Subverting British democracy: The UAE's reach and influence revealed

Subverting British democracy: The UAE's reach and influence revealed
A newly published report presented in Britain's parliament reveals the reach of the UAE lobby and its 'clandestine' tactics.
5 min read
17 July, 2018
Leaked emails revealed 'the aggressive nature of the UAE lobby' in the UK [AFP]
The United Arab Emirates may have pushed the limit on legal lobbying and subverted British democracy, a report released by a public interest monitor claimed on Tuesday.

The 52-page report by Spinwatch unveils the operations of the UAE lobby in the UK, drawing on a number of leaked emails between lobbyists and some of the Britain's top diplomats, describing the "aggressive nature of the UAE lobby and how it's operated in the UK and US in an effort to bend those countries' home and foreign policy to promote its interests and further its agenda".

"Promising billions in return for influence in the US, infiltrating the British media to smear rivals, threatening to interfere in British parliamentary select committee reports, buying politicians' loyalty with lavish trips, donating to think-tanks and trying to influence them and protesting against press freedom - something that the UAE does not itself recognise - some would see as a step too far," concludes the report.

While the UAE may historically have been content with only soft power, Spinwatch highlights Abu Dhabi's change of tack following the Arab Spring, with a number of different avenues explored.

Leaked emails exposed attempts to influence the British press and to court influential MPs. Quiller Consultants, a London-based lobbying company, were reportedly employed by the UAE until 2015, allegedly tasked with compiling "research on Emirati dissidents in the UK that the UAE wanted deported", as well as detailing BBC journalists unsympathetic to the Gulf state.

Quiller, the report states, was also tasked with compiling research on academics at Chatham House who held political stances unfavourable to the UAE. Of the academics monitored, one no longer works there, and another failed to have his associate fellowship renewed.

"Mysterious, bogus organisations" working on discrediting Qatar were also found to have been set up in the UK since Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a blockade on their Gulf neighbour.

"The UAE has found itself increasingly aligned with Israel," finds the report. "Both parties share two common enemies: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran." Similar tactics to those used by the Israel lobby were employed which helped to "cement Islamophobia" in the UK in order to boost the UAE's standing in the west amid Abu Dhabi's campaign against forms of Islamism it deems unpalatable.

The report was presented on Tuesday at the UK Houses of Parliament.

'Commercial incentives'

One form of lobbying pressure applied by the UAE was a plan attributed to Simon Pearce, special adviser to the chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi, which hoped "to offer the UK a series of commercial incentives - arms and oil deals involving BAe Systems and BP".

While UAE authorities led a domestic crackdown against its Muslim Brotherhood-sympathising Islah party - members of which had received favourable coverage in British media, with some even granted asylum in the UK in 2012 as they fled - BP was unexpectedly excluded from bidding in an onshore UAE oil concession in the same month.

No reason was given to BP, despite the British oil giant having a presence in the Emirati oil industry since 1939.

"By the autumn of 2012, UAE fury prompted Cameron to go on a low-key apology tour of Dubai in November, part of a wider visit to the region to mend relations with Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. BP was still hoping to be admitted back into contention and the UK was desperate to push the £3bn Typhoon fighter jet deal. Media coverage of his trip was limited, with only two journalists accompanying him, the plan being to give Cameron breathing space to do some closed-door charm offensive work. It seemed to have worked. Later that month, Abu Dhabi said it would buy a number of BP's assets in the North Sea in a deal worth well over $1 billion - a sign relations between Britain and the Gulf emirate were improving."

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This form of economic lobbying continued. The UAE's message to the UK was reinforced again late in 2013 when  "the UAE pulled out of a £3bn deal to buy 60 Eurofighter Typhoons from BAe Systems, a major setback to British business abroad and personal one to Cameron who had been pushing the deal hard with Abu Dhabi".

Retired British army officers, previously used by the UAE to train its military, did not have their contracts renewed in May 2014.

British media coverage

Emails obtained by Spinwatch, which appear to have been sent by Lana Nusseibeh, an official at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2012 to Gargash and Quiller executives highlight the Gulf state's concerns with negative BBC coverage. The emails detail how the UAE embassy in London complained to the broadcaster about an interview given by rights activist Rori Donaghy.

Abu Dhabi requested that Quiller compile "information on journalists at the BBC deemed too sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood".

The Emirates' aggressive lobbying push was referred to as "UK Public Diplomacy" in an outline emailed by Nusseibeh:

"The UAE's voice has been heard clearly for the first time - thanks to articles in the Guardian and the Times and a noticeable increased engagement by the UAE with opinion formers in the UK as well as very successful high-level visits both ways. Journalists and commentators have been brought on side. We are in better shape than we were 3 months ago. But the effort must continue and be sustained at a consistent level in order to build on these gains and develop a coherent image of the UAE in the UK.

"Quiller has identified the contacts that the programme should target - drawn from politics, media, and the broader political elite in Britain and including both those who are natural allies and others who need to be won over. We have agreed our core script and key messages and these are being used more widely across the board."

The campaign, Nusseibeh continued, had influenced The Financial Times' reporting, "which has now taken into account that the UAE's issues were not only with the UK media but also more broadly with the attitude of the UK government to developments in the region".

Spinwatch's report repeatedly highlights that it does not question the journalistic integrity of any journalists named, nor do they suggest improper conduct on the part of any MPs mentioned, but only hopes to call attention to the "apparent ease at which the UAE was able to garner support for a campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar among large sections of the British press - and how they used this as a weapon to advance its agenda".

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