Starving children with haunting eyes and emaciated bodies. Bombed-out hospitals and homes. A cholera epidemic that is the largest and fastest-spreading in modern history. These scenes have sparked outrage and a flurry of denunciations of the U.S.-backed war in Yemen, which is led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But that’s not to say the war has no defenders in the United States. In fact, a public relations consultant and former U.S. diplomat enlisted by the UAE has worked to discredit U.S.-based groups raising awareness of atrocities in Yemen.
Hagar Chemali previously served as a top spokesperson for Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Now, she is paid six figures to shape the debate about the war at the U.N., including by discrediting NGOs that advance evidence of human rights violations in Yemen, according to public disclosures and emails obtained by The Intercept.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a military intervention in March 2015 against the Houthi rebels, who are allied with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and backed by Iran. The Saudi-led coalition, which aims to reinstate ousted president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, blockaded the country and has indiscriminately bombed civilian centers such as markets, hospitals, and children’s schools.
Last week, Power weighed in on the conflict, condemning American support for the coalition. But during her time at the U.N., Power maintained a code of silence on what U.S. allies were doing in Yemen. She is now criticizing a Trump administration policy that is largely a continuation of her former boss’s approach.
Now, Chemali, who was Power’s spokesperson at the time the Saudi-led war on Yemen began, is working to undermine criticisms of the war.
At the U.N., Chemali played an influential role, coordinating all communications and overseeing public diplomacy for the U.S. Mission – the U.N.’s largest financial contributor. She had previously worked as the director for Syria and Lebanon on Obama’s National Security Council and as a spokesperson on terrorist financing at the Treasury Department.
Shortly after leaving the U.N. in early 2016, Chemali set up a one-person consulting firm called Greenwich Media Strategies. In September of that year, she registered to work for the UAE Embassy as a “foreign agent” – a legal designation under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. That means she is paid to represent a foreign government.
In her current role, Chemali has reached out to journalists who cover the U.N. to undermine messaging from human rights groups critical of the war in Yemen. In one email from November 2016 obtained by The Intercept, Chemali laid out a strategy to discredit the work of a newly formed group called the Arabian Rights Watch Association, which had begun testifying before the U.N. Human Rights Council earlier that year.
The Intercept obtained emails between Chemali and Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador to the United States, from a group that refers to itself as GlobalLeaks, which earlier this year began distributing emails from Otaiba’s Hotmail inbox — which he used for professional correspondence — to media outlets, including the The Intercept, the Daily Beast, Al Jazeera, and the Huffington Post.
ARWA is a small group of Yemeni lawyers and activists based in the United States. The organization began filing complaints with the U.N. Human Rights Council in early 2016, calling for an end to the blockade and for a U.N. investigation into all the parties in the war for violations.
The organization’s work began to gain traction that summer, when a group of U.N. experts started to investigate the blockade as a mass human rights violation. In April 2017, a U.N. human rights expert identified the blockade as a primary cause of the humanitarian crisis and called on the coalition to lift the siege.
When the UAE government noticed the efforts of NGOs like ARWA, it quickly tried delegitimize them. In August 2016, Anwar Gargash, UAE minister for foreign affairs, accused human rights groups of being front groups for the Houthis. “The [Houthi] rebel staff has turned into human rights activists and advocates of democracy, through a network of fake human rights organizations,” Gargash said on Twitter, according to the Emirati newspaper Al-Ittihad.
It didn’t take long for think tanks in Washington to adopt the same narrative. In October 2016, Michael Rubin, a scholar at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote that ARWA was a Houthi front and “part of a campaign to whitewash the Iranian and Hezbollah co-option of the Houthis.” (Rubin has also frequently attacked the credibility of more prominent human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.)
Mohammad Alwazir, the legal affairs director at ARWA, strongly disputed Rubin’s accusation, noting that ARWA has been critical of both the coalition and the Houthis.
“ARWA has consistently called for a credible independent investigation into all alleged violations, abuses and crimes committed in Yemen by all parties to the conflict,” Alwazir told The Intercept in an email. “That includes both the de facto authorities and the members of the Coalition.”
Alwazir also said that ARWA has taken more direct efforts to criticize the Houthis, including by sending letters to Houthi authorities demanding due process for their political prisoners.
Regardless, Rubin’s proclamation was a godsend for the UAE public relations machine, which moved quickly to circulate what he had written. In early November, Chemali wrote an email titled “Re: Houthi infiltration of the UN – Media reporting” and sent it to Otaiba and Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.N. “I’ve attached proposed next steps to follow-up on the AEI pieces to help bring attention to them and help land a larger piece in mainstream press,” wrote Chemali.
The Intercept also obtained a copy of the email attachment, a document titled “Follow-up on AEI pieces” that contains metadata identifying Chemali as its author. In it, Chemali laid out her plan to quietly circulate Rubin’s accusation throughout the U.N. She suggested that Nusseibeh reach out to ambassadors from other coalition countries and said that she would flag the piece for “UN correspondents and other relevant national security reporters and think tankers.”
“These steps take into consideration the need to proceed carefully and build attention to these pieces through ways that don’t appear too aggressive or loud and without UAE fingerprints,” Chemali wrote.
Chemali’s firm subsequently reached out to U.N. reporters at the Associated Press, New York Times, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, CBS, and Reuters, according to Justice Department disclosures filed in 2017.
During the one-year period after Chemali registered as a foreign agent, the UAE paid her company more than $103,000 for the work on behalf of the Gulf monarchy. Her firm was not paid by the UAE directly. Instead, the money came from Harbour Group, a D.C.-based communications firm Otaiba has on permanent retainer, according to Justice Department disclosures. According to the Harbour Group’s filings with the Justice Department, the UAE pays the firm, which has seven registered “foreign agents” on staff, $80,000 a month for its work.
Chemali did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Intercept. Her firm’s most recent FARA disclosure shows that it was on the UAE’s payroll through the end of September. Otaiba and the Harbour Group also did not respond to requests for comment.
In recent years, the Gulf monarchies have recruited a small army of lobbyists and communications consultants in Washington, in part to defend the Yemen War. In May, The Intercept reported that Saudi Arabia had spent more than twice as much on lobbying as Google and had 145 individuals registered as “foreign agents” on retainer. The UAE has a much smaller footprint but is equally effective – giving massive donations to both liberal and conservative think tanks, and even footing the lobbying bills for other dictatorships like Egypt.