Tom Barrack, the billionaire head of Donald Trump’s inaugural committee and a top Trump campaign fundraiser, was indicted on Tuesday for “unlawful efforts to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates within the us at the direction of senior UAE officials.”
While Barrack and his co-defendants are going to be forced to account their alleged transgressions, the UAE officials who orchestrated this covert influence operation that targeted the very highest levels of the U.S. government will likely face no consequences for his or her actions. Had this plot been conducted by the Chinese, Russian or Iranian governments there would be outcries for severe and swift retaliation. For the UAE, however, it’s become business as was common to meddle within the U.S. political process with near impunity.
The indictment of Barrack is way from the primary time the UAE has covertly influenced U.S. politics. From 2016 to 2018, for instance , the UAE government conspired, with George Nader et al. , to form quite $3.5 million in illegal campaign donations to garner influence in Washington. The campaign, ultimately overseen by UAE prince Mohammed bin Zayed, initially focused on providing contributions and gaining access to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. But, after Trump’s victory within the 2016 election, the UAE’s focus quickly shifted to Trump, beginning with a $1 million illegal donation to his inauguration.
During the Trump administration, the UAE’s covert influence operations continued as both the UAE and Saudi Arabia sought to show the U.S. against their blockaded rival Qatar. The UAE sought to smear Doha’s reputation through it’s extraordinary legal influence operation, also as several secret campaigns that included paying for think factory events critical of the Qataris and funding a $2.5 million covert campaign travel by George Nader and Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy to convince members of Congress to require a troublesome stance on Qatar. during this Qatar smear campaign Broidy worked closely with Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), who became a registered spy after leaving Congress in 2019.
Beyond Congress and therefore the White House, the UAE has also been garnering influence in D.C. by furtively funding think tanks. The UAE “secretly” donated $20 million to a D.C. think factory that has been decidedly uncritical of the Emiratis, and went on to rent a scholar with close ties to the UAE Ambassador, Yousef Otaiba, who facilitated the donation.
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Leaked e-mails from Otaiba, who was also one among the key officials guiding Barrack’s efforts to influence the Trump administration on the UAE’s behalf, also revealed a $250,000 payment to a different think factory for a report on exporting U.S. military drones to countries just like the UAE. The think factory provided Otaiba with an advance copy of the report, which he praised saying, “it will help push the talk within the right direction.” The exact same drones the think factory recommended exporting are now a part of a $23 billion arms sale to the UAE.
What has the U.S. government done to punish the Emirati government for repeatedly engaging in these illicit influence campaigns? briefly , nothing. The individuals directly involved—like Tom Barrack and George Nader—have been indicted, but no U.S. official has even publicly chastised the UAE Ambassador Yousef Otaiba or prince Mohammed bin Zayed for his or her role in engineering these covert foreign influence operations.
By not holding the UAE in charge of illegally meddling in American politics, the U.S. is sending a transparent message to other would-be malign foreign actors: you’ll secretly undermine the U.S. form of government without worrying of reprisal.
To disrupt this toxic environment that only emboldens foreign interference in American democracy, the UAE must be held to account for these myriad transgressions. For starters, the Biden administration should issue a press release decrying the UAE’s actions and, at the very least, let the Emirati government know that they will not still undermine U.S. politics without consequences. Second, and far more likely to urge the Emiratis’ attention, the U.S. government should cancel the proposed $23 billion sale of combat aircraft, armed drones, bombs, and missiles to the UAE. Arms sales experts and Members of Congress have repeatedly raised concerns about the deal, not the smallest amount of which is that the UAE’s role within the disastrous war in Yemen that has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians there and let U.S. weapons fall under the hands of al Qaeda and Iranian linked militants.
These are just two of a number of possible options the U.S. can use to carry the UAE in charge of illegally meddling in U.S. politics. While the precise solution could also be uncertain, it’s perfectly clear that the status quo—where foreign interference in American democracy goes unpunished—is unsustainable and dangerous. If U.S. officials still not hold the UAE to task for repeatedly interfering in U.S. elections and policymaking, America will still be a ripe target for malign foreign influence operations.