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Hundreds of retired US military officers cash in with jobs for Saudi Arabia, UAE, say reports

Former defence secretary Jim Mattis worked as a consultant for the UAE, according to an investigation by the Washington Post
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then the deputy crown prince, at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on 16 March 2017.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then the deputy crown prince, at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on 16 March 2017 (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

Hundreds of retired US military officers, including former generals and admirals, have used their military backgrounds to ink lucrative deals working for foreign countries, mostly among the Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to two long-term investigations by The Washington Post.

Investigations from The Washington Post, working alongside the Project on Government Oversight (Pogo), found that 280 military retirees sought authorisation to work for the UAE, either as military contractors or consultants.

The highest-ranking officer in the report was retired General Jim Mattis, who served as former President Donald Trump's secretary of defence. Mattis served as a military advisor to the UAE in 2015 and returned to serve as defence chief in 2017.

Robert Tyrer, co-president of the Cohen Group, a Washington-based consulting firm where Mattis works as a senior counsellor, told the Washinton Post that the former defence secretary advised the Emiratis on "the operational, tactical, informational and ethical aspects" of military operations, but did not request or accept payment from the UAE government other than reimbursement for travel expenses.

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The newspaper spent two years suing the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act for the records and obtained 4,000 documents under FOIA.

The documents also revealed that 15 former generals and admirals have worked directly with Saudi Arabia's defence ministry, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who launched the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen.

One of the generals is retired Marine General James L Jones, who served as former President Barack Obama's national security adviser and started working with Riyadh in 2017.

For the project, Jones enlisted the help of "about a dozen ​​former senior Pentagon officials" including William Cohen, who served as secretary of defence in the Bill Clinton administration, according to the newspaper.

Jones owns two consulting firms that have had contracts advising the Saudi defence ministry. He told the Washington Post that he was approached by the Saudi government because Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was searching "if there was something that we could do to help them in transforming their Ministry of Defense".

The investigation also revealed that several officers had continued to work with the kingdom after the murder of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi agents in the country's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Saudis, Emiratis pay well

Foreign governments often spend copious amounts of money in Washington on lobbyists, consultants and think tanks. However, the Washington Post's reporting reveals that the hiring of former military officers by Gulf monarchies has sharply risen in the past decade.

The documents obtained by the Washington Post and Pogo show that the Saudis and Emiratis pay well.

While many of the forms are heavily redacted, the documents show that salary and benefits packages reach six and, sometimes, seven figures. 

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The compensation for generals and other high-ranking officers was redacted. However, the documents indicate that four unnamed, lower-ranking retired officers earned salaries ranging from $200,000 to $300,000 to advise the Saudi defence ministry.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, the investigation revealed that the UAE gave annual compensation packages worth more than $200,000 to helicopter pilots and $120,000 to aircraft mechanics.

Under US federal law, retired military personnel are barred from receiving anything of value from foreign governments that could compromise their sworn allegiance to the United States.

But in 1977, Congress allowed the Pentagon and State Department to issue waivers to the law. The Washington Post noted that there is no criminal penalty for violating the law and the enforcement of it is "almost nonexistent".

The investigations raise serious concerns about the ability of former military officers to work for foreign governments with little oversight. The Washington Post reported that some "even negotiated jobs with foreign governments while they were still on active duty".

Since 2015, 95 percent of the retired officers who applied to work for foreign governments were given permission, according to the documents obtained by the newspaper; while it also found that scores of veterans displayed their employment with countries in the Gulf on Linkedin - but there was no federal record of them applying for permission to work there.

Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, press secretary for the Pentagon, said in response to the news report that "as private US citizens, retired service members are certainly free to seek employment at their discretion, but certain standards do apply".

"There are policies, there are laws, there are regulations. They are well-established, and it is something that [Department of Defense] members are educated on, retirees are educated on, and you're required to follow them," Ryder said during a news conference on Monday.

A State Department spokesperson told MEE: "Following review and approval from the applicant’s respective military service, the Department of State reviews applications for employment with a foreign government by reservists or military retirees in accordance with" US code.

US code states that any person can accept employment from a foreign government "only if the Secretary concerned and the Secretary of State approve the employment."

Efforts to stop foreign influence

The revelations add to concerns about the extent to which foreign countries, including many with authoritarian governments, have expanded their influence over US institutions.

Retired US General John Allen stepped down as the president of the Brookings Institution think tank earlier this year, following the news that federal authorities believe he illegally lobbied for Qatar.

Billionaire and Trump ally Tom Barrack is currently on trial for charges of illegally lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of the UAE.

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In order to address some of these problems, a group of bipartisan lawmakers in June introduced a new piece of legislation that, if passed, would force think tanks and other tax-exempt organisations to disclose major gifts from foreign governments.

The bill, named the Fighting Foreign Influence Act, would also "impose a lifetime ban" on American officials from ever lobbying for a foreign entity.

Republican Congressman Jim Banks also introduced a bill seeking to close a long-standing loophole, and require experts giving congressional testimony to disclose foreign contributions given to "any nonprofit entity at which the witness is employed".

While current rules in the House state that witnesses testifying during hearings must disclose their organisation's ties to funding from abroad, Banks' legislation would remove a rule that allows witnesses to hide those ties by testifying in an individual capacity.

Middle East Eye reached out to the embassies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

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