The UAE’s Dominant Role in Trump-Era Foreign Policy

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, in the White House.

This week, the House Oversight Committee revealed new depths of Gulf influence in the Trump administration: The United Arab Emirates had the chance to edit Trump’s campaign speeches. That bombshell story comes days after the president vetoed resolutions blocking weapons sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the objections of bipartisan majorities in Congress. While many policymakers and pundits in Washington take the UAE’s slick public-relations campaigns about its valuable partnership with the United States at face value, these revelations and votes reveal that cracks are developing in that façade.

The Trump administration’s deference to foreign and corporate influence is hardly surprising given Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s propensity to conduct shadow foreign policy. Besides blips of scrutiny, there has yet to be a systematic evaluation of the UAE’s regional intentions, which have critical consequences for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Peeling back the layers of the UAE’s involvement in Yemen and in the region more generally is essential if there is ever to be accountability for the UAE’s destabilizing activities that undermine human rights, peace, and security throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

After more than four years of military intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia bears the brunt of the reputational costs for that disastrous war, which pits the Saudi-led military coalition and the transitional government of Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi against the Houthis, a ragtag Yemeni militia group that commits its own gross violations of human rights and whose power largely relies on the continuance of the foreign intervention. Yet the intervention would not be possible without the partnership of the UAE, the oil-rich consortium of seven city-states in the Persian Gulf, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become international financial hubs and tourist destinations in recent years.

The UAE has been a key partner in the coalition’s air campaign, which is the leading cause of civilian casualties in the conflict. The coalition’s airstrikes, which have caused mass civilian harm and systematically destroyed vital civilian infrastructure, have been coupled with a naval blockade that has slowed the flow of vital food and commodities into the import-dependent country. All of this has severely exacerbated the country’s humanitarian crisis, which is now the largest in the world according to the U.N., with millions at risk of famine and 24 million in need of humanitarian assistance—constituting 80 percent of Yemen’s entire population. Meanwhile, the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, has failed to deliver on the promised multibillion-dollar aid package for Yemen.

Yet the UAE’s role in the catastrophe in Yemen does not stop there. The UAE has taken the lead in commanding and recruiting ground forces for the fight against the Houthis. These forces include child soldiers from Darfur and the arming and recruitment of al-Qaeda–affiliated militants. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, has also diverted U.S. weapons to extremist militias and al-Qaeda–affiliated militants in apparent violation of U.S. end-use agreements. It has also employed former U.S. special-operations forces to carry out assassinations of its political rivals, further destabilizing the country and mirroring the behavior of its archfoe Iran.

Meanwhile, the UAE’s purported “withdrawal” from the conflict in Yemen has received much fanfare and has been held up as a model for Saudi Arabia to end its disastrous military intervention into the country’s civil war. Yet the reality is the UAE is not withdrawing from Yemen, as the UAE’s foreign minister recently admitted in The Washington Post. Instead it is maintaining its military occupation of the country’s south, which has served to empower southern secessionists who directly—and often violently—clash with the Yemeni government the UAE claims to support. The Emirati foreign minister also notes the UAE will “advise and assist local Yemeni forces” in the south, which appears to be a continuation of the UAE’s current financing and arming of nonstate militias that have created competing power centers in Yemen’s de facto southern capital, Aden.

While these Yemeni secessionists have legitimate, historical grievances against the central government that must be addressed in peace negotiations, the UAE’s backing of these forces undermines the ability of the Yemeni government to regain control of state institutions— ostensibly a core goal of the coalition’s intervention in the first place.

Ultimately, the UAE’s continued occupation of south Yemen and its empowerment of nonstate militias will only further contribute to the fragmentation of the Yemeni state, undermining the prospect of a unified postwar Yemen. While it’s not for non-Yemeni pundits, including myself, to decide what the future of Yemen looks like, one fact remains clear: Arming militias and profiting from the chaos of the civil war does nothing to create peace in Yemen. As Yemeni journalist Alkhatab Alrawhani has noted, ending the UAE’s financing and arming of nonstate groups in the south is critical to getting Yemen’s peace process back on track.

Separate and apart from the UAE’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war, the Emirati government also participates in the United States’ counterterrorism campaign in Yemen, which has been ongoing since 2002. And the UAE’s track record in that war is all the more worrisome.

In Washington, the UAE has a perceived status as a critical and irreplaceable counterterrorism partner. Indeed, former Defense Secretary James Mattis and pundits alike have fondly referred to the UAE as “Little Sparta,” highlighting its investment in military spending, hardware, and building bases throughout the Gulf and the Horn of Africa. Yet the view that the UAE is the ideal partner to hand over regional counterterrorism operations to as the U.S. seeks to increasingly work “by, with, and through” partner forces is overly rosy and naïve at best.

Despite a veneer of successful counterterrorism operations in Yemen, the reality is more sinister. In-depth investigations have documented the “success” of UAE counterterrorism operations in Yemen as reliant on working with, paying off, and recruiting al-Qaeda–linked militants into its fight against the Houthis in Yemen. In its arming of Yemeni Salafi militias, it has armed brigades under the authority of Abu al-Abbas, a militia commander sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2017 for connections to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS (and who still receives Emirati support). To any impartial observer, these actions serve to empower, rather than undermine, groups like AQAP.

The viability of the UAE as a force that can disrupt and undermine violent groups that perpetrate terrorism is further called into question by its track record of torture. For years, the UAE and the Yemeni forces it supports have run secret detention centers in south Yemen for counterterrorism “suspects.” In its secret prison networks, the UAE and affiliated forces’ detention and interrogation practices include mass arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, torture, and rampant sexual abuse of hundreds of Yemeni men—many of whom have no ties to al-Qaeda or the self-described Islamic State, according to their families. Given the fact that torture fuels, rather than reduces, the appeal of violent groups that perpetrate terrorism, is the UAE really a credible counterterrorism “partner”?

Unfortunately, the UAE’s practices in Yemen are not new or even isolated to Yemen, but instead an export of its domestic practices meant to prevent dissent and maintain the monarchy’s grip on power at home and in the region. It has armed nonstate groups and intervened in Libya against the U.N. (and U.S.)-backed government in favor of a former Qaddafi-allied strongman who seeks an authoritarian state and models himself on ruthless Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The Emirates’ Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed serves as a model for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He also played a pivotal role in the ongoing blockade of the neighboring Gulf state of Qatar. The Emirati government has repeatedly sought to hack dissidents, journalists, and political foes, and has even gone so far as to hire American ex–National Security Agency operatives to carry out hacking operations against these political and journalist targets.

And that’s to say nothing of the foreign influence campaign it waged in 2016 to infiltrate the Trump campaign, which is the subject of at least three ongoing FBI counterintelligence investigations. With all attention on Russia, the UAE’s ongoing marionetting of the Trump administration worryingly continues to largely fly under the radar.

Yet, despite this litany of abuses that serve to destabilize the region—and undermine the U.S. political system and U.S. national-security interests—most policymakers in Washington are blissfully unaware of how the UAE operates. Thus far, the Emirates’ massive lobbying and public-relations machine, orchestrated by UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba, has largely shielded the Emirates from scrutiny. Like the rollout of their purported withdrawal from Yemen on the Post’s editorial page, the UAE and its PR teams have become skilled in constructing narratives that increase their power and hide their role in fomenting regional violence, death, and destruction.

While the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia is in desperate need of a revamp, failing to question the wisdom of the current U.S. alliance with the UAE will lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where U.S. regional policy is outsourced to a volatile and destructive country that acts more like a fox in the henhouse than a viable partner for building regional peace and security.

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