The Gulf monarchies and the corruption of US foreign policy

Considering the money involved, we probably shouldn’t expect any further investigations to shine a light on the corrupting influence of these decadent absolute monarchies on American democracy.

Image Credit: Foreign Policy

Following up on an earlier story by Axios, The New York Times on March 3rd reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators have questioned one George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman and seeming freelance diplomat, who has worked with representatives of numerous U.S. administrations in a variety of countries in the Middle East for 30 years.

According to the story, Nader was questioned regarding the influence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on some in the Trump Administration, with many stories after the initial one pointing out that Jared Kushner, whose family’s real estate empire was teetering on the brink of collapse before he found himself elevated by his father in law to a kind of alternate Secretary of State, along with other insiders like Steve Bannon, had had meetings with the enigmatic businessman.

Another person the Times story reported had a connection to Nader is Elliott Broidy, who worked as a fundraiser for the president, “Mr. Broidy owns a private security company with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the United Arab Emirates, and he extolled to Mr. Trump a paramilitary force that his company was developing for the country,” the paper explained.

It’s also been revealed that Nader, believed to have been representing the defacto leader of the UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan (usually referred to as MBZ), was present at a now infamous meeting in the Seychelles with Trump supporter and corporate mercenary Erik Prince, the Russian oligarch Kirill Dmitriev and Mike Flynn, the short-lived head of the National Security Council (NSC). For obvious reasons, much of the reporting until now has focused on Dmitriev, but the involvement of the Crown Prince should be raising new questions about other issues that may have been discussed, such as the then future Administration’s position on the war in Yemen.

Earlier in the week, in a less widely covered development, Senator Bernie Sanders, along with two other Senators, one from each major party, introduced a resolution in the Senate to demand Congressional authorization for American involvement in the war and siege on the most impoverished country in the Middle East.

According to a press release on Sander’s official web-site, the joint resolution is designed to, “remove U.S. armed forces from hostilities between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis in Yemen pursuant to the War Powers Resolution.”

As the Junior Senator from Vermont told The Nation magazine, “This is not a partisan issue. If the administration believes we should be involved let them come before Congress, let them make their case and let Congress vote.”

This new resolution follows an attempt to do pretty much the same thing in the U.S. Congress last year that ultimately produced a kind of non-resolution absolving lawmakers of any responsibility for their country’s participation in the conflict, stating: “Congress has not enacted specific legislation authorizing the use of military force against parties participating in the Yemeni civil war that are not otherwise subject to the Authorization of Use of Military Force or the Authorization of Use of Military Force in Iraq”.

Although Saudi Arabia is the largest foreign aggressor in Yemen, with the UAE not far behind, its allies also include two other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies: Kuwait and Bahrain.

The group these countries have been intervening against since 2015, the Houthis, are followers of an austere version of Shia Islam very different from that practiced in Iran, who have somehow managed to weather the bloody onslaught. In the process they’ve proven themselves adept at fighting but have shown much less aptitude for governing, a situation that’s probably worsened the plight of those in areas under their control.

Ignoring the intense cruelty being visited upon ordinary Yemenis by all sides, the United States, the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, France and other NATO countries, have provided services, including in-flight refueling and targeting for the campaign, code-named “Operation Decisive Storm”. Despite the intelligence sharing, the belligerents have managed to bomb schools, hospitals, water treatment plants and markets with startling regularity.

It should be obvious that amidst the widespread coverage of alleged attempts by some in Russia to influence U.S. politics, whether they’re connected to the government of that country or not, their efforts are laughable in comparison to the influence of these Middle Eastern potentates on American and other western policy makers.

Less violently, there’s also a rivalry playing out between the Saudis and their allies on one side, and the tiny, but immensely wealthy and often independent minded Kingdom of Qatar on the other, which has resulted in a flurry of spending to influence policymakers from the president on down in Washington, DC.

The think tank militarist lobbyist complex

The traditional route to influence over the United States government for other countries has been the use of lobbying firms  It’s an expensive road, as these firms have an incentive to keep clients on retainer in order to milk them for cash. While lobbyists are required to register under the (until recently rarely enforced) Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), we’ve seen evidence that they don’t always do so during the ongoing legal troubles of high-powered Republican aligned lobbyist and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy, Robert Gates.

Even when they’re in full compliance with the law, well-funded lobbying groups, filled with former political operatives and insiders, can give a foreign country an inside track to gaining influence over those currently serving in government. This is by definition a form of corruption, though it’s never called this, and it’s been an invaluable tool for deep pocketed Gulf states.

Although the current president railed against Saudi Arabia in particular during the campaign, once in office, he quickly changed his tune. Still, it’s important to note that the country’s spending on lobbyists isn’t new, it was already increasing before a Trump presidency even seemed possible.

As Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Rhys Dubin explained on the web-site of Foreign Policy magazine, “Between 2015 and 2017, Saudi Arabia expanded the number of foreign agents it hired from 25 to 145, spending more than $18 million on lobbying.”

In a rare report focusing on these kinds of political insiders by CNN last summer, just before President Trump left on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Saudis went on another lobbying spending spree, hiring three new firms to promote their interests in the American capital.

One firm in particular, Sonoran Policy Group of Arizona received $5.4 million from the Kingdom, despite having never before represented a foreign government. As the CNN piece makes clear, many of those associated with the firm previously worked for the Trump campaign.

While the current focus appears to be on influencing the Trump Administration, the nominally liberal Podesta Group has long received Saudi money to spread their influence among Democrats on Capital Hill, who have in turn consistently given muted approval to Saudi actions in the region and helped approve arms sales to the Kingdom and its allies.

An even cheaper route to influence in American politics and, perhaps more importantly, its civic life, is by funding ‘Think Tanks’, whose fellows, besides producing work for their own institutions, populate the opinion pages of the United States’ most important newspapers and are regularly featured as commentators on cable news networks.

To take just two relevant examples: starting from the now widely believed premise that the Houthis, long known for their fierce independence, are merely proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, many of these Think Tanks have used their various platforms to support the war in Yemen. Many have also white-washed various militant groups funded by the Gulf monarchies, including current outlier Qatar, in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts.

The split between Qatar, itself a Wahhabist despotism unworthy of much sympathy, and the other GCC members stems from the country’s willingness to have formal relations with Iran and its support of political Islam in the form of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates throughout the Middle East. There is little that the other monarchs of the Gulf, whether ‘conservative’ like the Saudis or ‘liberal’ like those of the UAE, fear more than populist political Islam, a reactionary ideology to be sure, but just about the only one that hasn’t been stamped out in the region besides autocracy or dictatorship.

While it may be easy to dismiss the influence of Think Tanks (and, to a lesser extent, registered lobbyists) as neutral or even benign, we don’t have to travel too far back in time to see that they can play an out-sized role in helping to first inform elite and then public opinion, working seamlessly with the mainstream media in pushing disastrous foreign policy positions.

At a Center for American Progress (CAP) conference, attended by The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani, in October of 2016 that included the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, and former acting CIA Director Mike Morell on its panel, participants called on the United States to interdict Iranian ships on the high seas under the assumption that they were somehow getting through the blockade to deliver weapons to Yemen’s Houthis. That this would be in violation of international law barely factored into the conversation.

These Think Tanks, even nominally liberal ones like the Brookings Institute and the aforementioned CAP (started by the ever present John Podesta), portray themselves as unbiased intellectuals advocating for various foreign policy positions that just happen to align with the interests of some of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

In the least cynical view, there is obvious overlap between the often militarist thinking of the laptop generals at these think tanks, whether they call themselves conservative or liberal, and the Gulf monarchies, at least in terms of Iran. In this case, the funding could be seen less as a compromise on the part of these institutions than as a bonus for continuing the hostile posture they’ve been taking towards the Islamic Republic for many years.

However, as Joseph Sandler, a lawyer and expert on the laws that apply to citizens working on behalf of foreign governments told the New York Times in a 2014 piece, the funding provided by these actors to these institutions, “…is particularly egregious because with a law firm or lobbying firm, you expect them to be an advocate. Think Tanks have this patina of academic neutrality and objectivity, and that is being compromised.”

The split between the GCC allies and Qatar shows that the influence of any of these countries individually isn’t monolithic, especially when they’re fighting among themselves. Nonetheless, they are hugely influential, and it only took the seemingly endless Mueller investigations to make this of temporary interest to the mainstream press.

Considering the money involved, we probably shouldn’t expect any further investigations to shine a light on the corrupting influence of these decadent absolute monarchies on American democracy, itself an all too slowly widening experiment in enfranchisement, born out of a refusal to bow to the whims of a foreign king.


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