Lobbying, Weapons Dealing and Military Cooperation: An overview of US-UAE relations

Photo Courtesy: Vogue Arabia


 By Yash Singh and Federico Alistair D’Alessio on June 15, 2023



The United States (US) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have nurtured stable relations since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in December 1971. The bilateral relations across various spheres of cooperation have consolidated over the years while informally designating the UAE as America’s most reliable and steadfast partner in the Arab world. Moreover, the Emirates are the ‘only Arab nation to participate with the US in six coalition actions over the last 30 years: Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Bosnia-Kosovo, the 1990 Gulf War and the fight against ISIS’ (UAE Embassy, n.d.). As per a SIPRI report, the US contributed to a whopping 61% of total UAE weapons imports in the period between 2017 and 2021 (Wezeman et al., 2022). In the economic domain, the US-UAE bilateral trade was over USD 25 billion in 2022, up from USD 23 billion in 2021. In 2004, the two countries also signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) which provided a framework for negotiations on bilateral investments, trade, tariff regulations, IPR security, etc. 

However, such a robust relationship based on cooperation and supposed organic compatibility of security interests has been delegitimised by reports of significant political lobbying by the UAE. A Washington Post report by John Hudson (2022) cited individuals who have access to a classified National Intelligence Council (NIC) document revealing that the UAE has employed both legal and illegal means to influence American foreign policy in its favour. Christened the “Emirati lobby”, the country has reportedly poured millions of dollars into PR and legal firms to engineer favourable public policies in Washington.


The making of the Emirati lobby

The initiation, nourishing and development of such an influential lobby were overseen by the current UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba. In fact, the Emirati lobby did not come to life until his appointment in 2008, before which the UAE attempted to buy six US ports via the publicly-owned multinational logistics company DP World (MEMO, 2021). However, this potential acquisition was securitised and termed a national threat by US Senator Chuck Schumer. The Democrat-led Congress protested the acquisition and the efforts paid off, as the deal was abandoned and the entire episode unravelled as a PR disaster for the UAE. 

This event confronted the Emirates with the harsh reality of the country’s perception amongst the American political and public classes as an unreliable and disreputable Gulf country. Therefore, in order to reposition itself on the “correct side” of American conscience, Al-Otaiba was ordained with the responsibility to “align” the economic and political interests of the two countries by leveraging the monetary and associated opulence. Ambassador Al-Otaiba initiated a ‘recruitment campaign to attract talent and key figures knowledgeable about Washington’s doorways and working approaches… he hired many major lobbying firms, some of which are now still working for Abu Dhabi’ (MEMO, 2021). 

The Emirati lobby is funded by private citizens, UAE government institutions, embassies/consulates in western countries and private corporations. The objective is to reach out to prominent American think-tanks, media organisations, crucial voices on international affairs and public representatives in US Congress to influence public policy pertaining to the UAE’s national stability and its regional interests. This is done via hiring legal and PR firms to sway the political opinion and policy making in Washington in favour of the UAE. A report by the Center for International Policy reveals that, as of 2018, twenty organisations are registered as agents of Emirati clients and their “outreach” includes donations to political campaigns and contacts with congressional offices, think tanks, and media organisations (Freeman, 2019).

Such an extensive network of lobbying was put to the test during two critical geopolitical events in west Asia. First, the Arab Spring, a pro-democracy wave against authoritarian regimes in the region, threatened the legitimacy and stability of monarchies such as those in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. The threat of the resurgence of the revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood movement across North Africa and west Asia alarmed the UAE regime and it lobbied hard in western capitals, especially in ‘Washington and London against their “honeymoon” with the new regimes of the Arab spring, with special emphasis on Egypt’ (Black, 2012). Ambassador Al-Otaiba was one of the biggest critics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Washington going so far as to ‘charging them with links to terrorism and cheering their overthrow’ (Grim, 2017).

Another critical event that invited the “blitzkrieg” of the Emirati lobby was the 2015 Yemen War. This military conflict, led by Saudi Arabia and actively supported by the UAE, was initiated against the Houthi rebels in the Gulf country and was interpreted as a pushback to an alleged increasing Iranian influence in Yemen. 

The Center for International Policy reported massive human rights violations undertaken by the UAE in the Yemen invasion, such as enforced disappearances, a network of secret prisons, and extreme torture of suspected rebels (Freeman, 2019). The Emirati lobby allegedly ignored and attempted to hide any allegations of human rights abuse by UAE armed forces in Yemen: this was done primarily to avoid raising concerns among the US administration, which might have considered withdrawing its troops or ceasing to supply weapons to the Emirates on account of these violations (Emmons, 2017; MEMO, 2021). This strategy involved hiring legal, PR and media firms to influence US defence and security policy during the war. For instance, ‘Greenwich Media Strategies…consisted of having one of the UAE’s allies in a research centre write a report on these human rights groups accusing them of working for the Houthis [which]… would then distribute this report to diplomats at the UN and to US media’ (MEMO, 2021). In fact, the UAE has been the third top donor of U.S. think tanks (USD 15.4 million in 2014-2018), which allowed them to churn out favourable reports and shore up their offensive military capabilities (Katzman, 2013; Freeman, 2020). 


US-UAE relations under the Trump administration 

The United Arab Emirates’ involvement in US affairs prospered under Trump since the beginning of his administration. In fact, the US Justice Department accused the Emirates of channelling more than $3.5 million (through Lebanese-American businessman George Nader) in illicit campaign donations to influence US politics: initially directed at the Democratic Party led by Hillary Clinton, the funds were later funnelled to Donald Trump once he won the election (United States Department of Justice, 2019; Kirkpatrick and Vogel, 2019).

In addition to backing Trump’s decision to exit the Iran Nuclear Deal, Abu Dhabi has persisted as an active player in most US-led military interventions to the extent that its military was often referred to as “Little Sparta” by Marine Corps General James Mattis, who also acted as United States Secretary of Defense from 2017 to 2019 (Hudson, 2022). Before joining Trump’s government, he served as an advisor to the UAE military, widely considered the most powerful in the Arab world, as well as one of the biggest buyers of American military equipment (Herb, 2017; Hudson, 2022). Mattis often praised their military operations, such as the 2016 Battle of Mukalla, when the Emirates armed forces took control of the Al Qaeda-held harbor in only 36 hours (Karam, 2018). 

This American admiration for the military capabilities of Abu Dhabi finds further evidence in the strong opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, considered both a domestic and regional threat. Indeed, the UAE has adopted a rather offensive stance against countries that allegedly support organizations linked to this Islamist movement, such as Qatar, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine (Katzman, 2017). In 2017, this approach led the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain to isolate Qatar until it would implement similar policies. This event was thus taken as an opportunity for Abu Dhabi to intensify ties with the US government led by Trump, who often promoted hostile rhetoric against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (Katzman, 2017; Cafiero, 2019).

Furthermore, as previously mentioned, the United Arab Emirates have funded several American institutions with the aim of influencing US domestic and foreign policies. A prominent case involved the UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, and Michèle Flournoy, co-founder of the think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS): in 2017, some leaked emails showed that the ambassador paid CNAS $250,000 in order to prepare a report aimed at justifying the loosening of restrictions and the sale of military drones to Abu Dhabi, as well as its entry in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) (Jilani and Emmons, 2017; Freeman, 2020).

A few years later, the US government approved a $23 billion arms deal with the UAE, which included the sale of F-35 fighter jets and MQ-9 drones, among other weapons. This agreement raised criticism and concerns even from Israel, as the UAE became the first Arab country to adopt such sophisticated military equipment (Lee, 2020). This deal followed the Abraham Accords, which consisted of several normalization deals between the Emirates, Israel, and Bahrain. It was concluded also thanks to the mediation of the US government, in particular Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who have built strong ties with Abu Dhabi (BBC News, 2020; Kelly and Rai, 2022). 

The US-UAE agreement was also criticized by various human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, that reported it could lead to further death and destruction in countries where the Emirates are involved (e.g. Libya and Yemen). The NGO stressed the importance of halting the sale of military equipment to the factions involved in these conflicts, as investigations have repeatedly found US-manufactured weapons used against civilians (Al Jazeera News, 2020; Amnesty International, 2019; 2020). In the course of time, criticism of Abu Dhabi’s conduct also came from US officials, who condemned the alleged UAE financing of the Wagner Group, a brutal mercenary group linked to Putin’s Russia accused of significant atrocities in Ukraine and Africa (Office of Inspector General, 2020; Hudson, 2022).

The Emirates came under greater scrutiny following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Although CIA investigations found that the assassination was executed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), concerns were also raised around the figure of UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), who is often portrayed as the mentor of MBS (Hudson, 2022; Ibrahim, 2020). Moreover, a 2021 report by the Washington Post revealed that a UAE agency used the Pegasus spyware (developed by Israeli NSO Group) on Jamal Khashoggi’s wife a few months before his death, raising further suspicions about the role of the Emirates in international affairs (Priest, 2021).


The lobby’s chief operations

According to the NIC report cited by John Hudson (2022), the Emirati lobby leverages the laxity of regulations on campaign contributions and disclosure of activities by foreign governments. This lackadaisical aspect of US legislation is epitomised in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires agents working on behalf of foreign clients to file their activities. However, as Freeman (2019) argues, the agents do not always fully disclose the details of their political activities on behalf of foreign governments since ‘there is no prohibition in the United States on lobbyists donating money to political campaigns’ (Hudson, 2022). As per the FARA filings, there have been ‘nearly $600,000 in campaign contributions from these firms and their registered foreign agents [in 2018]’ (Freeman, 2019, p. 14).

Another report notes that UAE agencies donated USD 1.65 million in campaign contributions to politicians on both sides of the spectrum in 2020-21. The document also highlights that the lobbying firms “hide” foreign contributions by pooling them with domestic donations. This shields them and the politicians involved from allegations of violation of the regulations imposed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against foreign sources of donations (Freeman, 2022). As we have seen, these policies translated into potential sales of some of the most sophisticated American weaponry to the UAE, such as the F-35 fighter jets and MQ-9 drones, a privilege only afforded by NATO allies. In the wake of popular mobilisation against alleged foreign meddling in American politics via lobbying, the bipartisan Fighting Foreign Influence Act was introduced in June 2022. However, the status quo remains as it has yet to be put up for voting. 



It must be argued that signs of deteriorating relations between the US and the UAE were already evident before the release of this report, particularly since the election of Biden. Several factors have determined this crisis: for instance, the growing frustration of the UAE towards a significant reduction of US involvement in regional security in the Middle East, but also the Emirates’ decision to neither condemn nor isolate Russia after the invasion of Ukraine (Baharoon, 2022; Michele and Goodman, 2022). Not to mention that the US-UAE partnership has always been purely economic and geostrategic rather than based on ethics and morality, given the human rights record in Abu Dhabi, where there are various bans on free speech, sexual orientation and trade unions, as well as neither elections nor political parties (Hudson, 2022; Human Rights Watch, 2023).

Nevertheless, the findings of the NIC report reveal a deeper UAE involvement in American affairs than previously thought. In addition to funding think tanks and relevant institutions (such as the Atlantic Council, Hudson Institute, and Center for American Progress), the Emirates are accused of engaging in spying and surveillance operations on US officials (Hudson, 2022). This concern was already expressed in 2020 in a report by the Center for Anticipatory Intelligence that highlighted how growing UAE invasive technologies pose a significant threat to US security (Matheson, 2020).

Furthermore, it is well known that the Emirates are not the only Gulf country to interfere in Western politics: Saudi Arabia and Qatar also played a significant role in running influence campaigns in both the US and Europe (Hudson, 2022). In fact, the tensions between the West and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have drastically exacerbated in recent years.

As for Saudi Arabia, the reasons are similar to those of the UAE, including the human rights abuses committed under the rule of the controversial figure Mohamed bin Salman, such as the previously mentioned case of Khashoggi. In addition, the Saudis have been increasingly discouraged by a reduced American engagement in the Gulf region’s security while focusing more on strategic interests in Asia instead (Cook and Indyk, 2022). In response, since this alliance has been mainly established with the core parameter of security for energy, Riyadh has pushed OPEC+ members to cut oil production and refused to provide more resources to western countries to help mitigate the current energy crisis (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2022; Wilson Center, 2022). While the US has experienced a boom in fossil fuel production in recent years, the move by the Saudis particularly affects Europe, which is struggling to find reliable suppliers since gradually abandoning its energy dependence on Russia.

On the other hand, the US-Qatar partnership has yet to experience critical setbacks that could jeopardize their cooperation, also because of Washington’s role as a security guarantor and Doha’s hostility towards Riyadh (Sorosh, Ahmadi and Basiri, 2022). However, Qatar has been highly involved in European affairs, as demonstrated by the recent scandal in the European Union. In December 2022, Belgian and Italian prosecutors accused some members of the European Parliament of corruption and money laundering. These MEPs have allegedly received money from Doha in exchange for protecting Qatar’s interests and portraying a positive picture of the human rights record in the country. Investigations have led to the confiscation of millions of euros in cash, in particular in the Brussels properties of the vice-president of the European Parliament Eva Kailī and former MEP Antonio Panzeri (Stevis-Gridneff et al., 2022). After Russia, Qatar is yet another country that many European countries depend on in terms of energy supplies, hence, this scandal could exacerbate the current crisis and critically affect EU’s power and accountability (Oxford Analytica, 2022). 

The US government must thus reconsider its partnership with GCC countries on account of their pervasive interference in western affairs, as well as accusations of various human rights violations. Nonetheless, it should also not permit China and Russia to take advantage of this moment of crisis. In fact, some Gulf countries are gradually leaning towards these two superpowers, as also demonstrated by their lack of condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and their increasing cooperation with China. The latest Saudi Arabia-Iran deal brokered by the Chinese government further exhibits a shift in the regional order and a significant reduction of US soft power and influence in such a strategically crucial part of the world (Baker, 2023).