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'Give Abu Dhabi more power’: How a Trump insider allegedly helped the UAE

Indictment filed on Tuesday alleges that Tom Barrack, Trump's longtime friend, was directed by Emirati officials
Tom Barrack speaks at the Republican National Convention in July 2016 (AFP)

It was only days after Donald Trump had been elected, but Emirati officials wanted the inside track on his picks for the highest level positions.

According to a seven-count indictment filed in a US court on Tuesday, they asked Tom Barrack, the Lebanese-American investment tycoon and long-time Trump friend. 

“I would only brief my bosses,” an Emirati official wrote in a message to Barrack on 11 November 2016, according to the indictment. That official appears to be Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador in Washington, according to Middle East Eye's past reporting based on the same email exchanges.

Did Barrack have any insight, Otaiba asked, as to who might be nominated for the roles of secretary of state, secretary of defence, director of the CIA and national security advisor? “Any indicators would be highly appreciated," he wrote.

“I do, and we’re working through them in real-time and I have our regional interest in high profile,” Barack allegedly responded.

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This is only one of several allegations about how the UAE tampered in the 2016 US presidential elections and beyond in Tuesday's indictment filed against Barrack by the US Attorney’s office in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

While the indictment does not name five Emirati officials alleged to have directed Barrack, they appear to include Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, also referred to as MBZ.

The indictment refers to a phone call between an official identified as "Emirati Official 1" and Trump on 29 January 2017, a date when MBZ is reported to have spoken to Trump.

According to the indictment, Emiratis floated a draft “wish list” of foreign policy positions that would benefit the UAE and were able to influence the language of a May 2016 speech that then-candidate Trump gave in North Dakota outlining his "America First" energy policy.

Originally, Barrack attempted to get Trump to reference MBZ in the speech, according to the indictment.

That version would “make us heroes”, Rashid al-Malik Alshahhi, an Emirati businessman who served as Barrack’s conduit to top Emirati officials, texted Barrack. Alshahhi is also charged in the case.

Eventually, after an exchange between Barrack and a senior Trump campaign official, the reference to MBZ was replaced with a pledge that Trump would “work together with our supportive allies in the Gulf”.

But senior officials in Abu Dhabi watched the speech and celebrated.

“Congrats on the great job today,” said one senior official whom MEE has not been able to identify. “Everybody here are happy with the results.”

'Very effective operation'

Once Trump was elected, Barrack and his assistant, Matthew Grimes - who is also charged in the case – pledged that they would push for candidates in the new administration who were “favoured by the UAE”.

Barrack personally offered to hand-hold the Gulf country as Trump came to power, and “remain on the sidelines to help navigag [sic]”.

“Our ppls want u to help. They were hoping you can officially run the agendas,” Alshahhi responded to Barrack’s offer.

“I will!” Barrack texted back and, according to the indictment, he did.

He arranged a call between MBZ and Trump less than two weeks after the new president took office in January 2017. “We can take credit for phone call,” Grimes, Barrack’s assistant, texted Alshahhi.

In March 2017, Alshahhi said senior Emiratis were pushing for an unnamed, presumably former US Congressman to become the next US ambassador to the UAE. 

“They r [sic] very keen on the ambassador they suggested to help the relationship. Your help will go long way,” he told Barrack. 

Barrack indicated he would help - “Yes, give me name again” - at the same time, suggesting that MBZ should suggest Barrack as a special envoy that the crown prince “would be happy to work with”.

A month later, Barrack wrote to Alshahhi saying that Trump had floated the idea of making Barrack the ambassador to the UAE or a special envoy. Any appointment, Barrack said, “would give ABU DHABI more power!"

“This will be great for us. And make you deliver more. Very effective operation,” Alshahhi responded. “And great for u!” Barrack texted back.

For all of the talk, neither Barrack nor the unnamed congressman became ambassador, a position filled over a year later by John Rokolta Jr, a Republican fundraiser.

The indictment also details how Barrack allegedly lobbied for Trump to drop a potential summit between Gulf leaders at Camp David to negotiate an end to the blockade of Qatar.

Barrack also kept Alshahhi apprised of moves related to the blockade within the US government. 

According to a memo he wrote on his phone, Alshahhi said Barrack had advised him that several senior US officials were seeking to convince the president “that Qatar is a victim! And that all of other countries (Saudi, UAE) are also funding [terrorist] groups!!!”.

Alshahhi also noted that Barrack had told him that Qatar was “pushing all the tactics to isolate [the United Arab Emirates] from support in the United States government”.

Cases of influence

These are not the first charges to be brought against Trump insiders who are accused of helping the UAE influence the 2016 presidential elections.  

In 2019, George Nader, an advisor to MBZ and key witness in the Mueller investigation, and seven others were charged with funnelling $3.5m of Emirati money through straw donors to Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Nader pleaded not guilty.

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An MEE investigation found that the same group of men, mostly based in Los Angeles, gave another $3m to both Democrats and Republicans after Trump came to power. The Department of Justice at the time declined to say whether these donations were under scrutiny.

If the allegations hold up, with Barrack - and his assistant and Emirati interlocutor - the UAE was able to not only shape policy and rhetoric from within the Trump administration but also had a set of eyes and ears inside the US government, reporting back.

In fact, Barrack isn’t charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Rather, among others, he’s charged with a statute - 18 USC 951 - which has been described as “espionage-lite” and is used for those allegedly directed by officials of a foreign government.

He did not plea during a court appearance on Tuesday. Requests for comment to Barrack's lawyers and the Emirati embassy in the US had not been answered by the time of publication.