Hold the UAE Accountable for Meddling in US Politics
Letting the Emirates go unpunished sends the wrong signal to perpetrators of foreign influence operations.
Tom Barrack, the billionaire head of Donald Trump’s inaugural committee and a top Trump campaign fundraiser, was indicted on Tuesday for “unlawful efforts to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates in the United States at the direction of senior UAE officials.”
While Barrack and his co-defendants will be forced to answer for their alleged transgressions, the UAE officials who orchestrated this covert influence operation that targeted the very highest levels of the U.S. government will likely face no consequences for their actions. Had this plot been conducted by the Chinese, Russian or Iranian governments there would be outcries for severe and swift retaliation. For the UAE, however, it has become business as usual to meddle in the U.S. political process with near impunity.
The indictment of Barrack is far from the first time the UAE has covertly influenced U.S. politics. From 2016 to 2018, for example, the UAE government conspired, with George Nader and others, to make more than $3.5 million in illegal campaign donations to garner influence in Washington. The campaign, ultimately overseen by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, initially focused on providing contributions and gaining access to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. But, after Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, the UAE’s focus quickly shifted to Trump, beginning with a $1 million illegal donation to his inauguration.
During the Trump administration, the UAE’s covert influence operations continued as both the UAE and Saudi Arabia sought to turn the U.S. against their blockaded rival Qatar. The UAE sought to smear Doha’s reputation through it’s extraordinary legal influence operation, as well as several secret campaigns that included paying for think tank events critical of the Qataris and funding a $2.5 million covert campaign run by George Nader and Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy to convince members of Congress to take a tough stance on Qatar. In this Qatar smear campaign Broidy worked closely with Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), who became a registered foreign agent after leaving Congress in 2019.
Beyond Congress and the White House, the UAE has also been garnering influence in D.C. by furtively funding think tanks. The UAE “secretly” donated $20 million to a D.C. think tank that has been decidedly uncritical of the Emiratis, and went on to hire a scholar with close ties to the UAE Ambassador, Yousef Otaiba, who facilitated the donation.
Leaked e-mails from Otaiba, who was also one of the key officials guiding Barrack’s efforts to influence the Trump administration on the UAE’s behalf, also revealed a $250,000 payment to another think tank for a report on exporting U.S. military drones to countries like the UAE. The think tank provided Otaiba with an advance copy of the report, which he praised saying, “it will help push the debate in the right direction.” The very same drones the think tank recommended exporting are now part of a $23 billion arms sale to the UAE.
What has the U.S. government done to punish the Emirati government for repeatedly engaging in these illicit influence campaigns? In short, nothing. The individuals directly involved—like Tom Barrack and George Nader—have been indicted, but no U.S. official has even publicly chastised the UAE Ambassador Yousef Otaiba or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed for their role in engineering these covert foreign influence operations.
By not holding the UAE accountable for illegally meddling in American politics, the U.S. is sending a clear message to other would-be malign foreign actors: you can secretly undermine the U.S. political system without fear of reprisal.
To disrupt this toxic environment that only emboldens foreign interference in American democracy, the UAE must be held to account for these myriad transgressions. For starters, the Biden administration should issue a statement decrying the UAE’s actions and, at the very least, let the Emirati government know that they can not continue to undermine U.S. politics without consequences. Second, and much more likely to get the Emiratis’ attention, the U.S. government should cancel the proposed $23 billion sale of combat aircraft, armed drones, bombs, and missiles to the UAE. Arms sales experts and Members of Congress have repeatedly raised concerns about the deal, not the least of which is the UAE’s role in the disastrous war in Yemen that has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians there and let U.S. weapons fall into the hands of al Qaeda and Iranian linked militants.
These are just two of a host of possible options the U.S. can use to hold the UAE accountable for illegally meddling in U.S. politics. While the exact solution may be uncertain, it is perfectly clear that the status quo—where foreign interference in American democracy goes unpunished—is unsustainable and dangerous. If U.S. officials continue to not hold the UAE to task for repeatedly interfering in U.S. elections and policymaking, America will continue to be a ripe target for malign foreign influence operations.