Yousef Otaiba ridicules Gulf ally in email exchange, betraying years of frustration at Riyadh old guard that coalesced into efforts to change it
The UAE's ambassador to Washington described Saudi Arabia's leadership as "f***in' coo coo!" in one of a series of leaked emails that suggests years of Emirati frustration with Riyadh's old regime had coalesced into a strategy to support the rise of young Mohammed bin Salman.
The messages, obtained by Middle East Eye through the GlobalLeaks hacking group, show Otaiba mocking Saudi Arabia to his Egyptian wife, Abeer Shoukry, over the Saudi religious police's 2008 decision to ban red roses on Valentine's Day.
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In another email, Yousef Otaiba wrote that Abu Dhabi has warred for 200 years with the Saudis over Wahhabism and that the Emiratis had more "bad history" with Saudi Arabia than anyone else. In a third, he revealed that now was the time when the Emiratis could get "the most results we can ever get out of Saudi".
But the bulk of the exchanges add up to more than casual reflections and snipes by an Emirati ambassador.
They betray a clear plan by Abu Dhabi to paint Saudi Arabia as a dysfunctional, religiously conservative backwater whose best hope for reform was Mohammed bin Salman, the newly appointed crown prince.
Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, regards himself as MBS's mentor and the two have been known to hold as many as three meetings a month, a source told MEE.
Cometh the hour
Otaiba is clear in his emails that the arrival of the 31-year-old MBS as crown prince earlier this year was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Emiratis to stamp their mark on their much larger neighbour. This was corroborated by informed sources who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity.
The mosaic displayed by Otaiba's leaked emails and multiple MEE sources confirm that the Emirati ambassador performed the lead role in selling the Saudi prince to a sceptical Washington audience, while the Saudi embassy remained mostly passive.
Saudi ministers were cut out of the loop when MBS and his brother Khaled flew in for a secret meeting with President Donald Trump at his Bedminster golf club just weeks before Trump's visit to Riyadh, MEE can reveal.
Local press speculated that Trump had spent the weekend merely indulging in golf. The venue was probably chosen as a secret meeting site for his Saudi guests because the private estate shields residents from the view of journalists and their cameras, unlike Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago.
While there, MBS and Khaled hashed out and agreed upon the pageantry that was to come for the star-studded Riyadh visit by Trump.
These high-level contacts that Otaiba helped nurture may give him great satisfaction. On 21 May, Otaiba wrote to influential New York Times columnist Tom Friedman: "Abu Dhabi fought 200 years of wars with Saudi over Wahhabism. We have more bad history with Saudi than anyone.
"But with MBS we see a genuine change. And that's why we're excited. We finally see hope there and we need it to succeed."
Mohammed bin Salman with military chiefs. Otaiba described him as a force for 'genuine change' (AFP)
In an exchange with Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, Otaiba said: "MBS reminds [sic] of a younger, and yes, slightly less experienced MBZ."
A month earlier, Otaiba wrote to Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel: "I don't think we'll ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country. Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of Saudi."
In other emails Otaiba championed bin Salman as a reformer "on a mission to make the Saudi government more efficient," a man who "thinks like a private sector guy".
Otaiba wrote to Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: "Finally, just my humble observation. MBS is a reformer. He believes in very much what we in the UAE believe in. Empowering young people, making govt accountable. He is a result oriented person.
MBS is a reformer. He believes in very much what we in the UAE believe in
- Yousef Otaiba, UAE ambassador
"And he has no time for incompetence. What's driving is the desire to get things done and to get things fixed. Not a palace coup or power play."
Sowing the seeds of doubt
Still, Otaiba played politics inside the House of Saud itself. He was all too aware that the young prince faced overcoming his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef.
Bin Nayef enjoyed a reputation in the US as a safe pair of hands on counter-terrorism - and so the Emirati envoy set about sowing the seeds of doubt.
More than a year before bin Nayef was sacked in June as crown prince, over an addiction to painkillers alleged to cloud his judgment, Otaiba began an influence campaign in Washington, using rumours about MBN's mental state.
In an email exchange on 14 December 2015 with David Petraeus, the former director of the CIA and commander of coalition forces in Iraq asks Otaiba whether Nayef - MBN - still wielded influence.
Otaiba replies: "MBS is definitely more active on most day to day issues. MBN seems a little off his game lately."
MBN seems a little off his game lately
- Yousef Otaiba, UAE ambassador
Petraeus pushes back: "Need him in it too. MOI [bin Nayef's interior ministry] important to the kingdom. Needs to forge a pact with the younger member. Will encourage when there."
Otaiba writes back: "Agreed. This is a unique case where the success of Saudi Arabia depends on the success of MBZ [Zayed] and MBN working together. I think the bilateral relationship between them is much stronger than people here seem to believe.
"But I also think MBN's level of self confidence is not where it used to be."
Six months later, Otaiba wrote to Steven Cook that he would be "very surprised" if MBS tried to leapfrog MBN, but added: "I met MBN recently and to put it lightly, he was not impressive, much less lucid."
The role that Otaiba played as fixer for bin Salman is also shown in an exchange he had with Robert Malley, then senior director at the National Security Council, who asked for a meeting for a minister close to the prince.
In another exchange, a State Department official asks Otaiba to broker a meeting between MBS and Brett McGurk, then special envoy for the global coalition to counter Islamic State, and Malley.
Abdullah's demise sparked a battle for power inside the royal court (AFP)
The effect of this PR effort on MBS's career has been startling. In January 2015, he and his father Salman were a hair's breadth from losing the Saudi throne.
King Abdullah was in a coma in the hospital of the Saudi National Guard, which is run by his son Prince Meteb, for at least 10 days before his death. His real condition was kept a closely guarded secret. It was known to only two people in the Royal Court, his son Meteb and the head of the royal court, Khaled al-Tuwaijri.
MEE sources with direct knowledge of the events say that Tuwaijri and Meteb planned to forge Abdullah's signature on a decree removing the then crown prince, Salman, from the line of succession by claiming he was unfit for office. His dementia was evident in January 2015.
Had this decree been published, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, the then deputy crown prince, would have been promoted to crown prince and Prince Meteb would have become his deputy. It had been Abdullah's intention to install Muqrin as king - he was one of the few surviving brothers before the next generation of rulers could be selected.
For Salman and his ambitious son Mohammed, speed was of the essence. They made an unannounced visit to the hospital and demanded to see the king. They were met by Tuwaijri, who attempted to turn them away, by telling them the king had been awake earlier but that he was now sedated and needed rest.
The pair persisted and unknown to Tuwaijri confronted one of the doctors. The startled physician admitted to them the king had, in fact, been in a coma for a number of days and that the prognosis was not good.
Bin Salman then charged down the corridor of the hospital to confront Tuwaijri. A crack was heard as he forcefully slapped Tuwaijri, sources told MEE.
A stunned Tuwaijri was told that once his father was king, he would be history. As soon as the secret of the king's condition was known, the plan to forge a royal decree was dropped.
Once king, Salman used Tuwaijri's plan against the clan in the royal family who had just lost out. Tuwaijri was fired, Muqrin was removed as crown prince within a couple of months and bin Nayef was moved into his old position.
When the time came to dispose of bin Nayef and promote his own son, bin Salman, the king used the same formula of accusing bin Nayef of mental incapacity.
This was not the first reported case when the young prince used, or threatened, physical violence. Years earlier when his father wanted a plot of land re-zoned and a judge refused, the prince went to visit him. He placed a bullet on his desk and told the judge: "Either you sign the paper, or I will put that bullet through your head."
Trump's first visit abroad as president culminated in this image in Saudi Arabia (screengrab)
Introduction to Trump
Before bin Salman could complete his rise to power and take over his elder cousin's role, he had to have Trump's backing.
On 13 March this year, there was an unusually harsh snowstorm in Washington, which prevented the arrival of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who was scheduled to start her state visit the next day.
Bin Salman, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, and the Saudi delegation were already in town and scheduled to meet with Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon on 16 March.
Otaiba spotted the opportunity. He suggested that the White House take advantage of the opening in the president's schedule to get to know the young prince.
The meeting and lunch was hailed as a success, although Trump told staffers he had been "grossed out" by sitting across the table from Saudis who have "cut off more heads than IS".
A few months later Trump's first visit was announced, although he was initially reluctant and had to be talked into it. The Emiratis were the prime mover for the trip, and behind the idea to bring the leaders of all Arab states to attend, sources told MEE.
First, bin Salman and his younger brother Khaled had to do business with Trump.
On Saturday 6 May, Trump tweeted that he was staying at his home in Bedminster, New Jersey.
"The reason I am staying in Bedminster, NJ, a beautiful community, is that staying in NYC is much more expensive and disruptive. Meetings!" Trump tweeted.
Trump was trying to allay criticism over how he had spent eight of this first 16 weekends away from Washington.
MEE can reveal bin Salman and his brother Khaled, now US ambassador, joined Trump in New Jersey at the time. No Saudi minister knew about it. They flew to Bedminster where a $40bn investment in US infrastructure was first mooted, along with an arms deal worth as much as $500bn.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.