How Abu Dhabi exploits its influence in the United States

Long before the ‘Abraham Accords’, Abu Dhabi was investing in the US and developing an intensive lobbying strategy in Washington. Eva Thiebaud, an independent journalist discusses a new report by Colin Powers in a recent article on Orient XXI.

How does a federation as small as the United Arab Emirates influence the world’s most powerful nation? In his report Dollars and Decadence, published in April 2021 by Noria Research, Colin Powers, a scholar in the field of international relations, examines the relations established over recent years by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in order to sway the foreign policy of the United States in keeping with its interests.

Interests which are markedly conservative. Thus, in 2011, the super-wealthy oil monarchy allied itself with Saudi Arabia to put down an uprising in the neighboring country of Bahrain. “Abu Dhabi has succeeded in establishing a reputation as the leading opponent of people’s protest movements,” writes Colin Powers in the introduction to his report.

In the opinion of Noria Research, an independent non-profit think tank, whose collaborators are largely relying on volunteer contributions, a “counter-revolution” is in progress. “In the interregnum which followed the disruptions of the Arab Spring, a constellation of local and international forces got together to contest, reorient or exhaust those acting in favor of change.” Among these forces, “few have had a more decisive influence on the political evolution of the Middle East and North Africa than the United Arab Emirates,” Colin Powers continues.

Motivated by a strategy of regional power and backed by the US, the monarchy has also joined with Saudi Arabia to prosecute its war in Yemen, described by the UN Human Rights Council as “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.” Like the other participants, the UAE is alleged to have committed many human rights violations, with complete “endemic impunity.”

Among other horrors, the Emirati federation has set up a network of secret prisons where inmates are said to have been tortured. According to reporter Maggie Michael who uncovered the scandal, the US was involved in the interrogation of prisoners.

Change and continuity in Washington

While the Trump administration proved quite accommodating with the Emiratis through 2020, Joe Biden’s initial declarations suggested a change of tone. Indeed, at the end of January 2021, Washington announced the temporary suspension and re-examination of arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia and the UEA. The pause did not last long; a spokesperson told Reuters on 14 April that the administration “would go ahead with the projected sales to the UAE” — in particular the F-35 fighter planes promised following the “Abraham accords” with Israel in September 2020. “The decision taken by the United Arab Emirates to make peace with Israel (…) consolidated the Emirati position within vast segments of the US Democratic Party,” Colin Powers points out.

As for the recent resumption of negotiations between the US and Iran concerning the nuclear deal, the author does not believe the US is really distancing itself from the Emirates – though they did oppose it. “In any case it was a promise made long ago by the Democrats,” he writes.

He believes that between Trump’s administration and Biden’s, a principle of continuity will prevail. Following an encounter in February 2021 between the US Secretary of State and his counterpart, the UAE Foreign Minister, the State Department was pleased to salute “the future opportunities for the UAE to further contribute to a more peaceful Middle East.”

“Generally speaking, the United States continues to turn a blind eye to the role that the Emirates have played and are still playing in Yemen,” Colin Powers points out in an interview for Orient XXI. With the exception of a few dissenting voices such as that of Congressman Ro Khanna, the author observes “an obvious reluctance of the Democratic Party to clash with Abu Dhabi.”

A cautious attitude which might find its explanation in the area of geopolitics: for while the UAE certainly plays a role in guaranteeing the world’s supply of energy and protecting the sea lanes, “Matters of meta-strategy are but one piece of the puzzle in question,” he believes, while proposing two other parameters which he regards as primordial: the economic and sociological factors.

A portfolio of between 250 and 500 billion dollars

“Abu Dhabi’s entanglement in the US economy turns out to be more substantial than is generally realized,” the author explains in detail, through the investments of two Emirati sovereign-wealth funds, Mubadala and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA). In 2019, Mubadala, estimated to be worth between 230 and 250 billion dollars, invested some 38% of its portfolio in North America. As for ADIA, its share of investments in the US is somewhere between 35 and 50% of a total volume estimated at between 580 and 820 billion dollars. “The value of the portfolio controlled by Abu Dhabi in the USA is of the order of between 250 and 500 billion dollars,” Colin Powers has calculated.

His report describes the chosen investment areas: finance (in 2020 Mubadala, for example, invested in the asset management firm, Blackrock), but also, the strategic sectors of technology and real estate.

Still in the finance sector, Colin Powers reminds readers of the volume of the Emirates’ arms purchases in the US, where they have spent an estimated 6.9 billion dollars, making them, the third-ranking US client in this field, according to a database posted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Given this context, “the breadth and density of the economic entanglement between the US and the UAE has made any political clash a much riskier affair,” the author believes. The potential threat of a flight of Emirati capital tends to stifle critical impulses.

Lobbyists hobnobbing with Democrats

In the second part of his report, Colin Powers provides a detailed description of the strategies of social influence used by the Emirates – which it should be remembered inaugurated a “soft power” policy in 2017 aimed at endowing their country with a reputation for “modernity and tolerance”.

At the same time, “it was necessary to filter, elude and discredit unfavorable rhetoric” writes Powers. A tactic “linked no doubt in part to issues of regional rivalry [between the UEA] and Qatar,” as has been pointed out by the Brussels research center, Corporate Europe Observatory. “Everyone of the [UAE’s] regional rivals, including Qatar and Turkey, carry out lobbying operations, like all governments the world over,” Colin Powers reminds us.

Everybody does it. But concretely, how do the Emiratis operate? Their strategy is coordinated in their embassy by Youssef Al-Otaiba, “one of the most influential diplomats in Washington.” Several channels come into play with an eye to currying favor among politicians of both sexes, and the report tells us how lobbyists of The Harbor group and the firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Field are recruited.

Nor does the choice of the latter firm come as a surprise: Richard Mantz, its general director, was employed by Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration in the 90s before moving on to the private sector. According to Colin Powers’s report, he kept well-placed friends in the democratic party.

“To influence Washington, the Emiratis need not break the law. They are perfectly familiar with the rules of the game,” the author told Orient XXI. They merely exploit the decadence of our democracy, in other words, that permeability between the private and public sectors which opens the door to influences of every sort, so that the workings of government are a far cry from what we expect of a public service.”

For beyond these palace intrigues, what is actually at stake for millions of men and women in the Middle East and North Africa, is the possibility for the emergence and preservation of democratic systems.