“They deserve what we paid for them.”
This is a phrase from a cache of recently leaked emails belonging to the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef El Otaiba, referring to a lobbying institution dedicated to drawing heavy research centers into the wings of the UAE lobby.
Over recent years, the UAE ambassador has adopted a young group of researchers and made them work to his own agenda. They became his five executive fingers.
Eric Trager, Mokhtar Awad, Samuel Tadros and Bilal Saab are the most prominent of these experts, and each command their own following.
Otaiba depended on five strategies in his vision for UAE influence. Each one represents the level of the relationship between the institution and the UAE lobby:
- Financial support for US research centres in order to partially influence their orientation.
- Making the UAE the main financial provider for the research centres, to further influence their direction.
- Buying up the research centers completely and controlling their management.
- Founding new research centers to lobby for the UAE.
- Encouraging several universities and research centres to open branches in the UAE.
First strategy: Washington institute, Eric Trager
UAE started to transfer money to the Washington Institute in 2010. Eric Trager attracted Otaiba’s attention after writing some articles attacking the Muslim Brotherhood after the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Trager was a trainee at the time, but he started receiving funding for his trips to Turkey, the UK and Cairo to interview Muslim Brotherhood members as a US journalist, not as a researcher for the Washington Institute.
Eric Trager could later be traced as the source of stories relating to Muslim Brotherhood violence. He had rapidly become a far more senior expert on the matter.
Second strategy: Center for American Progress, Mokhtar Awad
This case exemplifies how UAE financing can change the direction of a research centre.
The Center for American Progress specialised in local US affairs until 2013, but during the time of the ousting of elected Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi, the centre turned unexpectedly to Middle East affairs.
One of the centre’s programmes specialised in studying “the youth of the Islamic movements”, and one of its assistant researcher at the time was Mokhtar Awad.
Awad became one of the most important figures in Otaiba’s attacks on Islamic movements.
His journey passed the same stages as Eric Trager, as he specialised in looking for errors in Muslim Brotherhood media in Turkey and accusing them of inciting terror and violence.
Awad’s prize was his appointment to the counter-extravagancy programme led by Lorenzo Vidino.
Vidino worked for British intelligence before moving to Washington to start working for Otaiba.
By this time, Otaiba’s relationship with the Center for American Progress moved from financing to directing. He gave a lecture after the centre published a report criticising US president Barack Obama’s policies over the Iranian nuclear deal. It is discovered that the report was written after a recommendation from Otaiba himself.
Third strategy: Atlantic Council, Bilal Saab
The Atlantic Council exemplifies the clearest example of a lobbying centre expressing the UAE agenda. Its official website announces that Otaiba’s cheques supported activities worth millions of dollars.
The nature of the relationship between Otaiba and the council gives a clear reason its support for the UAE.
Otaiba controls the council through his relationship with its head, Fredrick Kempe, and other trainee researchers.
Bilal Saab’s name emerges as one of those supporting the UAE foreign agenda, as he often warns of Islamist movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
Otaiba knew Saab through Brookings Institute, and later oriented him towards the Atlantic Council at the same time Otaiba fired the members who did not abide his policies, such as well-known US researcher Michelle Dunn, who now works at the Carnegie Institute.
Otaiba ousted Dunn in a humiliating way after she refused to change priorities after the Egyptian military coup in the programme “Security studies”. Saab played that part instead.
Leaked emails also show that Saab sent an email to Otaiba that suggested producing a documentary movie attacking Qatar and inciting Fifa to withdraw the 2022 World Cup from the country.
Hudson institute, Samuel Tadros
The Hudson Institute mainly represents the Zionist lobby in the UAE. Although the researchers are from Islamic countries, they typically represent the Aipac position.
The former Pakistani ambassador to the US, Hussein Haqqani, was the president of the institute from 2008 until 2011, and moved forward a specific development in the relationship between the institute and the UAE lobby led by Otaiba.
The Hudson Institute started to adopt the same strategy of maintaining a network of junior researchers from Islamic countries, including junior Egyptian researcher, Samuel Tadros.
Tadros’s role was attacking Islamic movements in Egypt and around the world through a clear sectarian discourse. He is known for his close relationship to the Orthodox church in Egypt, the business tycoon Naguib Sawiris and the Zionist lobby as well.
Tadros, Awad and Trager set out the agenda of a conference held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, financed by Otaiba, to attack Qatar prior to the emergence of the Gulf crisis. This was referred to in the leaked emails between Otaiba and a senior councillor of the foundation, John Hanna, as mentioned in a previous report by the Lens.
Fourth Strategy: Gulf Countries Institute
Otaiba founded this organisation himself, aiming at introducing Abu Dhabi figures to US political and research environments through inviting them to his conferences and seminars.
The centre included the Egyptian researcher Abdul Monem Said, who is known for his strong support for the normalisation of relationships with Israel, and his ultimate loyalty to Abu Dhabi ruler, Mohammad Bin Zayed, with whom he worked for two decades.
The centre also recruited the Palestinian researcher Hussein Ebaish, who was adopted by the UAE lobby because of his strong hostility to the Arab Spring and the Islamists.
Ebeish also has strong relationships in Zionist circles and the extremist right wing in the US. None of his articles is free of compliments to Abu Dhabi and criticism of Doha.
Fifth Strategy: the international branches
The strategy can be traced back to 2006, when Abu Dhabi first announced it was inviting Sorbonne University to be the first international university in the UAE.
Sorbonne is considered a milestone in the academic education strategy for Abu Dhabi, although it was not the first international university there. The American University opened in Dubai in 1995.
In October 2007, New York University, the greatest private university in the US, announced it would open a full campus in Abu Dhabi, fully financed by the government of the state.
The university provided several disciplines to young researchers on educational scholarships.
There are two programmes of scholarships at the university. The first is called the “Mohammad Bin Zayed scholars programme” and the other “Mohammad Bin Zayed programme Higher Education Grant”.
In 2012, the university allowed students to choose to study in Abu Dhabi or New York.
Last Month, November 2017, Dubai International Academic City announced that Birmingham University would open an international branch there.
UAE has also announced new visa system facilitates for the admission of talented foreign figures of all disciplines.
That is how most of the US research centres turned into finance receivers and a voice for the cheque-providers.
This is the major difference between Saudi lobbying and UAE lobbying. The Saudis depend only on finance strategies, without any guarantee of future loyalty.