Two weeks ago the Department of Justice indicted billionaire Tom Barrack — a long-time friend of Donald Trump and top fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — for allegedly working as an unregistered foreign agent of the United Arab Emirates. While the indictment sparked discussions of Barrack being just the latest in a long line of Trump allies indicted for allegedly doing the bidding of foreign powers, there has been next to no discussion of the UAE being implicated in masterminding yet another scheme to covertly meddle in U.S. politics.
Perhaps the most critical sector for evaluating U.S. foreign policy scandals of this sort has been eerily silent on the matter: think tanks.
As some of the biggest players in research and advocacy that inform decision making to key members of the U.S. government, think tanks are uniquely positioned to drive foreign policy discussions. Think tanks have also focused extraordinary attention on the illicit influence of other countries. Search for “Russian interference” on the websites of prominent think tanks like the Atlantic Council and you’ll discover dozens of articles, reports, and other excellent commentary by scholars about Russian meddling in American democracy. And, Chinese influence operations have been written about extensively across the ideological spectrum of think tanks.
Yet, despite the Barrack indictment asserting that a foreign dictatorship orchestrated a campaign that successfully influenced the president of the United States on major foreign policy issues, the most prominent foreign policy think tanks have been mum about the UAE’s role in this illicit influence operation. This follows the deafening silence from think tanks when the UAE was caught conspiring to make more than $3.5 million in illegal campaign contributions from 2016 to 2018 and when the UAE spent $2.5 million on a covert campaign to turn Congress against their Qatari rivals in 2017.
Why is meddling in U.S. politics by one authoritarian regime, the UAE, treated differently from meddling by authoritarian regimes like Russia and China? One possibility: money.
No other dictatorship in the world gives more money to U.S. think tanks than the UAE. While there might be myriad reasons for think tanks’ silence surrounding the UAE’s repeated campaigns to illegally influence U.S. politics and elections, many of the think tanks staying mum are also the same think tanks that have received considerable financial support directly from the UAE.
For example, according to the Atlantic Council’s latest financial report, the UAE Embassy in Washington donated at least $1,000,000 to the organization between 2019 and 2020. Shortly after, the think tank held its fourth annual Global Energy Forum in partnership with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and other nuclear energy and petroleum companies. Before this, the Atlantic Council received at least $4 million from the UAE between 2014 and 2018, according to an analysis of the Atlantic Council’s commendably transparent financial disclosures made by the Center for International Policy, where we both work. This funding, at the very least, afforded the UAE with the opportunity to comment on Atlantic Council publications prior to their release.
The Atlantic Council made headlines in March when 22 of the think tank’s staff publicly decried the Charles Koch supported work of two of their colleagues.* One of the signatories went so far as to argue that the Koch industry has, “pretty much the same views as the Russians.” Despite this outspoken critique of funding from a U.S. citizen, the Atlantic Council as an organization has publicly said nothing about the UAE once again being accused of running an illicit influence operation inside the United States, as laid out in the Barrack indictment. And, of those 22 Atlantic Council staff so quick to question their colleagues’ funding, just one publicly commented about the foreign dictatorship that has donated millions to the Atlantic Council while repeatedly being caught illegally meddling in U.S. politics.
The organization’s intellectual independence policy requires “all donors to agree to the Council maintaining independent control of the content and conclusion of any products.” But this kind of disclosure presumably does not cover remaining silent about a funder’s possible transgressions.
A spokesperson for the Atlantic Council explained via e-mail that the organization is transparent about its funders, and their “experts have complete intellectual independence, and any suggestion otherwise would be false. Staff across the Atlantic Council’s programs have written critically about the UAE’s policies and have exposed influence efforts — all of which is publicly available.”
A survey of the Atlantic Council’s website tells a different story — no critical coverage of the UAE generally, and absolutely nothing addressing the UAE’s illicit influence operations in the United States that occurred while the Atlantic Council received millions from the Emiratis. A spokesperson for the Atlantic Council did not respond to a request for evidence of the allegedly publicly available Atlantic Council staff writing that is critical of the UAE’s illicit influence efforts.
Staying silent on national security issues where the UAE is the culprit is a pattern across think tanks that pontificate foreign policy expertise and receive UAE funding. For example, the UAE paid the Center for a New American Security $250,000 in 2016 to produce a report encouraging the United States to allow the sale of military drones to the UAE. And between 2016 and 2017 the UAE contributed $20 million to the Middle East Institute in a “secret contribution” uncovered through leaked emails, directing the funding to be used to change conceptions about the UAE in the United States. Another big recipient of UAE money, the Aspen Institute has received over $5 million from the UAE since 2014 and organized multiple events in partnership with the Emiratis.
With their track record of UAE funding, it is perhaps unsurprising then that neither CNAS, MEI, nor the Aspen Institute have published analyses or social media content publicly chastising the UAE for its role in orchestrating the illicit influence operation laid out in the Tom Barrack indictment.
Ultimately, the Barrack story is just the latest in a string of events that shed light on why think tanks should unabashedly use their skills and expertise to call out the UAE’s malfeasance just as much as they jump on stories tied to Russia, China, and other countries. This is a dangerous double standard that is being set by the country’s leading knowledge producing bodies. Staying silent about the misdeeds of a major funder might help a think tank’s finances, but as institutions that policymakers turn to for objective insights, think tanks have an imperative to avoid conflicts of interest, not violate policy makers trust, and critically analyze the UAE with the same fervor they devote to other countries, regardless of how much money the UAE pays them.
*Both the Quincy Institute and the Center for International Policy have received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.