In the fall of 2015, the United Arab Emirates’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, sent a concerned email to a group of high-level officials in his government. The war in Yemen, he said, was becoming a public-relations nightmare.
The Obama administration, he told leadership back home, remained reluctantly supportive, but the ongoing Saudi-led campaign was harming the U.S.’s reputation and thus putting his own country, an active and eager participant in the war, in a delicate position.
The September 2015 memo documenting Otaiba’s concerns was sent to a wide set of UAE decision makers. It was originally emailed to Assistant Secretary-General of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Al Shamsi, Crown Prince Court Undersecretary Mohamed Mubarak Al Mazrouei, and Syed Basar Shueb, a Pal Technology executive.
Otaiba then forwarded the email to Khaldoon Al Mubarak, a top UAE official close to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, informing him that he sent the same memo to “TBZ, ABZ, and Dr. Anwar” — referring to Emirates Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan; Tahnoon bin Zayed, a senior banker in the UAE; and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash.
In the memo, Otaiba laid out stark concerns about the war and the political situation it was creating.
“In a series of long conversations with WH officials, it has become evident that the human toll and collateral damage occurring in yemen is putting the administration in a political corner,” he wrote.
He then frankly conceded, “The increased targeting of civilian sites combined with the lack of humanitarian support is translating into a liability for washington.”
Publicly, Otaiba has not conceded the level of human suffering the Saudi/UAE war is causing the people of Yemen. During an event at the Center for American Progress — a top Democratic Party-aligned think tank that takes UAE funds — in the fall of 2016, Otaiba struck a very different tone, acting as if the country does not care about political fallout in the West over the conflict.
He complained of the Houthi rebel takeover of the country, and justified the war. “We were not going to allow for this to happen on the border of a country that produces 10 million barrels a day, and that is home to Mecca and Medina. And if that decision upsets some of our friends in the West, then so be it.”
Otaiba in 2016 pledged $700,000 to the Center for American Progress, according to a Dec. 17, 2015 email exchange he had with Brian Katulis, who is a senior CAP analyst for the region.
Otaiba used his memo to clarify that he’s not “proposing a modification of strategy,” but that the UAE and Saudi engage in a diplomatic offensive to repair their image, including by meeting with media, academics, and NGOs. His very last suggestion was for the UAE to “at least temporarily, urge caution when selecting military targets (this applies to saudi air force, where apparently most of the errant strikes are occurring).”
The exchange was discovered in a cache of correspondence pilfered by hackers from Otaiba’s Hotmail account, which he used regularly for official business, and provided to The Intercept.