The Saudi and Emirati lobby networks whispering in President Trump's ear

The Saudi and Emirati lobby networks whispering in President Trump's ear
Comment: Both the Saudis and Emiratis have got their man in the White House, and it shows, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
6 min read
22 May, 2019
Saudi lobbying reportedly tripled in the first year of the Trump administration [Getty]
Under Donald Trump, the United States has increasingly echoed Saudi Arabia and the UAE's narratives on the Middle East and supported their actions, revealing the success of their efforts to lobby his administration.

During his campaign, Trump criticised Saudi Arabia and US ties with the Kingdom, but his administration soon succumbed to Saudi and Emirati lobbying networks, along with the influence of their close ally, Egypt, albeit to a lesser extent. 

In fact, Saudi lobbying reportedly tripled in the first year of the Trump administration, compared to Obama's last year as president, which saw somewhat strained relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi after backing the P5+1 deal to lift sanctions on Iran.

Yet President Trump proves an easier target, perhaps thanks to his tolerance for authoritarian 'strongman' leadership, an increasingly neoconservative foreign policy, or his predisposition for fear-mongering around "terrorism". Trump backs, and even mirrors Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's policy on several regional issues.

Both Gulf states have got their man in the White House; someone who they can easily manipulate.

Trump recently appalled defenders of free speech with his call to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organisation. While some may interpret this as an extension of his anti-Muslim policies - including calls to restrict "Muslim migration" to the US - it's also a sign of an increasing alignment with Saudi and Emirati regional policies, which oppose the Brotherhood both domestically and abroad.

Both Saudi Arabia and UAE are trying to transform America's foreign policy towards the Middle East

"The President has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern, and this designation is working its way through the internal process," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said of the decision.

Though Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is said to have influenced Trump's decision, aggressive Saudi and Emirati lobbying was likely more of a factor. The UAE has previously pushed western governments to crack down on political Islam, particularly the Brotherhood, which sees as a threat to its own rule.

The UAE, which presents political Islam as a dangerous threat, while promoting itself as a 'liberal' and stable entity, is well positioned to win over Trump and America's conservatives, building on their pre-existing prejudices and fears.

Such narratives also helped win Trump's support for Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, who, like Egypt's Sisi, uses anti-terrorist rhetoric as justification to violently pursue authoritarian, undemocratic rule over the country.

Saudi lobbyists reportedly persuaded Trump to support Libya's warlord Khalifa Haftar, and Egypt - which also supports the rogue Libyan general - managed to push the line that Haftar is fighting Al-Qaeda and Islamic State group.

Trump and his administration, with an arguably limited understanding of Libya, easily bought this line, as shown in a White House statement in support of the leader, claiming that Haftar's campaign to capture Libya plays a "significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources".

Elsewhere, the UAE has also adopted this "counter-terrorism" rhetoric in its attempts to occupy south Yemen, claiming that it is solely combating Al-Qaeda and Iranian influence. The narrative has helped it gain complete American support, as Washington is facilitating Abu Dhabi's geopolitical ambitions in Yemen.

Such policy decisions are facilitated by Emirati and Saudi lobbying machines, the backbone of which is their abundant financial wealth. US federal records reveal that US lobbyists on Riyadh's payroll have spent millions of dollars lobbying US members of Congress to block anti-Saudi sentiment, and to support their war in Yemen.

US federal records reveal that US lobbyists on Riyadh's payroll have spent millions of dollars lobbying US members of Congress

On the House floor, senior Republicans have read out Saudi talking points on the Yemen war, at the behest of Saudi lobbyists. This includes Ed Royce, whose talking points dismiss accusations that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ties to Al Qaeda in Yemen, while justifying a war with Iran on the grounds they are forcibly establishing a foothold in Yemen via the Houthi rebels. While Iran plays a limited role in Yemen, officials such as Royce are helping push Riyadh's justification for its war on Yemen on the United States' government.

Saudi lobbyists arranged meetings with US senators prior to the Senate's latest vote on ending American military support to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Emirati lobbyists organised a meeting between Senator Tom Cotton and the UAE's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Cotton, along with the senators who met with Saudi lobbyists, all voted to maintain US support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Read more: The UAE's crusade against regional democracy

Trump himself also seems unwilling to be swayed against strong ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, brashly claiming he prioritises jobs from arms sales and increased trade with Saudi Arabia, signing the biggest military deal ever with Riyadh in 2017, worth around $110 billion.

Tom Cotton, the pro-Emirati senator, has recently delivered hawkish narratives on Iran, which helps the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of whom support Trump's harsher stance and sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

One of Trump's closest aides, his son-in-law Jared Kushner uses UAE ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba as a key advisor on Middle Eastern issues. Kushner admitted that Otaiba regularly gives him an overview on regional issues, which likely pushes a biased narrative on Washington.

Lobbying and close ties with the US have allowed Saudi Arabia and the UAE more impunity for their blockade

The UAE has also tried to influence Washington to take a harder stance against Qatar. George Nader, a shady Lebanese American businessman and former advisor to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, reportedly took millions of dollars from the UAE and used his own money to support lobbying US congressmen to push harder legislation against Qatar.

UAE-linked businessman and lobbyist Elliott Broidy reportedly urged Trump to sack former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who ultimately lost his job, according to emails obtained by the BBC. Tillerson in summer 2017 is reported to have intervened to prevent Saudi Arabia and the UAE from carrying out a military attack on Qatar, by pressuring Mohammad bin Salman to back down.

Trump eventually sacked Tillerson over Twitter, without giving a solid explanation. Yet UAE lobbying via Broidy - Trump's major fundraiser - arguably played a key role in instigating Tillerson's firing.

While the US would not take action against Qatar; it's an important US ally and hosts a vital American military base, lobbying and close ties with the US have allowed Saudi Arabia and the UAE more impunity for their blockade, as they seek to silence the region's democratic reformers.

Both Saudi Arabia and UAE are trying to transform America's foreign policy towards the Middle East, which is resulting in countless lives lost in Yemen, increased regional authoritarianism, and greater regional divisions.  

As long as US senators and Washington influencers remain vulnerable to lobbying, only those more sensible figures who reject the sway of Emirati and Saudi influence can help redirect American foreign policy in the region. 

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.