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Tom Barrack's arrest spotlights UAE's role in shaping Trump's foreign policy

Indictment of Trump confidant shows how much of an impact oil-rich nation had on former president's Middle East policy, experts say
Barrack was arrested on charges that he unlawfully campaigned to influence the Trump administration on behalf of the UAE.
Tom Barrack was arrested on charges that he unlawfully campaigned to influence the Trump administration on behalf of the UAE (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

The arrest of a key Trump ally for illegal lobbying illustrates how the oil-rich United Arab Emirates ingratiated itself with the US and was able to secure lucrative arms deals and persuade Washington to adopt a hard stance against the country's regional rivals, experts told Middle East Eye.

Tom Barrack, the chair of former President Trump's inaugural committee and a prominent businessman, was arrested on Tuesday on charges that he and two associates were part of a secretive effort to shape Trump's foreign policy to the benefit of the UAE.

The indictment alleges that four UAE officials "tasked" Barrack and his associates with moulding the foreign policy positions of the Trump campaign, and later, his administration, by developing "a back-channel line of communication" with the US government that promoted Emirati interests.

"The defendants repeatedly capitalized on Barrack's friendships and access to a candidate who was eventually elected president, high-ranking campaign and government officials, and the American media to advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true allegiances," acting Assistant Attorney General Mark Lesko said in a statement.

According to the indictment, the Emiratis floated a draft "wish list" of foreign policy positions that would benefit the UAE, including abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood.

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In an example cited by prosecutors, the UAE was able to influence the language of a May 2016 speech that then-candidate Trump gave in North Dakota that outlined his "America First" energy policy.

Originally, Barrack attempted to get Trump to reference Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, also referred to as MBZ, 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. That language was added to a circulated draft, prosecutors said, but was ultimately cut from Trump's speech. Alshahhi is also charged in the case.

Barrack also wrote an op-ed published in Fortune magazine that relied on feedback from UAE officials and made numerous television interviews promoting their national interests.

Experts told MEE that the arrests highlighted how the UAE developed a sophisticated influence operation in Washington.

"This adds a new wrinkle to the UAE's influence over Trump's foreign policy and specifically his foreign policy in the Middle East," said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.

"It takes what we already thought was substantial UAE influence on the Trump administration to the next level."

UAE at heart of Trump's Middle East policy

According to the indictment, Barrack had informally advised US officials on Middle East policy and had also sought to be appointed to a senior role in the Trump administration, including as special envoy to the Middle East.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, said that while "much of the focus during the Trump years was on Russia, the Barrack indictment suggests that it was the UAE that was making greater inroads" in influencing the US administration.

Ulrichsen said the reason was possibly because "the UAE is classed as a friendly state rather than as an adversary in the US".

Barrack's involvement with the UAE was first reported by MEE in 2018, when a series of leaked emails showed the Trump confidant promised the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, that the administration would keep the Emiratis' interests at the heart of its Middle East policy.

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Prosecutors have accused Barrack of helping win a hearing with the Trump administration for the UAE's position on issues ranging from the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar to the legal status of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni organisation that Trump considered labelling a terrorist organisation.

During the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis where Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and four other Arab countries launched a blockade on Qatar, the Trump administration favoured the Saudis and Emiratis over Doha.

Hours after Trump's secretary of state urged Saudi Arabia and its allies to end the blockade because it was creating economic hardship and hitting counter-terrorism efforts, the former US president accused Qatar of funding terrorism at a "high level".

The indictment details how Barrack allegedly lobbied for Trump to drop a potential summit between Gulf leaders to negotiate an end to the blockade.

The Trump administration even altered US policy to sell armed drones to the UAE, an issue that the country had been lobbying hard for, according to Freeman.

"It pains me to admit it a little bit, but the UAE was fantastically successful in moving Trump to their side," Freeman said.

"It's hard to find an issue during the Trump administration that the UAE was pushing for that they weren't at least partially successful in accomplishing."

UAE could do it again

Ulrichsen said the Emirates' success came from Trump's lack of experience in Washington, which allowed him to be influenced once the country was able to penetrate the former president's inner circle.

"There seems to have been a recognition that an administration that took office without any significant prior experience in governing or any clear attachment to settled US interests might be uniquely vulnerable to attempts to shape its thinking and its outlook," he told MEE.

While the UAE was not the only country to do this, Ulrichsen said the oil-rich nation stood apart from others because of its success, Ulrichsen said.

'What's to stop [the UAE] from doing the exact same thing all over again?'

- Ben Freeman, Center for International Policy

"It did seem that the Trump administration was pursuing policies that aligned closely with the interests of a foreign state".

Freeman said that what was most striking from the indictment was the involvement of high-level officials in the UAE government and the lack of punishment they received.

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.

"At the end of the day, we know from the indictment that it was the UAE government itself that helped to orchestrate this covert unregistered foreign agent campaign," he said.

"If the UAE was able to launch this unregistered influence campaign themselves and not really be punished for doing it, what's to stop them from doing the exact same thing all over again?"

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