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Dollars and Decadence: Making Sense of the US-UAE Relationship

Middle East & North Africa

This is the Introduction of our MENA Report

Since taking the reins of the United Arab Emirates’ foreign policy in late 2009, Abu Dhabi has spared neither effort nor expense in positioning itself as one of the United States’ most faithful and essential allies. Having spent enormous sums on the wares of American arms’ manufacturers as well as forays into lobbying, public communications, and knowledge production—and having eagerly coordinated with the US Armed Forces when and wherever the opportunity arose for the better part of a decade—the UAE’s Ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba could credibly sell an audience in September of 2020 on the notion that his country is “not only in the pro-US camp…We are the cheerleaders of the pro-US camp.” With the flank where it was once most exposed to attack within the American polity covered upon the announcement of the Abraham Accords, little Sparta’sprivileged status in Washington would appear secure indeed.

And yet, there are reasons to think al-Otaiba’s words might ring hollow within certain quarters in the capital, nowhere more so than inside the haunts of the now ascendant Democratic party. The regime he and his many clients serve has, after all, just spent nearly half a decade cynically undermining what the Obama White House believed to be a legacy-defining and world-reshaping foreign policy achievement: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to between Iran, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, and the European Union in July of 2015. With recent events establishing Abu Dhabi as one of the bygone Trump administration’s most intimate collaborationists, as interlopers blithely infringing upon sovereign policy spaces in the United States, and as an entity acting at cross purposes to Democratic designs in theaters stretching from Egypt and Sudan to Yemen, Libya and Syria, causes for frustration with the emirate would also appear to extend well beyond matters concerning Tehran’s nuclear program.

The UAE and the JCPOA

In contesting the JCPOA both before and after its adoption, Muhammad bin Zayed’s men deployed means considered fair and foul by the warped standards of Washington. Specific to the former, the UAE’s Ambassador actively worked to spread unfounded fears concerning alleged Iranian non-compliance. As regards means more uncouth, the Embassy coordinated a smear campaign with the neoconservative wing of the Israel lobby. This included collaborations with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Likud-aligned organization founded for the initial purpose of providing “education to enhance Israel’s image in North America.” It also included partnering (and likely funneling resources) to a second American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-adjacent institution named United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Powered by a board that included the former General Director of the Mossad, a coterie of retired statesmen and intelligence officials, and American foreign policy specialists such as Dennis Ross and Michael Singh, UANI’s influence would become especially apparent upon the Trump administration’s taking of power. With AIPAC itself leveraging campaign contributions to pressure the Democrats’ caucus on Capitol Hill, Abu Dhabi and its bedfellows ultimately muddied the waters around the JCPOA to such a degree as to make the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 politically costless.

Be that as it may, if one expected grievances suffered to push the Democratic party—controlling House, Senate, and White House for the first time since the early 2011—into adopting an adversarial line in engaging Abu Dhabi1, early indications suggest this will not be the case. President Biden did issue a temporary freeze on the weapons procurement that Trump had attempted to expedite on the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s behalf in the dying light of his tenure. The new commander-in-chief has also brought American support for “offensive operations” in Yemen to an end, though the substantive effect of this decision—particularly as concerns the UAE’s less visible interventions in the south—is yet to be determined.

“The big picture looks little changed when it comes to US-Abu Dhabi relations”

Regardless, as press releases from Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call with UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan evince, the big picture looks little changed when it comes to US-Abu Dhabi relations. In view of America’s top diplomat expressing excitement over the “UAE’s historic opening with Israel” and over “the opportunities ahead for the UAE to make additional contributions to a more peaceful Middle East”—and his reiterating America’s intention to defend the country against regional threats—willful amnesia and a return to the status quo ante very much appear to be the orders of the day. Such a prognostication finds support in the team President Biden has assembled for the purpose of steering MENA-focused foreign policy as well.

The current Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin comes to his position in the White House after recently serving as commander of CENTCOM and as an advisory board member for the defense contractor Raytheon Technologies, experiences likely to have brought him into close professional and social contact with a number of high-leverage persons from the al-Nahyan regime. The hawkish Brett McGurk, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, arrives at his post having earned a reputation as a harsh critic and antagonist of Turkey and having built comfortable working relationships with the leaderships of both Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi over the course of many years. For her part, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf is not only a former Ambassador to the UAE, but an individual that has gone out of her way to stump for the country’s interests in her capacity as a private citizen. Testament of this, Leaf was one of the few liberal leaning members of the cognoscenti willing to publicly endorse Abu Dhabi’s aforementioned purchase of $23 billion worth of F-35 fighters, Reaper Drones, and munitions in late 2020.

The UAE in the Era of Donald Trump

The UAE’s relationship with the man who would go on to become the forty-fifth President of the United States actually began during Donald J. Trump’s candidacy for the highest position in the land. As was revealed from indictments produced by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, the al-Nahyan regime financed illegal campaign contributions to both Donald J. Trump and his rival Hillary Clinton in the summer preceding November’s vote, moneys it trafficked through the persons of George Nader and his client Ahmad Khawaja. In passing moneys (again through Nader) to Joel Zamel’s Psy-Group—a firm directed by retired Israeli intelligence officers and operating in the field of social media manipulation—reporting from The New York Times suggests that Abu Dhabi may have provided covert operational assistance to the Republican contender during the contest as well.

Upon Trump’s victory, it was the UAE that also helped build informal lines of communication allowing an inner circle at the White House to disregard official protocols and engage with foreign parties outside the standard channels managed by the State Department and intelligence community. One of these lines was laid down by Tom Barrack. A top Trump fundraiser and the Chairman of his Inaugural Committee, Barrack was also a long-time business partner of Yousef al-Otaiba (and his father) and frequent real estate investment partner for Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds. Given his positioning, the engineering of a back channel between the Ambassador and high leverage individuals inside the White House was fairly straight forward if deeply consequential.

Amongst other things, this channel would prove critical to the rise of Muhammad bin Salman. It was, after all, by dint of the access thereby provided that al-Otaiba was afforded the space needed to personally vouch for the Saudi prince inside a highly impressionable White House. Combined with the Ambassador’s stewarding of MBS’s cotillion before elite American society, his playing of consigliere to the administration sufficed to secure Presidential buy-in for a power grab back in Saudi Arabia that had precious few supporters at the CIA, Pentagon, or State Department. That Kushner allegedly greenlit and personally furnished intelligence to the Saudi Crown Prince as he conducted his palace coup between June and November of 2017 represented both the culmination of Abu Dhabi’s efforts and a testament to just how short-circuited the policymaking process had become as a result.

In terms of domestic meddling, one ought also note that Abu Dhabi has been implicated in a number of US-facing espionage scandals over the past four years. The first, not especially artful in design, involved the cultivation of an American national with access to the White House (businessman Rashid al-Malik) as a paid asset of Emirati intelligence. The second and third, more sinister in their nature, each concerned an Abu Dhabi-based “private”cybersecurity firm called DarkMatter. A Reuters’ investigation detailed how the firm recruited former NSA officials to build up its surveillance and hacking capabilities, capabilities that the government in Abu Dhabi would then use not only to target nominal security threats, but hundreds of journalists, human rights activists, and political rivals, Americans very much included. Roughly a year later, New York Times reporting, drawing on an ongoing FBI probe, would trace how the same firm also produced a widely downloaded messaging app called ToTok which granted UAE intelligence a backdoor into the phones of all those who installed it.

Explaining Teflon Abu Dhabi

Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba and Susan Rice, former US National Security Advisor

In view of the ledger Abu Dhabi has compiled inside Washington and across the region it calls home, how can one understand the tact being followed by the Biden White House and the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill? Scorned or worse so many times over, how is it that the party’s leadership seems willing to allow a veritable flood of water to flow under the bridge when it comes to Abu Dhabi, and how is it that they have decided (with a handful of exceptions in the Congress) to accept the emirate as a trusted and valued ally?

“The making of “peace” has also made life more difficult for those as yet unwilling to bury the hatchet with Abu Dhabi”

Explanation need begin with the previously referenced Abraham Accords, the signing of which in August 2020 resulted in the UAE and Bahrain joining Jordan and Egypt as the only Arab countries to have officially normalized diplomatic relations with Israel.2 Changing sentiment amongst younger voters notwithstanding, Israel remains a sacred cow inside of Democratic politics. By consummating their romance and participating in a scheme aiming to abrogate the conditionality upon which Arab recognition of Israel has hinged since 2002—the latter’s acceptance of a Palestinian state—it is therefore conceivable that Abu Dhabi’s royals would have restored at least some of the esteem lost in the salons of blue Washington. To the extent that the Accords saw the emirate move under the protection of the city’s diversifying pro-Israel lobbies—a move that was preceded by Embassy clients the Harbour Group and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld aggressively courting a number of the civil society institutions central to the pro-Israel coalition today—the making of “peace” has also made life more difficult for those as yet unwilling to bury the hatchet with Abu Dhabi.

Laying the Grounds for Coalition

As FARA records indicate, between October of 2019 and November of 2020, Seth Horwitz of the Harbour Group made sixteen political contacts with the American Jewish Committee, four with the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, and thirteen with the Anti-Defamation League. During the same period, Richard Mintz reported political contacts with the American Sephardic Federation, the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, and J Street. Central as the Christian Zionist lobby now is to pro-Israel camps in the United States today, it is worth noting that Horwitz also reported six contacts with the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints.

Filings from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in January of 2021, meanwhile, show that between July and December of 2020, the firm engaged the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) three times, the Republican Jewish Committee seven times, the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations eight times, and the American Jewish Committee six times. These filings also provide evidence of explicit coordination between the Harbour Group, Akin Gump, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and AIPAC, the last of which remains the institutional hub of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. On August 13th, Akin Gump lobbyist Hagir El-Awad, Stephen Schneider of AIPAC, Richard Mintz of the Harbour Group, and Alia Majed Hilal al-Suwaidi all engaged in the same email exchange.

That said, consequential as the Abraham Accords have undeniably been, they are insufficient in elucidating why the Democrats choose conciliation and bonhomie vis-a-vis Abu Dhabi. The generosity of spirit extended to the emirate’s leadership, after all, long preceded the concordat’s ratification, and hardly wavered throughout all the tumult brought on by Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s adventurism in Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Washington.3 Analyses centering upon the peace arrangement alone are therefore not only ahistorical, but also run the risk of flirting with antisemitic trope—implicitly attributing magic-like powers to pro-Israel institutions within Washington.

What of Abu Dhabi’s standing as a local partner of the Department of Defense, and the contributions the emirate makes to that which might be called the American national interest? Might not this inform why it retains a privileged status in the eyes of both the Republican and Democratic party? As this thesis holds, by helping guarantee the global energy supply, protecting the maritime networks through which that supply flows, funneling oil rents back to Wall Street, proffering field outposts to the American military, and addressing local threats, Abu Dhabi’s service to empire earns it dispensation from reprisals, and shelter from any shift in the political winds in Washington.

“The emirate’s method of ensuring stability and predictability within its local environs has proven nearsighted and self-defeating from the United States’ perspective”

Such a syllogism is devoid of neither coherence nor insightfulness. Nevertheless, matters of meta-strategy too are but a piece of the puzzle in question. Indeed, even if one were to allow for a moment that the Democratic party or the United States was motivated purely by imperial conceits in acting abroad, a dubious presupposition, the logic governing the recruitment of Abu Dhabi as a prized local surrogate would be difficult to discern. The emirate’s method of ensuring stability and predictability within its local environs has, after all, proven not only manifestly reactionary, but nearsighted and self-defeating from the United States’ perspective. Its achievements in balancing against the great bogeyman, Iran, meanwhile, can be classified as disappointing at best, and its zealot’s war on the Muslim Brotherhood is starkly incongruous with the measured agnosticism that has traditionally guided the American state’s approach to the movement.4 Having acted in direct opposition to the Pentagon across a number of theaters, a record of insubordination undermines Abu Dhabi’s case as an ally as well. Leaving aside whether Washington manages its overseas dealings with any of the design or steely foresight that this argument presents as self-sufficient fact, then, the balance of evidence would still suggest that the odd solidity of US-Abu Dhabi relations cannot solely be attributed to the workings of the grand chessboard.

The Economics and Sociology of Alliance Maintenance

Without dismissing the potential effects that the Abraham Accords or imperial rationalities have upon the Democratic party’s approach to Abu Dhabi, this report is to make the case that the outcome in question be understood in light of two other less frequently discussed causes: the al-Nahyan regime’s entanglements within the American economy, and their (legal) exploitation of opportunities opened due to the American political system’s accelerating drift into decadence.

“Any destabilization of the relationship threatens to introduce grave uncertainty into markets, if not to precipitate capital flight”

In the pages ahead, the first of these causes will be disassembled and probed through the parsing of international factor movements, scrutiny of banking and trade data, and a granular combing of private transaction histories. Together, this study will reveal the material sinews through which regime-controlled instruments—Abu Dhabi’s two largest sovereign wealth funds in particular—have become essential to the orderly functioning of the American economy more generally and the profit rates of fractions of American capital more specifically. Presented in conjunction with the UAE’s generous patronage of the arms industry5, it will be posited that relations of finance and investment affect political behavior in the United States through two primary mechanisms. On the one hand, the volume and density of economic interpenetration creates enormous logistical difficulties for those seeking to politically decouple the United States from the emirate. This is because any destabilization of the relationship threatens to introduce grave uncertainty into markets, if not to precipitate capital flight. This prospect shifts the parameters of deliberation when it comes to matters related to Abu Dhabi to no small degree, and can only but affect the decision matrices of bureaucrats and elected officials.

On the other, in view of the sectors most likely to be affected by political turbulence—finance, tech, real estate, and defense contractors—and the extensive faculties these sectors retain when it comes to influencing policy6, entanglement has also vested some of the most powerful actors in the United States with a distinct interest in Abu Dhabi’s continued good standing in Washington. This reality not only shifts the endowments that the protagonists and antagonists of Abu Dhabi can bring to bear in a political contest, but increases the cost that those disposed toward confrontation are likely to incur. Further incentivizing relevant parties to adopt a pro-status quo position regarding Muhammad bin Zayed et alia, the particular friends and partners Abu Dhabi has cultivated through its business dealings may exert a more immediate and discretionary effect on our dependent variable, and thereby complement the structural compulsions already at work.

“Abu Dhabi takes advantages of the onset of decadence in the United States in order to court and sway the political classes in Washington”

If interrogation of this first cause helps reveal the forces restricting political actors’ freedom of movement and the effects this can have on policy choice, examination of the second—Abu Dhabi’s exploitation of decadence—serves to illuminate some of the ideational, institutional, and microsociological processes through which said actors have come to back the emirate by their own accord. Using a mixed-method approach, this analysis will hone in on the means through which Abu Dhabi takes advantage of two specific opportunities furnished by the onset of decadence in the United States in order to court and sway the political classes in Washington. Seizing chances afforded by the American state’s relinquishment and/or outsourcing of critical functions and prerogatives, the study will first demonstrate how the UAE’s Embassy and proxies curate many of the informational flows undergirding issue conceptualization and debate in Congress and beyond. Seizing chances afforded by the growing commoditization of the access, networks, and knowledge one acquires through employment in government, it will next establish how Abu Dhabi has ingratiated itself within the contemporary power elite, senior Democrats included.

The Emergence of The Modern Access Merchant Trade

Historically speaking, the commoditization of access, networks, and knowledge accelerated considerably in the late 1990s. Powered primarily by the alumni of the Clinton White House—many of whom had just finished retrofitting the state for the neoliberal era—entirely new industries adjacent to but separate from lobbying were developed at this time. As government affairs and strategic relations took shape and grew in stature, more and more opportunities were created for individuals who know their way around the state to traffic in rolodexes, little black books, and insider information.

Private firms started by Clinton White House alumni that are in the business of helping domestic and foreign clients influence and/or navigate the American state (as well as foreign governments, in some instances) include: the Albright Stonebridge Group (founder: Madeline Albright); the Cohen Group (founder: William Cohen); the Finsbury Glover Park Group (founders: Carter Eskew, Michael Feldman, Joe Lockhart, and Chip Smith); the Harbour Group (founders: Joel Johnson and Richard Markus); the Ickes & Enright Group (founders: Harold Ickes and Janice Ann Enright); Teneo Strategy (Founders: Declan Kelly, Paul Keary, and Doug Band); Quinn Gillespie Associates (Jack Quinn and Ed Gillespie; Gillespie is a republican operator); and KARV Communications (founder: Andrew Franks), amongst many others.

In shaping the epistemic environment of the policy community and embedding individuals and institutions within the regime’s social networks, these constructivist ventures within the American polity will be shown to have affected Abu Dhabi’s position in Washington to a non-insignificant degree. Through ways diffuse and acute, the emirate’s navigation of onsetting decadence in the American capital has thereby played a critical role in shaping contemporary bilateral relations, and the Democratic party’s contributions to them.

Though neither of the causalities just discussed ought imply the existence of determinism or conspiracy, they do boost the probability that the current administration will continue to choose conciliation in engaging Abu Dhabi in the months and years ahead. By detailing such rarely examined aspects of American foreign policymaking, our report provides scholarly and policy communities with greater insight into an incredibly salient relationship.


  1. Abu Dhabi represents but one of the seven emirates comprising the federated United Arab Emirates. Home to the vast majority of the Federation’s oil reserves and the center of political power since the ascension of Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan—the man broadly regarded as the “father” of the Emirati nation—it has nevertheless long exerted outsized influence within the domain of foreign affairs. Abu Dhabi’s dominance in this domain was further consolidated following the onset of Dubai’s spiraling debt crisis in 2009 and subsequent need to seek a bailout from its wealthier neighbor. ↩︎
  2. In the period since, Morocco and Sudan also established official diplomatic relations with Israel. ↩︎
  3. Muhammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. He and his maternal brothers have consolidated control over the public purse and state apparatus of the emirate to a striking extent. They also run the UAE’s foreign policy with almost complete autonomy. ↩︎
  4. For an insightful study of the United States’ historical engagements with the Muslim Brotherhood, see Mohamed-Ali Adraoui’s analysis here. ↩︎
  5. Should Abu Dhabi’s $23 billion order of American-made arms from this past August ultimately be processed and treated as an export entry for 2020, it alone would constitute more than 33% the gross yield of US exports to the Middle East and North Africa for the year. Per the National US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, US exports to the Middle East and North Africa fell to $45.66 billion in 2020. If one adds the arms deal referenced above ($23 billion) to that sum, the total value of exports would be $68.66 billion. ↩︎
  6. These faculties include though are not limited to (i) the financing of candidates; (ii) the administration of aggressive lobbying operations; (iii) the leveraging of expertise and social ties; (iv) the population of government with industry insiders; (v) the mobilization of media; and (v) the capital strike. ↩︎