By Ben Norton / AlterNet

A peace sign superimposed on the flag of Saudi Arabia. (Max Pixel)

A highly influential top Emirati diplomat heaped praise on a prominent Washington Post columnist for writing pro-Saudi propaganda, a leaked email shows.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, applauded journalist David Ignatius for his writing on Saudi Arabia. Ignatius is notorious for fawning coverage of the kingdom, promoting its supposed efforts at reform and taking its line on regional conflicts without a shred of skepticism.

The relationship between the UAE’s man in Washington and one of the Beltway’s top pundits is especially notable in light of the conflict that has erupted in the Persian Gulf. A steadily escalating rift between the Gulf states erupted into an all-out media war this June, leading to the alleged hacking of Qatari state media source and the hacking of Otaiba’s personal email account. Before long, the conflict became a siege as Saudi Arabia and its ally, the UAE, suspended diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar, and even imposed a de facto blockade on the country.

With the Trump administration alternating between support for the siege and halting opposition to its escalation, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are demanding Qatar to cut off support for the Muslim Brotherhood and to break its ties with Iran. President Trump took credit for the policy, which he implied was an intentional U.S.-led strategy.

Saudi Arabia has used the political turmoil to deflect from its own complicity in supporting Salafi-jihadist group, portraying violent Islamist extremism as a uniquely Qatari problem. (U.S. government intelligence, on the other hand, has acknowledged that both of its Gulf clients Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported ISIS and al-Qaeda.)

One of the key points of contention between the Gulf states is Al Jazeera, the state-sponsored cable and online news titan that has acted as an arm of Qatari soft power. Though the UAE has no such network to boast of, the emails from Yousef Otaiba — one of the Beltway’s slickest operators — show how the UAE launders its message behind influential sources in Washington.

Doing ‘Everything’ for the Saudi Crown Prince

Both al-Otaiba and Ignatius have huge sway in Washington, D.C. and had the ear of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Both men have gone out of their way to portray the monarchy in Saudi Arabia in a positive light.

On April 20, Ignatius published an article in the Washington Post, titled, “A young prince is reimagining Saudi Arabia. Can he make his vision come true?” Ignatius personally sent al-Otaibi an email on April 21 with a link to the piece. Al-Otaiba replied later the same day, extolling Ignatius. In his reply, al-Otaiba bcc’ed the UAE’s foreign affairs minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, at his official government email account.

“Thank you for taking the time to go out there and meet with MBS,” al-Otaiba wrote, using an acronym for Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, who is calling many of the shots in the kingdom. It is widely speculated that his father, King Salman, is ill.

“It looks from how you wrote this piece,” al-Otaiba continued, “that you are beginning to see what we’ve been seeing for the last two years. Change!”

Al-Otaiba noted the Post article will be very useful in the attempt to rebrand the draconian Saudi regime.

“I’m relieved to find that you saw what we’ve been seeing and frequently trying to convey,” wrote the Emirati ambassador. “Your voice and your credibility will be a huge factor in getting reasonable folks to understand and believe in what’s happening.”

“Our job now,” al-Otaiba concluded, “is to [do] everything possible to ensure MBS succeeds.”

This email is part of a larger leak that appears to be a politically motivated hack in response to attempts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to isolate Qatar.

Emails obtained by other media outlets show the UAE ambassador collaborating with the right-wing, pro-Israel think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies to develop strategies against Iran.

President Trump’s recent Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh has put the Saudi monarchy under renewed scrutiny, highlighting its projection of extremist Wahhabi state ideology throughout the world and its support for Salafi-jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda from Syria to the southern islands of the Philippines.

The UAE, however, has gotten much less attention. The Gulf state is a key ally of the U.S., collaborates militarily in Yemen and pours money into Washington, D.C., think tanks. And Yousef al-Otaiba is the UAE’s voice in Washington.

Shilling for the Saudi Regime

Fellow journalists have taken David Ignatius to task for his long history of penning PR for the Saudi regime.

In a profile for the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Adam Johnson detailed how “For almost 15 years, Ignatius has been breathlessly updating U.S. readers on the token, meaningless public relations gestures that the Saudi regime—and, by extension, Ignatius—refer to as ‘reforms.’ “

Ignatius has published more than a dozen Washington Post columns recycling hackneyed Saudi regime talking points, echoing members of the royal family and even rationalizing the beheading of peaceful dissidents from the kingdom’s Shia minority.

Ignatius’ April 20 profile on Mohammed bin Salman was enthusiastically endorsed by numerous Saudi figures, including the mission to the European Union; the new pro-regime, Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Arabia Foundation; and Nasser al-Biqami, who was appointed secretary-general of Riyadh’s new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.

Ignatius Influencing Hillary Clinton

Ignatius’ writings have a strong influence not just on the U.S. public, but on the government itself. His columns’ impact on the administration of President Barack Obama and on his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was evident in the tranche of emails released from Clinton’s hacked private server. Ignatius was mentioned 40 times in the Clinton emails.

Soon after Clinton was appointed to the head of the State Department, she had two private meetings with Ignatius, itineraries from May 2009 emails show.

Clinton aides and State Department officials regularly forwarded David Ignatius’ writings to the secretary of state, including articles like “Plotting a post-Assad road map for Syria.” Jake Sullivan directly recommended that Clinton read Ignatius. Sidney Blumenthal, an outside advisor, likewise shared several of Ignatius’ Middle East columns with the secretary.

Even Clinton herself spoke with State Department officials about Ignatius’ work and asked about him. A State Department official drafted a response to one of Clinton’s emails referencing the Washington Post columnist, and added, “I suggest you call David Ignatius sometime next week laying this out.”

Ignatius was so chummy with Clinton’s staff, he sent Jake Sullivan a message in 2011 asking for a phone call and inviting Sullivan to speak to his class at Harvard University.

How Otaiba Influenced Clinton and Trump

Otaiba also enjoyed close personal ties to Clinton during her time as secretary of state. A 2010 email shows he reached out to Hillary Clinton to personally wish her a happy birthday.

The Emirati diplomat is mentioned 22 times in the emails released from Clinton’s time as former secretary of state. Al-Otaiba regularly emailed Clinton’s aide Jake Sullivan, who then forwarded the messages to her. Some of the messages show itineraries with private meetings between Secretary Clinton and al-Otaiba. The messages also reveal the casual nature of Otaiba’s relationship with top U.S. officials.

Under the Trump administration, Otaiba’s influence has grown. He is especially close to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been tapped as a diplomatic jack-of-all-trades despite having entered Washington with no experience in government. Kushner, whose family has forged close ties to Israel’s Likud Party, has been described as Otaiba’s student, relying on him as a guide to the Middle East.

Top Influence Peddler

Yousef al-Otaiba is the son of the oil tycoon Mana al-Otaiba. Mana served as oil minister for the UAE — a formidable position in a country whose entire economy and political system depends on fossil fuels. Al-Otaiba senior was also president of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) a record six times.

A 2015 profile of Otaiba in the Huffington Post details how the diplomat plays politicians and the media like a virtuoso. The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee told the Huffington Post, “I’ve spent probably more time with Yousef than I have anybody.”

Otaiba exerted his influence on a private 2014 Pentagon meeting on ISIS strategy held by the U.S. Defense Policy Board. He was the only foreign politician invited, save for Britain’s ambassador, joining former top U.S. foreign policy honchos like Madeleine Albright and Zbigniew Brzezinski. At the meeting, Otaiba was the most vociferous proponent of regime change in Syria and violently toppling the government of Bashar al-Assad.

This was consistent with Otaiba’s history of pushing the U.S. toward massive military escalations. In 2010, he used his voice to amplify calls from the pro-Israel lobby and hawkish members of Congress for an attack on Iran. At a conference at the Aspen Institute, Otaiba declared, “I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE.”

Ben Norton is a reporter for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.


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