WASHINGTON ? A mysterious source contacted multiple news outlets this week to share emails between the influential ambassador of the United Arab Emirates, Yousef Al Otaiba, and top figures in the American foreign policy community, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Behind the scenes, Otaiba ? an extremely powerful figure in Washington, D.C., who is reportedly in ?in almost constant phone and email contact,? with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump?s adviser and son-in-law ? is seen pushing for the U.S. to close down its military base in Qatar and otherwise poking at issues that could drive a wedge between the U.S. and that Arab nation. He also says that his country?s de facto ruler is supportive of a wave of anti-Qatar criticism in the U.S. that the Gulf state last month called a smear campaign.
The anonymous leakers told HuffPost they sought to expose the UAE?s efforts to manipulate the U.S. government, and denied any allegiance to Qatar or any other government.
Regardless of the leakers? intent, the revelations promise to heighten tensions between the two U.S. allies. If the UAE succeeds in damaging America?s decades-old partnership with Qatar, the result could dramatically undermine U.S. goals in the Middle East. The two American allies? escalating rivalry could worsen conflict in war zones where they support different proxy forces ? notably in Libya, which has become a haven for smugglers, warlords, and terrorists ? while distracting attention from bigger international priorities, like restoring stability in Syria and Iraq after the expected battlefield defeat of the Islamic State.
The UAE and Qatar have taken their rivalry public in recent days following a controversial report in Qatari media. Qatari authorities soon claimed that the May 23 story ? which suggested that the country?s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, gave a speech describing his respect for Iran, his support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas and his ties with Israel ? was a fake product of a hack. But news sources based in the UAE and Saudi Arabia still suggest that it exposed his true feelings.
Though Qatar and the Emirates are putative allies, they have drifted apart since 2011 because of their differing reactions to the Arab Spring protests that year. As the largely non-violent Muslim Brotherhood movement gained power across the region, Qatar supported it, seeing it as a vehicle for the Middle East?s democratic aspirations. The UAE calls the group a terror front. With a new U.S. administration in power, the time is ripe for one or the other to push for American action in its own interests.
Otaiba, who has been the UAE?s ambassador to the United States since 2008, is known as one of the best-connected diplomats in Washington, D.C. He makes frequent high-profile appearances around the city and the U.S. speaking circuit, and he?s ensured that the Trump administration has already cozied up to the Emirates, which hosts a recently opened Trump golf course.
The leakers provided HuffPost with three batches of emails from Otaiba, some as recent as May and others from as far back as 2014, the last time the UAE supported a major effort to spread skepticism about Qatar in the United States. HuffPost contacted eight of the individuals who?d exchanged messages with the ambassador and shared the contents of those emails; none denied that the exchanges took place. Though Otaiba did not respond to repeated HuffPost requests for comment, a UAE Embassy spokeswoman confirmed to the Daily Beast that the Hotmail address used for the messages belongs to him.
Otaiba?s emails show an effort to build alliances and a focus on Qatar.
The night before former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was scheduled to speak at a high-profile Washington conference on Qatar, for instance, Otaiba wrote him an artfully worded note. ?The subject of the conference has been a neglected issue in U.S. foreign policy despite all the trouble it?s causing,? the diplomat wrote. ?Coming from you, folks will listen carefully.?
Gates emailed back that he thought he had ?the chance to put some folks on notice.?
Otaiba offered to buy the former Cabinet official lunch and passed along a message from his boss back home. ?MBZ sends his best from Abu Dhabi,? the ambassador wrote, using a nickname for UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed. ?He says ?give them hell tomorrow.??
The next day, Gates offered a scathing assault on Qatar, excoriating its support for Islamists, at an event hosted by the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. ?The United States military doesn?t have any irreplaceable facility,? he said. ?Tell Qatar to choose sides or we will change the nature of the relationship, to include downscaling the base.?
The powerful Washington-based foundation features heavily in the Otaiba emails. While many of those messages show the ambassador helping its analysts plan trips to the UAE, they also contain two of the most striking revelations about Otaiba: He explicitly advocated for moving the U.S. base out of Qatar ? something he hasn?t done publicly ? and he discussed the idea of pressuring companies in U.S.-friendly countries to avoid business opportunities in Iran.
An Arab?s Favorite Pro-Israel Group
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies spends much of its time trying to strengthen ties between Washington and conservative political forces in Israel. But despite the UAE?s refusal to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, the think tank and others in the pro-Israel lobby have found common ground with the Emirates on two major issues: Both want to contain Iran and political Islam. Both suffered a high-profile defeat when the U.S. and other nations reached a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. And for the past year or so, both have been pushing to make the future of U.S. relations with Qatar a debate in D.C.
Emirati critiques of Qatar often raise the same points the foundation?s scholars bring up in their frequent appearances before Congress and in the media: The Qatari government provides, in the words of the U.S. Treasury Department, a ?permissive jurisdiction? for fundraisers and donors hoping to aid violent Muslim extremists. In supporting the rights of protesters and democracy activists (at least compared to its neighbors), Qatar is accused of promoting Islamists who claim to be peaceful but really seek to impose brutal Shariah law. And it frequently offers a platform to hatemongers targeting Israel, Jews, the minority Shiite community within Islam, LGBTQ individuals and others ? generally on its marquee media property, the Arabic edition of Al Jazeera.
But experts on the region note that Qatar?s flaws as an American partner are not unique: Kuwait has also been called a ?permissive jurisdiction,? and Saudi Arabia and the UAE also host terror financiers and clerics who spread hate speech. The vendetta against Qatar, then, appears to be driven by more defensive concerns, namely the pro-Israel side?s focus on Hamas and anyone who supports that group, and the UAE?s worry that the Muslim Brotherhood could threaten its own ruling regime.
Otaiba made his views about the U.S. base in Qatar clear in an April 28 message this year to John Hannah, a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Hannah had emailed the ambassador a Forbes article noting that an Emirati-owned hotel would actually be hosting a Hamas conference in ?Muslim Brotherhood-loving? Qatar. Otaiba appeared taken aback by the jab; the UAE is rarely criticized in Washington?s policy community.
?Shouldn?t we be trying to move the base?? he wrote. ?I don?t think it?s fair to point the finger at an Emirati company on this one.?
Hannah responded by saying he agreed about the military base. But he said criticism of the decision to host Hamas was fair no matter who owned the hotel. Otaiba snapped back that the UAE would move its hotel when the U.S. moved its base.
?Hah. Bu don?t move the hotel,? Hannah answered. (?Bu? or ?Bu Omar,? which translates in Arabic to ?father of Omar,? appears to be a nickname for Otaiba, who has a young son called Omar.) ?Just force Hamas to reschedule at a different venue not owned by Emiratis.?
On Friday, Hannah told HuffPost that the communications were business as usual.
?As a leading Washington think tank, [the foundation] is engaged in policy discussions with a range of actors across the Middle East and elsewhere. My own relationship with Ambassador Otaiba goes back years, including both my time in government and out,? he wrote in an email.
Mark Dubowitz, the foundation?s CEO, lobbied Otaiba on a different issue in a March 10, 2017, email. Dubowitz provided Otaiba with a list of mainly Western companies that operate in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and are looking to do business in Iran, following the lifting of some sanctions as a result of the nuclear deal.
?This is a target list for putting these companies to a choice, as we have discussed,? Dubowitz wrote the ambassador. The group includes businesses based in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, South Korea and the U.K.
In response to HuffPost?s inquiries, Dubowitz noted that he has openly called for U.S. Gulf partners to target such companies.
?I have discussed this policy idea many times in public including in published pieces and reports,? Dubowitz wrote in a Friday email. ?I sent these public pieces, reports and the list of companies as an example to a number of people in Washington and abroad to get feedback on the idea.?
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