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US General James Mattis secretly consulted UAE on war in Yemen: Report

Documents shed light on the former US defence secretary's work for the UAE, which senators and US diplomats say they were kept in the dark about
Then-Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan meeting with former US Secretary of Defence James Mattis at the Dusit Thani hotel, on 18 February 2017 (AFP)

General James Mattis advised UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed on the war in Yemen before he became US defence secretary, while many US lawmakers, senior diplomats and the American public were kept in the dark about his consulting job.

Mattis, the former marine corps four-star general and commander of Centcom known for his hard-talking ways and praise for the UAE, was hired in 2015 to advise bin Zayed on the war in Yemen when the UAE was a member of a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia fighting against the Houthis.

“My duties would include reviewing the UAE’s military situation, focused initially on the Yemen campaign, with the purpose of providing military advice,” Mattis wrote in a June 2015 federal disclosure form, revealed by The Washington Post as part of a three-year investigation into Mattis’s consulting.

“The purpose of this position is to bring American military experience in warfighting and campaigning to bear in terms of strengthening UAE’s efforts,” Mattis wrote.

According to The Washington Post, although Mattis notified the US Marines and State Department at the time, his work for the UAE was kept secret by US officials. 

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Multiple US senators on the Armed Services Committee reviewing his nomination to be defence chief two years later were not directly informed - the committee was informed confidentially, which meant senators would have had to seek the information themselves.

The documents, which The Washington Post said federal officials “shielded” from reporters for years, releasing “only fragments of information” and redacting “records regarding his [Mattis’s] compensation", were released last fall after being ordered by a judge.

'Mad Dog' Mattis

Mattis, who earned the moniker “Mad Dog” during the 2004 battle for Fallujah in Iraq, has long been a target of critics of the US's use of military force in the region. A lifelong bachelor and avid reader, he has also cultivated an image as an austere and plain-speaking soldier.

Mattis did not disclose his work for the UAE in his 2019 memoir.

According to The Washington Post, he also omitted his consulting on the public work history and financial disclosure forms that he filed with the Office of Government Ethics after being nominated to serve as defence secretary in December 2016 by former US President Donald Trump.

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US law required Mattis to list all paid and unpaid jobs and positions held outside the US government going back two years.

Two US Senate Armed Services Committee members responsible for approving Mattis’s nomination were secretly briefed on his work for the UAE but didn’t make it public, according to The Washington Post.

Two US senators on the committee at the time, Democrats Tim Kaine and Richard Blumenthal, told The Washington Post they were not informed about his consulting.

Two senior US diplomats working on the Middle East when Mattis applied for permission to consult the UAE on Yemen were also not notified that he was working for Washington’s Gulf ally, according to The Washington Post.

Yemen bombings

Mattis was recruited to work for the UAE in 2015. At the time, Mohammed bin Zayed was the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the Emirate’s military.

The UAE was engaged in fierce fighting with the Houthis as part of a coalition of Arab States led by Saudi Arabia trying to restore Yemen’s internationally recognised government.

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At the time, the Obama administration was providing logistical and aerial refuelling and intelligence to the coalition. Saudi Arabia and its allies launched thousands of air strikes, which failed to defeat the Houthis but resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and a major humanitarian crisis. 

Today, the Houthis have a grip on northeastern Yemen and have launched attacks on commercial ships in solidarity with Palestine.

Saudi Arabia has entered into peace talks with the group, as it looks to extricate itself from the war. Meanwhile, the UAE continues to wield influence in Yemen through its allies in the south.

$100,000 speech

In order to work for a foreign government, Mattis required clearance from US national security officials. In the 2015 form he submitted to the US Marine Corps that was later reviewed by the State Department, he wrote that he would be compensated for his work.

“The amount is to be determined after I have been cleared by the US government to respond positively,” Mattis wrote.

Mattis didn’t respond to Middle East Eye’s request for comment, but the co-president of the Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm where Mattis is a senior consultant, told The Washington Post that Mattis was not paid for his work. He said Mattis added he would be compensated in order to ensure he received “extra scrutiny” from US officials.

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But the documents released by The Washington Post suggest that Mattis’s application was fast-tracked. A counterintelligence review of his application took five days when it normally takes weeks, according to The Washington Post.

The former chief of all US forces in the Middle East received final approval from the State Department to work for the UAE 15 days after submitting his application.

“Altogether, the national security bureaucracy took only two months to clear Mattis to work for a foreign head of state,” according to The Washington Post.

But the topic of Mattis’s compensation cropped up again in 2018 when Mattis resigned as defence secretary in protest against Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. He returned to work for the UAE, where he was selected to give a keynote address at a conference on US-UAE ties.

In his foreign government employment questionnaire, Mattis said he would receive $100,000 and lodging for the speech. The Washington Post said it obtained the unredacted document after a three-year legal battle with the US Marine Corps.

A spokesperson for Mattis told The Washington Post he did not accept the payment, and only listed it so his application would receive a “rigorous” review.

'Jim and MBZ'

Mattis’s work for the UAE appeared to be an open secret among a tight-knight group of senior US military commanders who eyed consulting gigs with Gulf states.

The documents obtained by The Washington Post show that John Allen, a former commander of US troops in Afghanistan, contacted a senior advisor on Mattis’s staff at the Pentagon in 2017 about how to structure his own consulting contract with the Gulf state of Qatar.

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“I think I’m being offered a consulting contract akin to the one Jim had with MBZ and wanted your advice on how it was structured,” Allen wrote to Mattis’s advisor, according to court documents.

“Your sense on how Jim created and maintained his relationship with MBZ would be helpful.”

In 2022, Allen resigned as president of The Brookings Institution amid a federal investigation into whether he lobbied for Qatar.

Other former US military commanders have also chalked up profits working for Gulf states. From 2012 through 2022, there were 450 notifications of employment for foreign governments by retired military officers.

The top spot among the 47 nations hiring former US military commanders was held by the UAE.

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