WASHINGTON -- Two news stories from the past few days are threatening the normally pristine reputation here of the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. partner in the Middle East trusted with housing an American air force wing and one of the few facilities where foreigners can complete U.S. immigration checks prior to landing in the country.
On Friday, The Washington Post reported that a federal court in the District of Columbia had sentenced attorney Byron Fogan to 21 months in jail for misspending UAE cash earmarked for charity.
Fogan -- an old friend of Yousef Al Otaiba, an influential ambassador to the U.S. from the Emirates -- availed himself of over $1 million given to the UAE-linked Oasis Foundation, and spent it on casinos and adult entertainment while he was the Foundation's executive director between 2011 and 2013. He told the district judge he accepted responsibility for what he'd done, and that he was addicted to gambling and alcohol during his time at the helm of the foundation.
Al Otaiba, whom The Huffington Post profiled last year, has used philanthropy to boost his country's standing in Washington. (This is a favorite tactic for wealthy foreign governments keen to curry U.S. favor, including the UAE's rival Qatar.) One of the ambassador's marquee accomplishments, the 2014 Children's Ball at the local Ritz-Carlton, was described as the “most over-the-top, insane event I've ever been to" by a D.C. society veteran.
Hamilton Loeb, the founder of the Oasis Foundation, issued a statement on the heels of Fogan's sentencing saying that Oasis' programs, including several for children, had not been affected by Fogan's behavior. Fogan's attorney told the court that his client remains in touch with Al Otaiba, whom Fogan met when they were both undergraduates at Georgetown University.
Two days after that story broke, The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Jackson Diehl, an editor at the paper, about "Americans tortured by an American ally." It described the experience of two Libyan-Americans, a father and son, who have been detained in the UAE since August 2014. In that time, Kamal and Momed Eldarat have been subject to torture, including shocks, beatings and possibly waterboarding. According to an Eldarat family member whom the Post spoke with, as well as an Amnesty International alert, Kamal and Momed were only told on Jan. 18 of this year that they faced terror charges over allegedly supporting fighters in Libya.
Arguing that the Eldarats were "tortured into false confessions of supporting terrorism," Diehl blasted the UAE as an example of an Arab autocracy that has quashed human rights advocates and unjustly targeted ordinary citizens by lumping them in with radical Islamists.
Amal Eldarat, Kamal's daughter and Momed's sister, told the Post she saw "torture marks" on her father's neck. “My father, my brother -- they weren’t the same people that I knew," she said.
It's no secret that the Emiratis are wary of apparent reformers in the Muslim world, arguing that most activists who claim to be looking for a democracy are actually seeking a caliphate. The UAE views the largely nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood as an enabler of armed militancy, and it treats that organization and mainstream groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations as terrorist groups.
This perception has driven the Emirates' involvement in Libya. The UAE has provided essential support to an internationally recognized parliament in the east of the country, as well as to a staunchly anti-Islamist militia that calls itself Operation Dignity.
That aggressiveness has already led to headaches for Washington. The UAE has launched air raids on Libya without notice, and prolonged a civil war that's allowed the self-described Islamic State militant group to gain ground. (Qatar and Turkey support a rival Islamist-dominated parliament and a militia called Libya Dawn. HuffPost reported last summer that President Barack Obama, wary of a proxy war between U.S. partners, privately secured commitments from the UAE and Qatar to reach a deal. Though the two Libyan sides are closer to a deal than ever, the UAE-backed parliament has yet to agree to a unity government with the Islamists, and UAE-backed forces made gains on Tuesday.)
Now the UAE's Libya policy has been clearly linked to poor treatment of Americans, increasing the strain it puts on U.S.-UAE relations.
The detained Eldarats have denied that they aided "terrorists" within Libya. Human Rights Watch said in October that it could not find any ties between the Eldarats and Libya's branch of the Brotherhood. Amal Eldarat told The Washington Post that she believes the UAE's treatment of her father and brother is due to the family's support for their ancestral hometown of Misrata, where the chief militias are aligned with the Libyan Islamists whom the UAE dislikes. She noted that her father secured American political asylum during the rule of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, which ended in 2011 following a popular uprising. Many of the UAE's proxies in Libya, notably the controversial General Khalifa Haftar, are known to have ties to the old Qaddafi regime.
The U.S. is monitoring the trial, per Amnesty, and has raised the Americans' case with the UAE, the Post reports. And while the Obama administration would probably just as soon this case not gain widespread public attention, Amal Eldarat's determination to highlight the plight of her father and brother could lead to more headlines -- she is doing media appearances prior to the resumption of their trial on Feb. 29.
Right now, the UAE's strategy appears to be simply to avoid drawing more attention to either the Fogan story or the Eldarats' situation. Al Otaiba, often quite happy to appear in the media, did not respond to a HuffPost request for comment on the two controversies.
The bad press comes at an inauspicious moment for the Emirates. Sources in the diplomatic and think-tank communities say the precipitous drop in oil prices since 2014 has led Al Otaiba and other envoys from wealthy Arab countries to cut back on the funding they can normally lavish on D.C.'s foreign policy and lobbying elite. And the U.S.-backed war in Yemen, fought mostly by the UAE and its close partner Saudi Arabia, is increasingly unpopular in Washington.
Diehl, the Washington Post columnist, argued that excesses like the UAE's make for a sharp contrast with more democratically minded Arabs -- the group in the Muslim world Diehl believes the U.S. should actually be working with.
But for now, such moderates are an endangered population in this U.S. partner country, activists say.
“The most dangerous things an Emirati can do these days are to criticize the government or express the slightest degree of sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said in a January statement. “You do so at risk of not seeing your family again and being subjected to abuses you never thought possible.”