Gulf funded think tank turns pro-Saudi, UAE messaging up to 11
While the world focuses on Ukraine, the United States has abandoned the Middle East. Or, at least that’s the story told from a steady stream of commentary bemoaning supposed U.S. neglect of its Middle East partners.
Firas Maksad of the Middle East Institute, for example, dubbed the rift a “crisis” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in March calling on Biden to renew the U.S.’s “commitment to regional defense by publicly affirming a strategic alliance” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, or both countries will continue to cozy up to Beijing and Moscow.
On CNN Maksad argued the United States was shirking its role as “underwriter of regional security,” which, “sends alarm bells ringing both in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and has them thinking about how to diversify away from the United States even further.”
Maksad’s MEI colleagues, Bilal Saab and Karen Young, kept up the drumbeat in early April with a Foreign Policy article arguing for a new U.S. “strategic defense framework with the Gulf Arab states.” The article followed an MEI policy memo accusing the United States of being supportive of Iran’s expansionism which, amongst other issues, purportedly pushed Saudi Arabia and the UAE closer to China and Russia.
Noticeably absent from these documents and media appearances clamoring for more U.S. military entanglements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is any acknowledgement that MEI’s biggest funders are the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In fact, in 2017, leaked emails revealed a $20 million “secret” grant from the UAE to MEI.
Maksad also has personal ties to Saudi and Emirati money as Responsible Statecraft has previously pointed out. Maksad is the Managing Director of Global Policy Associates which, prior to RS’s reporting, listed Teneo as one of the firms’ clients. Teneo, incidentally, is registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act to represent multiple Saudi and Emirati interests.
The Middle East Institute did not respond to a request for comment.
MEI isn’t alone — Saudi Arabia and the UAE have funded a number of think tanks in Washington, D.C. In fact, the UAE is one of the top foreign funders of think tanks in the United States. While none of these think tanks acts like a “lobbying firm” — as Saab himself explained to the UAE’s Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Otaiba, in a leaked email — these think tanks often spread pro-Saudi and UAE messaging and silence critiques of these Gulf dictatorships. All while masquerading as objective without disclosing their conflicts of interest.
As Eli Clifton and I argue in a Quincy Institute report highlighting the perils of think tanks’ donor secrecy, it’s not enough for think tanks to just provide a list of donors on their website — as MEI does — they must also “publicize conflict-of-interest policies and proactively identify the appearance of conflicts of interest between institutional funders, or staff conducting outside political work, and a think tank’s institutional research products.” Claims of “intellectual independence” ring hollow when used to defend work products that serve the interests of top funders.
Media outlets also have an obligation to acknowledge these potential conflicts of interest. By failing to disclose these funding ties, Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN are omitting critical information that could put these experts’ comments into better perspective. If, for example, consumers of these analyses knew that MEI’s top funder was the UAE, they wouldn’t be surprised when none of them mentions the multiple times top UAE officials have been accused of illegally meddling in U.S. politics and elections as a possible cause of tensions between the UAE and the United States
Editor’s note: This article has been updated for clarity.