The United Arab Emirates is on pace to contribute $20 million over the course of 2016 and 2017 to the Middle East Institute, one of Washington’s leading think tanks, according to a document obtained by The Intercept. The outsized contribution, which the UAE hoped to conceal, would allow the institute, according to the agreement, to “augment its scholar roster with world class experts in order to counter the more egregious misperceptions about the region, inform U.S. government policy makers, and convene regional leaders for discreet dialogue on pressing issues.”
The Emirates, according to the Associated Press, operate a network of torture pens in Yemen where detainees are grilled alive.
MEI was founded in 1946 and has long been an influential player in Washington foreign policy circles. It serves as a platform for many of the U.S.’s most influential figures, allowing them to regularly appear on cable news, author papers, host private briefings and appear on panels in between stints in government.
Think tanks in Washington play a role perhaps as important as K Street, though with far less public insight into their activity or sources of funds. While the political establishment is gripped by the question of Russia’s influence on the 2016 elections, Washington itself is awash in money from both foreign corporations and foreign governments.
The document was included in a trove of diplomatic correspondence pilfered from the email account of UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba, either by hackers or somebody with access to the inbox, and subsequently provided to The Intercept. The “egregious misperceptions” the money will go toward eradicating are not spelled out, but Otaiba has made no secret of his disdain for rival Gulf nation Qatar, which he argues is a funder of terrorism, and his desire that the U.S. take a hard line against Iran.
Otaiba is one of the two or three most influential diplomats in Washington, a remarkable feat for an ambassador from such a small nation, and he has forged a close bond with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. He has long been close with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and has built personal relationships with key figures in the House, Senate and White House. As he explained in an email to Middle East scholar Bilal Saab, relationship-building is the key to diplomacy. “I got a call from Gen. Mattis before the syria strike because of my relationship with him. It wasn’t a WH or a pentagon official. It was mattis himself on the phone,” Otaiba wrote.
The UAE has used its outsized role to bend U.S. policy in a more militant direction toward the country’s foes: Iran, Qatar, the Houthis in Yemen, and a coalition government in Libya that has gotten backing from Qatar. Otaiba has been the foremost booster in Washington of Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman since late 2015, playing a key role in shepherding the Saudi monarch around town as bin Salman was maneuvering to seize control the Saudi government. Bin Salman has directed the country’s assault on Yemen, an ongoing series of war crimes which have been aided by the U.S. and produced a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions, including a cholera outbreak and widespread starvation. The UAE has served as an active participant, operating a network of torture warehouse under the eye of the U.S. where captives are grilled alive, “tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire.” (The UAE denies the AP report.)
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also leading a blockade against fellow Gulf neighbor Qatar, rooted in a dispute over comments attributed to the Qatari emir that praised Iran. Qatar immediately said the comments were fake and the result of a hack, and U.S. intelligence sources have told the Washington Post that the UAE was behind that cyber operation.
Yet the blockade continues, setting up an unusually tangled scenario: As the U.S. charged the UAE with setting off a diplomatic crisis in the Middle East, the UAE is spending $20 million to fund a key think tank, housing former high-level U.S. officials, who help set the conventional wisdom on issues such as the diplomatic crisis that the UAE sparked.
Otaiba was named ambassador in March 2008, following the Dubai-Ports World debacle, a PR crisis for the country that erupted after a UAE-owned firm attempted to invest in a handful of American ports. Politicians on both sides of the aisle lambasted the UAE with Islamophobic stereotypes as the country was caught in the crossfire of a tense midterm election.
Otaiba’s job was to make sure it didn’t happen again, and that meant spreading money around town. His bottomless funding of Washington luncheons, charity galas, and hospital wings quickly put him on the radar. His courtship of politicians and figures in the media became legendary, epitomized by dinner parties at his expansive mansion that included food by Wolfgang Puck — the surprise highlight of the affairs coming when the celebrity chef himself would emerge from the kitchen.
MEI was far from alone in its hunting of UAE petrodollars, but it was among the baldest in its effort. In April 2008, just a month after Otaiba was named to his new spot, Mac McClelland Jr., then a UAE-based consultant, reached out on behalf of MEI president Wendy Chamberlin to tell Otaiba he had committed to raising $50 million from the UAE for the institute, asking for Otaiba’s help in rattling the cup.
“I suspect that now is the right time to approach the respective leaders [of the UAE] given the huge liquidity in the country as well as the obvious need to promote Arab/Muslim awareness in the US,” offered McClelland in one of the leaked emails.
Otaiba told McClelland he was asking for an awful lot. “I’m aware of MEI’s fundraising drive and I’ll do what I can to help support it but I feel its important to manage expectations. I think the numbers you’re mentioning are a little far off our original estimates,” he said. “Of course I’m only speaking for abu dhabi gov’t on this issue.” (Otaiba officially represents the entire UAE, which is made up of seven emirates. However, he is the protege and deputy of Abu Dhabi’s ruling Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who McClelland mentioned in his email.)
By 2013, Otaiba had begun to do his part. Exchanges between Otaiba and Ramy Yaacoub, an Egyptian activist and scholar, reveal some of the details of the arrangement that had been struck by then. “MEI agreement is $1.5 million per year, I’ll take care of that,” Otaiba tells Yaacoub. “You will cover lobbying and communication support for the opposition group since 1. I cannot do that and 2. It will be a much smaller amount.”
Yaacoub tells Otaiba he understands. “Ok, Naguib was under the impression that he would be partially funding it. I will work with Richard to get things moving asap, and will explain to Naguib,” Yaacoub writes in a January 2013 email.
The emails don’t spell out who Richard and Naguib are, though the former is most likely Richard Mintz, Otaiba’s top representative in Washington, and the latter is Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian oligarch who had just two months earlier been the recipient of the “MEI Award for Distinction in Civic Leadership” at the institute’s 66th annual banquet.
Sawiris was a strident opponent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which won elections in 2012 before being ousted in a military coup in 2013. Sawiris founded the Free Egyptians Party and Yaacoub served as chief of staff for the party, presumably the opposition group being referenced.
Otaiba was the loudest critic in Washington of the Muslim Brotherhood, charging them with links to terrorism and cheering their overthrow. UAE rival Qatar, meanwhile, had supported the Brotherhood government, and relations between the countries are still raw. The UAE and Egypt, joined by Saudi Arabia, are now blockading Qatar, accusing it of financing terrorism.
The chairman of MEI’s board is Richard Clarke, former top national security adviser to both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clarke is famous for his public apology to the victims of 9/11, which he offered on behalf of the intelligence community for failing to stop the attacks, and has been particularly critical of the Saudi government. Since joining the MEI board, where he is now chairman, Clarke has lobbied Saudi Arabia to increase its giving — and in a meeting with then-Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir pulled off a coup. According to two sources with knowledge of the meeting, one close to the Saudi royal family and the other a former official with MEI, Clarke walked out of the Saudi embassy meeting with al-Jubeir with a check for $500,000. Michael Petruzzello, Saudi Arabia’s longtime D.C. representative, is on the MEI board. Mintz, long Otaiba’s man in Washington, now has a lucrative contract with Saudi Arabia as well.
When Otaiba talks about augmenting the MEI “scholar roster with world class experts in order to counter the more egregious misperceptions about the region” he is talking specifically about the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam in general, as well as Iran and Qatar. For instance, one of the world class experts added to the MEI roster since the giving went from $1.5 million to $20 million is Bilal Saab.
In May, Qatar invited Saab to an annual gala. Saab instead forwarded it to Otaiba so the pair could laugh. “It must be flattering to be in demand like that :-)” Otaiba said.
“The wrong kind of demand,” Saab replied. He turned down the invite.
He has responded more favorably to other requests. “Got Dave Petraeus to author the foreword of our main report on Iran’s regional challenge. That’s the good news,” Saab wrote Otaiba this past March. “The bad news is that I have to write the foreword for him. Not the first time I wrote forewords for others. What do you think?”
Saab then pasted the text below, so that Otaiba could make edits to a piece written by Saab that would be published under the name of Petraeus.
Contributing to a think tank has its benefits. Saab, before his time at MEI, was a scholar with the Atlantic Council, another prominent institution in Washington with funding from the UAE. In June, Otaiba was given a draft copy of a strategy paper by Ellen Laipson on the future of U.S. policy toward Iran. “I got up to page 6 of reading this report before I concluded it’s too painful to continue,” he told Saab and the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel, head of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. “This is incredibly problematic for an infinite number of reasons that I would be happy to discuss over the phone.”
“I think you used the wrong email address to send this,” Saab told Otaiba in a reply, dropping his boss, and likely referring to the odd fact that Otaiba was using his hotmail account. “You and I are in full agreement on Iran. I had my concerns about this effort from the start but I will defend Ellen, not her sloppy report though.”
Otaiba was incredulous. “Aren’t you both part of AC?? That same AC that is about to publish this report??”
Saab stood his ground, but tried to get Otaiba to see the bigger picture. “Whether it’s AC or any other think tank, you know very well that we don’t operate like the communist party and we don’t have a ‘party line.’ We encourage diversity of views, like most credible think tanks, and cherish our intellectual independence. We’re not a lobbying firm,” he said. “This report, again as you very well know, is balanced by the HUUGE body of leading and robust work that I have led at the Scowcroft Center that argues almost in opposite direction!”
Pavel, one of the few people in this story willing to talk on the record, said that the Iran paper was a good example of the kind of difficult terrain think tanks have to walk. “We work through these issues with corporate partners, with government partners, with individuals, not as much with foundations, they don’t really weigh in like that,” Pavel said. “We hear their opinions when they’re rendered and then we give them to the authors of the papers.”
In this case, the author, he said, agreed with some of the smaller comments made, but stuck to her thesis. “You know Ellen, she sticks to her guns. If she feels strongly, she’ll disagree with comments rendered. We couldn’t have had a stronger author on a complex topic like this,” he said.
Otaiba, he said, wasn’t the only donor to get a chance to review the paper, and the UAE remains a funder of the Council. Foreign governments, he said, understand the Council offers a variety of perspectives, and tend to go to other think tanks to buy papers that fit their diplomatic needs. “Our credibility is only strong to the extent we’re a venue where we reflect different perspectives,” he said. “My understanding is [foreign governments] have others in their portfolio that do the more directed work.”
Saab left the Atlantic Council last month. He’s moving over to MEI.
Saab knows that Otaiba sees him as more than just an ally. When an Abu Dhabi-based firm made Saab a job offer he felt did not come with adequate compensation in 2016, he emailed Otaiba to see what could be done. “I know you prefer I work closely with you here, but think of the ‘damage’ I can cause in Abu Dhabi, if they adjust their rate,” Saab pleaded.
Last month The Intercept reported on the maneuvering that had enabled the UAE to forge a funding relationship with mainstream national security think tanks that gives it considerable influence in shaping the debate about U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The emails we obtained also showcase how Ian Davis, a top lobbyist for Occidental Petroleum, helped forge the relationship between Otaiba and the Center for a New American Security, a think tank founded by and staffed with national security experts linked to the Obama administration — an administration Otaiba was at open war with by the end. (“Most administrations also get more humble with age, this one gets more arrogant,” Otaiba wrote to Richard Clarke after a high profile article by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg on “The Obama Doctrine” appeared in The Atlantic. “Keep repeating: 10 more months,” Clarke replied.)
The role of Davis and Occidental in helping shape CNAS policy is a window into the strange world of Washington influence. Occidental Petroleum is an American oil and gas firm headquartered in Houston, Texas. It is currently partnered with the UAE-based Abu Dhabi National Oil Company on a 30-year joint venture developing the Al Hosn Gas project, which its website touts as “one of the largest natural gas developments in the Middle East.”
The emails show that Occidental, through Davis, quietly lobbied CNAS on behalf of UAE government — a case of a corporation building political pathways for a foreign government it relies on for business.
On December 8, 2011, CNAS staffer Andrew Exum — a military veteran and analyst who later went on to work for the Obama administration and today is a contributing editor at The Atlantic — wrote to Davis to inform him that the think tank was in the early stages of working on a Middle East Strategy project for 2011-2012.
“I would love to hear the thoughts of the ambassador on what direction he would suggest we take,” he wrote to Davis of Otaiba. “The relationship between the U.A.E. and the U.S. has been an interesting one, and since our report would directly address the future of foreign military sales and foreign military assistance in the region, his perspective would be particularly invaluable to our research.”
The same day, Davis wrote to Otaiba explaining that he had met with CNAS’s president earlier in the week to discuss “Oxy’s [i.e., Occidental’s] support for the coming year,” meaning that it was a fundraising meeting. “I told them that Oxy’s #1 priority is the approval of the defense package for the UAE, and they should make sure to become well briefed on the importance of this,” he continued.
He went on to explain to Otaiba that CNAS was founded and staffed by many military and political veterans, including staff close to the Obama administration. “Their reports are widely read and respected on Capitol Hill and in the Administration,” he noted.
“If you’re interested in meeting with them, please let me know and I’d be happy to set it up. Oxy is a major supporter of CNAS, and I personally believe they can be a helpful ally in the months ahead,” he concluded. (Indeed, they later proved helpful — putting out papers pressing the Trump administration to loosen restrictions on drone transfers to the UAE, for instance.)
Otaiba’s reply, which came the same day, was brief. “Happy to meet with them. My foreign minister is in town next week so perhaps the week after,” he said.
A day later, Davis’s assistant H. Joy Smith emailed Pauline Habr, an assistant to Otaiba, to say that Exum was available for a thirty-minute meeting with Otaiba later in the month or in January.
And just like that, the relationship between Otaiba and CNAS was formed, thanks to the help of a friendly oil lobbyist. Everyone got a little something.
In a statement to The Intercept, a spokesperson for the think tank said “we do not have any insight into conversations between the Embassy of the UAE and Occidental Petroleum in 2011,” and said that CNAS did not receive any funding from the UAE until 2016.
They did, however, confirm that Occidental Petroleum was a past donor to CNAS, last funding the think tank in 2014. Which is exactly the point of Occidental serving as the liaison — the company’s funding of CNAS allowed it to serve as a proxy lobbyist for the UAE.
Davis did not respond to request for comment from The Intercept.
The MEI grant did not come directly from the UAE government. Rather, it was routed through the The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), an Abu Dhabi-based think tank. But the fact that Otaiba arranged the payments, and the way they were arranged, makes the true source of the funds clear.
“Ambassador Yousef Otaiba kindly informed our chairman, Richard Clarke of the ECSSR grant,” Wendy Chamberlin, MEI’s president, wrote to Saif Al Hajeri in September 2016.
Otaiba was blind copied on the note, which he had previously proofread and suggested be delivered to both Hajeri and to Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi, head of ECSSR. “We are most appreciative of your support and ask that you acknowledge this letter as accurately reflecting the understandings,” Chamberlin wrote to Suwaidi, helpfully including MEI’s bank account details so the funds could be transferred.
Despite the reference to the UAE think tank, it was actually an entity controlled by Hajeri that made the payments. As Richard Clarke explained to Chamberlin in a separate email, written January 11, 2016, after Clarke met with Hajeri:
“Hajeri asked that I provide him with a document expressing this understanding, something about MEI and the Campaign Fund for his records. He said he had already spoken to the Crown Prince, who is the Chairman of his Board and that the paperwork is merely a formality for their own internal audit and records.
“He said the funds would come from Tawazun, from a fund they had created into which companies owing offsets could donate cash in lieu of projects. He stressed that he did not want us to contact the companies.”
The payments were broken up into four lumps of $5 million each, but there was a hiccup.
Hajeri was uncomfortable about how the donation would look if it became public. In July 2016, Clarke wrote him, copying Chamberlin, with reassurances.
“MEI plans no announcement of the contribution,” he assured. “In November, at the Annual Banquet and 70th anniversary, i will say that we are half way to our goal of $40m in pledges, from a variety of our past friends and donors.”
In 2017, he added, they would be required to file a public tax return with the government. “That will identify all sources of revenue. Because we are a Not-for-Profit institution, our filing will be available for public inspection. It is possible a reporter might look at the file and write a story, but that also may not happen,” he advises. “We understand that you do not want to brag about the gift or have something named after you, but we believe that steps to ‘hide’ the contribution would not be a good idea. It would look like we are trying for some reason to cover up the relationship. That would provoke questions and suspicion. We are proud of our long history with the UAE.”
In October 2016, Clarke reached out again to Hajeri. “Yousef said he discussed with you the delay that we have incurred with Dr. Jamal,” Clarke fretted. “We are at the point of starting construction, but can not proceed without the fund transfer.”
Hajeri replied and copied Otaiba. “I had a meeting with Dr. Jamal this afternoon and we agreed on the way forward,” he said. “I am transferring the 20$ M tomorrow to the ECSSR and they will directly transfer them to the institute.”
Zaid Jilani contributed reporting
Correction: August 14, 2017
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Exum did not respond to a request for comment. In fact, the email used to contact Exum was no longer operative, and insufficient follow-up efforts were made.