A new report by a Washington-based non-profit organisation outlines what it describes as the United Arab Emirates “vast and immensely influential” lobbying and public relations campaign in the United States.
The UAE’s apparatus of influence involved 20 US firms that were paid $20m to work on behalf of Emirati clients in 2018, according to the report, which was published on Tuesday by the Center for International Policy (CIP).
The report is part of CIP’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which aims to shed light on the “half-billion-dollar foreign influence industry working to shape US foreign policy every single day”.
It said the Emirati influence operation targeted legislators, non-profits, media outlets and think-tanks as part of an effort to improve the image of the UAE, a key ally of Saudi Arabia.
The two countries have led a controversial US-backed military coalition against a rebel movement in Yemen since 2015. The war has killed tens of thousands and left millions on the brink of famine in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. All parties involved have been accused of possible war crimes.
The UAE, which has a population of one million but sits on the world’s seventh-largest oil reserve, has also been criticised by rights groups for cracking down on freedom of speech, arbitrarily detaining its citizens and imprisoning Western academics.
Wide-ranging ‘political activities’
The CIP report analysed documents filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), a US law that requires agents representing the interests of foreign governments or groups to disclose their relationships and financial arrangements.
“Though the Emirati’s influence operation differs notably from the Saudi’s in many ways, both rely heavily on their FARA registered lobbying and public relations firms to brandish their image in the US, and to keep their transgressions out of the public consciousness as much as possible,” the report’s authors wrote.
In particular, the analysis found that the 20 firms working with the UAE reported carrying out 3,168 “political activities” on the Gulf nation’s behalf. Such activities are widely defined in the FARA statute and must be reported.
According to the report, half of the reported UAE-motivated political actions in 2018 were explicitly related to Yemen, as criticism of US involvement in the years-long conflict grew. The actions included direct contacts with 200 Congressional offices, 18 think-tanks and most mainstream media outlets.
The report detailed an influence campaign varied in its reach and scope.
In some instances, agents sent mass-email blasts to legislators containing “unabashedly” pro-UAE articles and op-eds. In pushing pro-UAE narratives, other agents regularly contacted, and in some cases met, congress members, reporters at major outlets, representatives of museums and cultural institutions, as well as members of “prominent and influential” think-tanks, some of which receive money from the UAE, the report said.
The analysis also revealed what report authors described as “the widely divergent levels of transparency amongst FARA registrants”. The FARA statute requires reported political actions to include a “degree of specificity necessary to permit meaningful public evaluation” of the steps taken by an agent or firm to achieve a foreign power’s objectives.
“Our analysis revealed that many firms failed to meet this threshold, significantly impairing our ability to evaluate the work they did on behalf of their UAE client,” the report’s authors wrote.
The influence campaign detailed in the report is only “the tip of the iceberg”, they noted, adding that they do not address oil and business interests between the UAE and the US, the considerable sums of money Emiratis spend on think-tanks and US universities, or the influence UAE officials have within the inner circle of US President Donald Trump.