WASHINGTON ― Official Washington, from the president on down, is working on damage control for a Mideast crisis inextricably linked to its favorite ambassador.
President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and scores of other officials are trying to convince a group of U.S. partner countries ― among them the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt ― to restore ties with a separate U.S.-aligned nation, Qatar, their neighbor and the home of the region’s largest American military base.
The Mideast countries shocked Washington on Sunday night when, one by one, they announced that they were severing all ties with Qatar ― even effectively blockading the nation, which occupies a small piece of land jutting off the main Arabian Peninsula. The UAE gave the U.S. government a heads up about the move only just before the public announcements began, a State Department spokeswoman told reporters Tuesday.
All the while, UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, arguably Washington’s most powerful and, some would say, charming diplomat and the chief driver of the anti-Qatar campaign in the U.S., has laid low.
Despite President Trump’s initial apparent endorsement of the UAE-Saudi position Tuesday, he called regional leaders Wednesday telling them he wants to be a mediator. On Thursday, MSNBC revealed why Trump may have been hasty before settling on that view. The president might not have known Qatar hosted U.S. troops, a source close to Trump told anchor Brian Williams.
Now the administration seems to have reached a consensus: Qatar has work to do on cracking down on terrorist financiers and the ties of citizens to militant groups, but it remains firmly in the U.S. orbit, essential to the American strategy against the Islamic State terrorist group, Iran and other foes.
And the UAE, Saudi Arabia and company seem to have taken a major gamble based on the assumption that Trump would be on board and mostly lost ― even if they are able to secure concessions from Qatar on its relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Iran, civil society activists and other forces around the Middle East.
What made the UAE, a government that rarely receives stateside criticism and has been lauded as “Little Sparta” for its cooperation with the U.S. military, stumble?
A clue lies in recently leaked private messages from Otaiba.
A mysterious source provided messages from Otaiba’s personal email account to HuffPost and other outlets last week. HuffPost has since authenticated exchanges with 14 people involved. Analysts say the leak was a major development in the build-up to the public break with Qatar.
“The email leaks further fanned the flames, and the leaker likely knew that and appeared to take advantage of that timing. They brought to light in a very public way the deep tensions and differences mainly between the UAE and Qatar,” said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, in an email.
The UAE viewed the leak as “a provocative move by Qatar,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a researcher at Rice University in Houston, wrote Monday. (The source denied any connection to Qatar in messages to HuffPost. Otaiba has not responded to HuffPost requests for comment.)
Previous HuffPost articles disclosed that Otaiba had privately talked about moving the U.S. base out of Qatar, had cheered on Qatar criticism from top former officials, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, had disparaged then-candidate Trump in emails with an adviser to President Barack Obama and had discussed punishing companies in U.S.-friendly countries if they do business with Iran.
One dominant theme ties the published correspondence to the remaining unpublished messages HuffPost has verified: a level of access, self-assurance and arguably hubris that matches the overconfidence of the UAE’s public move against Qatar. The emails with other top figures in the U.S. show the way Otaiba cultivated Washington ― and perhaps came to believe he and his government could rely on its backing almost unconditionally.
Schmoozing To Reshape The Middle East
Chummy emails show how Otaiba earned a reputation as Washington’s most popular diplomat.
On April 21, influential Washington Post columnist David Ignatius sent Otaiba a piece he had written on Muhammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia and an ally of the UAE. (His rival for the throne is Qatar-friendly Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef.)
The ambassador was barely able to contain himself.
“As someone who knows the region, it looks from how you wrote this piece, that you are beginning to see what we’ve been seeing for the last two years. Change!” Otaiba wrote. “I think we would all agree these changes in saudi are much needed. So I’m relieved to find that you saw what we’ve been seeing and frequently trying to convey. Your voice and your credibility will be a huge factor in getting reasonable folks to understand and believe in whats happening.
Our job now [is to do] everything possible to ensure MBS [Muhammed bin Salman] succeeds.”
In an email to HuffPost, Ignatius said he emailed the article on the prince to multiple people who he thought would be interested and had written on the prince, including critically, for years. “I reached a journalistic judgement that MBS offers a chance for positive change, but I have no ‘shared interest’ with Otaiba,” he wrote.
Otaiba adopted a similarly effusive tone when writing to former national security adviser Susan Rice in 2016, despite his public complaints about her administration’s Middle East policy. “Your boss just gave an incredibly impressive speech in a baltimore mosque,” the ambassador wrote on Feb. 3, 2016. “Amazing.”
And he appears to have developed an especially close relationship with Gates ― one in which the affection was mutual. On April 4, 2016, Gates wrote to Otaiba to praise a piece the ambassador had published in The Wall Street Journal. “Superb,” he emailed. “Accurate, insightful and a timely reminder to too many in Washington who would rather not face the reality you describe.”
In an Oct. 26, 2015, exchange, the UAE official joked with the former Pentagon chief about a meeting Otaiba helped him secure with his country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed. “I pictured much shared frustration,” the ambassador wrote. “And I’m sorry I wasn’t there to maintain the tradition of vodka being brought to the meeting room.”
But there Gates drew the line. “At midday, the tea was just fine!” he wrote back.
Representatives of Rice and Gates declined to comment.
Where Business Meets Foreign Policy
Otaiba has a powerful advantage in his effort to win hearts and minds: an oil-rich government Americans are keen to do business with.
Some of the emails show how the ambassador grew close to RiceHadleyGates, a consulting firm run by Gates, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
Hadley, a Washington power player and the chair of the government-backed U.S. Institute for Peace, is shown seeking business help from the diplomat in two exchanges from last year. On March 16, 2016, he wrote to help his client Motorola secure government contracts to provide radio products for the UAE’s government security forces and military. Both entities have controversial track records, including ties to human rights abuses against Americans and the bloody ongoing war in Yemen.
A more recent message, dated Sept. 28, 2016, shows Hadley asking for help for PepsiCo ― and mentioning how he and the ambassador had seen each other at a meeting for a major research project called the Middle East Strategy Task Force. The exchange neatly shows how global affairs analysis frequently becomes tied up with Americans’ efforts to make deals with foreign governments.
A spokesperson for Hadley declined to comment.
Adapting To Failure
The apparent backfiring of the latest UAE gambit may slow down the ambitious young nation and its diplomats for a while ― particularly when they consider dramatic steps that endanger the U.S. vision for the region. “Losing a strong relationship with Qatar is not in the U.S. interest,” Gerald Feierstein, a top State Department official until 2016 and current Middle East Institute expert, told HuffPost.
But it’s unclear how long any newfound patience will last.
Because of Otaiba’s skill at cultivating Washington, he has frequently repackaged even unpopular actions and views to win fresh stateside applause, shape-shifting to regain his influence over the direction of U.S. policy.
The ambassador frequently pushed an aggressive stance on Iran even as Obama aides sought a nuclear agreement with the nation and later developed a tacit cooperation with it against ISIS. In a strategy meeting at the Pentagon in 2014, as the ISIS campaign began, he advocated wiping out the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Iran. Obama aides quickly made it clear that that was not their goal.
For Otaiba, it wasn’t a problem. At a meeting soon after, he volunteered the UAE’s F-16 fighter jets to aid the Americans. And days later, a story about a female UAE fighter jet pilot got him and his government applause on official Washington’s favorite breakfast treat: MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I love it,” former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough told a beaming Otaiba after the ambassador described decades of U.S.-UAE cooperation. “I absolutely love it.”