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Pentagon Leaks Reveal UAE Lobbyists May Have Hidden Close Ties With Russia

In 2022 the United Arab Emirates spent over $36 million on lobbying in the U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with his UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in the Thomas Jefferson Room of the State Department in Washington, D.C., on February 14, 2023.

Foreign agents registered to lobby on behalf of the United Arab Emirates sought to assuage concerns about the Gulf nation’s relationship with Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act disclosures filed with the Justice Department.

The UAE spent over $36 million on foreign influence and lobbying in the U.S. in 2022, including hyping its role calling for peace in Ukraine and downplaying its relationship with Russia and OPEC oil production cuts. That’s the country’s highest lobbying expenditure to date, with $25.5 million in government spending and $10.7 million in non-governmental efforts.

But recent media reports have shed new light on the UAE’s strained relations with the U.S. after 21-year-old Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, allegedly leaked Pentagon documents. One of the documents analyzed last week by the Associated Press challenges the notion that the UAE is a key U.S. ally with “shared interests and common values” in the region.

“The UAE probably views engagement with Russian intelligence as an opportunity to strengthen growing ties between Abu Dhabi and Moscow and diversify intelligence partnerships amid concerns of US disengagement from the region,” the assessment reviewed by the AP read.

The Gulf state dismissed the findings as “categorically false.” The UAE has been positioning itself as a mediator in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion and aligned with U.S. oil output interests, FARA documents filed by firms representing the Emirati Embassy in 2022 reveal.

The UAE has one of the largest foreign lobbying operations in the United States, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of FARA filings. From 2016 through 2022, the UAE was the sixth biggest spender on foreign influence and lobbying efforts reported under FARA, steering $175 million to registered lobbyists at over a dozen firms.

Registered agents for the UAE devote themselves to a range of lobbying efforts. A big chunk of UAE lobbying concerned the tourism and specifically the space industry in 2022, extending invites to the nation’s first ever space debate. Other informational materials circulated by foreign agents stress the “U.S. relies on our relationship with the UAE to promote regional security and address pressing global challenges.”

UAE Maintains “Spirit of Mediation” With Russia, FARA Filings Say

After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the UAE abstained on a UN Security Council resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine alongside India and China, citing an intention to maintain a neutral position. Foreign agents for the UAE also pointed out the humanitarian relief supplies it shipped off to Poland for Ukrainian refugees in a lobbying material submitted in April 2022.

“UAE affirms support to efforts aimed at finding a peaceful solution and stressing its calls for dialogue and de-escalation. This framework from the UAE seeks to contribute to regional and global security and stability,” UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation is quoted as saying in an email circulated by foreign agents hired by the embassy.

The email also touted the UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit to Moscow in October last year. The UAE president’s Moscow visit was in the “spirit of mediation and his intent to engage with all sides in the Ukrainian conflict,” according to the email, which emphasized that the Sheikh is one of the only global figures in communication with Russian President Vladmir Putin and could talk him out of a nuclear clash.

The visit came a week after OPEC+, a Saudi-led group of oil producers including the UAE and Russia, agreed to reduce oil production by two million barrels a day on October 5, 2022. Tighter supply decreased production and spiked oil prices, which a Financial Times analysis found could weaken efforts to deprive Russia of oil revenue in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.

The cuts were made despite U.S. opposition, as President Joe Biden’s administration tackled inflating oil prices and cost of living concerns in the lead up to the 2022 midterm election that strained the ties between the U.S. and its allies in Abu Dhabi. The White House declared OPEC had “aligned with Russia” after the cuts.

According to a Financial Times article mentioned in UAE foreign agents’ October FARA records, the Gulf state privately opposed the cut during the OPEC meeting, but were overruled by other members. The UAE Embassy stated in March 2022, seven months prior to the OPEC cuts, that it “supports oil production increases and will encourage OPEC to consider higher production levels,” which was pointed out in a document drafted by lobbying firm American Defense International.

As controversy over the OPEC oil cuts decision dominated headlines in October 2022, foreign agents for the UAE embassy were telling members of Congress and their staff about talks with Putin “calling for de-escalation and peace in Ukraine,” according to a supplemental statement on file with the Department of Justice.

The UAE hasn’t joined Western sanctions against Moscow over its war, and financial institutions in the UAE were cautioned by the Biden administration in June against allowing Russians to evade sanctions imposed over the Ukraine invasion. For years, the allies of Putin have been investing their money in Dubai, and the Gulf state has become a sanctuary for sanctioned oligarch’s yachts since the war.

A top U.S. Treasury official flagged the oil-rich nation as a “country of focus” in March, alleging UAE entities exported over $5 million worth of U.S.-origin, U.S.-export controlled goods to Russia between June and November of last year. These exports included semiconductor devices, which the Treasury statement said could be used on the battleground.

The Biden administration rolled out a new list of sanctions on April 12 to entities across 20 jurisdictions, including firms based in the UAE. The designated entities were accused of bolstering Russia’s invasion efforts by helping it evade sanctions.

UAE Top Recipient of US Weapons Even With Growing Security Concerns

The U.S. cooperates with the UAE on a number of foreign policy decisions, and the Emiratis are a top buyer of U.S. weapons to advance national security priorities in the region. The UAE imported $3.6 billion worth of military weapons and equipment from the U.S. from 2016 through 2022, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s arms transfer database.

But in November 2022, the Washington Post reported that, “U.S. intelligence officials have compiled a classified report detailing extensive efforts to manipulate the American political system by the United Arab Emirates.” The National Intelligence Council report, which is not available to the public but was shared with top lawmakers in Congress, includes allegations of “illegal and legal attempts to steer U.S. foreign policy in ways favorable to the Arab autocracy.”

Even as national security concerns were on the rise, American Defense International reported lobbying members of Congress on pending arms sales on behalf of the UAE’s embassy, according to a supplemental FARA statement filed with the Department of Justice. Lawmakers and civil servants lobbied include then-House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Washington) and Josh Paul, director of the State Department’s Office of Congressional and Public Affairs.

The UAE is a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen — an ongoing war that has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians since the coalition joined the conflict in March 2015. The war triggered what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, the United States fueled the Yemen conflict and crisis through arms sales, a 2022 OpenSecrets report found. The Saudi military and its proxies, including the UAE, were among the largest importers of American arms used on Yemeni grounds. The UAE has significantly reduced its military presence in Yemen since 2019, though its attacks remain.

Some of the UAE government’s efforts in February last year urged the U.S. to re-designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization after the Biden administration removed the Houthis from the U.S. list of officially designated terrorists in 2021. A number of FARA documents filed by UAE foreign agents pointed out Houthi attacks on the UAE.

One document submitted under FARA by Akin Gump, a lobbying firm representing the UAE government, included a letter addressed to Biden by members of Congress, stressing the re-designation. “This is a critical time to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with an important ally while they are under assault, reiterating our commitment to the US-UAE strategic partnership,” the letter read. House Armed Services Committee members Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Florida) led the letter dated February 8, 2022, and it was signed in total by 17 bipartisan lawmakers.

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