainly allowed him to build personal relationships with many individuals of standing inside Democratic politics. Such efforts have been further facilitated, it should be said, ever since Abu Dhabi’s movement toward normalization with Israel around in 2012. Now a frequent partner and interlocutor of Haim Saban, one of the Democrat’s largest and most consequential donors, al-Otaiba’s capacity to access the leaders of the party’s dominant center-right faction, and the esteem with which he is held in such quarters, are both considerable.
The social network that Abu Dhabi has built and maintained inside the blue side of Washington was not mapped in order to suggest the existence of a conspiracy. Rather, it was sketched only to demonstrate the degree to which segments of the liberal power elite have become financially entangled with the emirate in recent times. In the final instance, the nodes within this network remain, like the rest of us, free to act their conscience when engaging in politics. That these subjects have a direct stake in Abu Dhabi’s well-being, however, would seem to structure their incentives in such a manner as to incline them to act in a manner benefiting the emirate’s leadership.
“The lobbying of elected officials and cultivation of relationships at the highest ranks of both parties has allowed Abu Dhabi to impact the conduct of policy”
Abu Dhabi’s exploitation of America’s onsetting decadence has affected the latter’s domestic politics to a non-insignificant degree. While not the only actor playing these games, its shaping of discourses and stewarding of information flows have jointly functioned to exclude certain matters from the realm of public deliberation and to partially set the terms through which those issues that do break through are conceived and contested, particularly when the issue at stake is proximate to the regime’s interests. The lobbying of elected officials and cultivation of relationships at the highest ranks of both parties, meanwhile, has allowed Abu Dhabi to impact the conduct of policy at a more intimate and interpersonal level, too.
Collectively, these interventions into the ideational and sociological domains of American politics exert an undeniable if perhaps ethereal effect on relevant operations of state. In so doing, they reveal themselves to be of fundamental importance to Abu Dhabi’s successes in dodging censure in the United States and to the Democratic party’s odd acedia in the face of the emirate’s abundant misdeeds. Seen in conjunction with effects introduced through economic entangling, Abu Dhabi’s erstwhile strategic utility to the Pentagon, and the signing of the Abraham Accords, the exploitation of decadence detailed in this subsection explains why any reprisals against Abu Dhabi are unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon.