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Meet the UAE's woman in Washington: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Through her extensive lobbying activities, the former lawmaker is helping the Emirates undermine America … and no one seems to care.

Analysis | Reporting | Washington Politics

The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Russian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) intelligence officials have allegedly agreed “to work together against US and UK intelligence agencies,” according to a leaked U.S. intelligence document that was released as part of an enormous U.S. intelligence breach. 

While the UAE government claims the assertions of the leaked document are “categorically false,” this is a jaw-dropping allegation against a purportedly close U.S. partner in the Middle East, which has received tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military equipment and may soon fall under the protection of a U.S.-led integrated air and missile defense system in the Middle East.

But, if history is any indication, the U.S. foreign policy community won’t blink. The UAE has repeatedly been caught red-handed meddling in U.S. elections and has worked diligently to embroil the U.S. in Middle East conflicts, but with few exceptions, the D.C. “blob” has ignored these transgressions and continued to cash UAE checks. This is due in no small part to the UAE’s legal and illegal influence operations in the U.S. — the subject of a recent U.S. intelligence report — which have protected the UAE from punishment for its many transgressions.

Part of the UAE’s activities include tens of millions of dollars in donations to D.C. think tanks every year and tens of millions of dollars flowing from the UAE to D.C.’s top lobbying and public relations firms. Few personify the UAE’s influence in America better than former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) who, just last week, was added to Democracy for the Arab World Now’s (DAWN) “Lobbyist Hall of Shame” for the work she’s done to whitewash the reputation of the UAE.

The former congresswoman from Miami at times took a critical position on the UAE and was known for lecturing human rights abusers while in Congress. Yet, a year after retiring from the House, she registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to represent the UAE, which has an abysmal human rights record.

After becoming a UAE agent, Ros-Lehtinen wasted little time publicly lambasting the UAE’s rivals. For example, in February 2020, less than a month after registering under FARA to represent the UAE, Ros-Lehtinen authored an article for the Jerusalem Post lambasting Qatar for allegedly funding terrorism. The article didn’t mention that Ros-Lehtinen was a FARA registrant working for Qatar’s rival, the UAE, at the time. 

Similarly, in an October 2022 article for Newsweek, Ros-Lehtinen painstakingly documents the misdeeds of the Iranian regime, without disclosing she’s a foreign agent for Iran’s rival, the UAE. These omissions are noteworthy given that the FARA statute requires a statement on any documents distributed “for or in the interests of”a foreign principal, which indicates “the materials are distributed by the agent on behalf of the foreign principal,” and that additional information is on file with the Justice Department. Such statements help to ensure the public is made aware when they’re reading the work of a registered foreign agent. 

The firm Ros-Lehtinen is working for, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld (Akin Gump), is one of the top lobbying firms in America and has been paid tens of millions of dollars to lobby on behalf of the UAE, according to OpenSecrets. As documented in a recent Quincy Institute report that I authored, “The Emirati Lobby in America,” Akin Gump has been, by far, the most well-paid and active of the 25 firms registered under FARA to represent the UAE. According to 2020 and 2021 FARA filings, the firm received $13.5 million from the UAE government and reported more than 4,000 political activities on the UAE’s behalf. More than half of these activities (2,476) were directed at lobbying staff and members of the House of Representatives, some of whom Ros-Lehtinen had previously worked with.

But Ros-Lehtinen, and even Akin Gump, are just a small piece of the UAE’s much larger influence operation in the U.S. Akin Gump is one of  21 firms currently registered under FARA to represent the UAE. And, UAE influence in America extends well beyond lobbying and public relations firms. A Washington Post exposé, for example, found that in the past seven years, 280 U.S. military retirees have sought authorization to work for the UAE — by far the most of any country. High-profile examples include Stephen Toumajan, a retired lieutenant colonel who became the leader of the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command, and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who coined the term “Little Sparta” to describe the military might of the Gulf country.

The UAE is also one of the top foreign donors to U.S. think tanks, having provided tens of millions of dollars to the Middle East Institute and helping to pay for the gleaming headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example. UAE-funded think tanks are also well-known for staying silent about the country’s myriad transgressions.

The UAE appears committed to offering enormous paychecks to former U.S. military and national security officials as well as members of Congress and think tanks willing to do their bidding. But it’s ultimately U.S. taxpayers that pay the price of the decidedly militarized U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that this well-financed influence operation is pursuing. And that price is only growing as the U.S. gets further entangled with the authoritarian Emirati regime which is now, allegedly, working to directly stymie U.S. intelligence efforts. 

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) speaks at a news conference at her office in Miami, Florida August 12, 2015. Ros-Lehtinen called the opening of a U.S. embassy in Cuba a "diplomatic charade rewarding the tyrannical Castro regime.", local media reported. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
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