UAE: A Revisionist Power with Status Quo Branding

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The New York Based Human Rights Foundation (HRF) recently published a bombshell new report describing one of the greatest infiltrations of America’s political system ever conducted by a foreign power. For years, the autocratic United Arab Emirates has waged an aggressive, multi-pronged campaign of interference – deploying covert lobbying, illicit funding, and exploitation of legal loopholes to an unprecedented degree. The issue of challenging the UAE’s influence within US institutions now demands serious action, including the potential imposition of sanctions.

While Russia, China and other conventional adversaries tend to garner focus, the UAE has been quietly but importantly building its influence in the U.S. As laid bare in the HRF report Infiltrating America: How the United Arab Emirates Launched an Unprecedented Political Interference Campaign in the United States, the UAE has orchestrated an audacious infiltration campaign targeting the highest levels of the US government, think tanks, academic institutions, and lobbying firms.

From funnelling tens of millions in illicit funding to American policy influencers, to covertly recruiting former US military and intelligence officials into its service, the UAE’s pattern of behaviour is deeply alarming. Furthermore, the UAE has deployed an array of cyber-surveillance tools, including the notorious Pegasus malware created by the Israeli firm NSO Group, against a wide range of targets across national borders, including American journalists, the British House of Lords, the editor of the Financial Times, as well as myriad domestic and regional opponents. This transnational repression represents a flagrant violation of the sovereignty of democratic nations.

This disturbing reality can no longer be politely ignored in service of preserving a convenient geopolitical partnership. The UAE’s unparalleled interference poses an existential test of America’s ability to protect its institutions from being compromised by an emboldened autocratic state actor.

Moreover, the UAE’s transgressions as an offender against the democratic world order extend far beyond spying. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Emirati regime tacitly sided with the Kremlin as it rolled out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin 2023. The embrace represents an endorsement of Moscow’s foreign policy.

The UAE has since emerged as one of the largest trans-shipment hubs for Russian oil exports, effectively facilitating the evasion of Western sanctions. This undermining of much of the international stance against Moscow’s aggression indicates the UAE believes it can act with impunity, without fearing serious repercussions that might impact its reputation or relations with the West. This should put to bed any illusion that the UAE can be treated as a reliable American partner aboard and demands a clear change in policy by the U.S. and its democratic partners.

Yet, the United Arab Emirates portrays itself as a modern, reform-minded ally of the West and has worked aggressively to whitewash its own dismal human rights record and domestic totalitarian reality. It has poured billions into a global influence campaign of “reputation laundering” to remake its public image. According to analysis of foreign influence tracker data, the UAE has spent over $154 million on lobbyists since 2016.

Any positive PR garnered abroad is solely for international consumption, starkly contrasting with the repression the regime routinely inflicts upon its own population. The UAE has continued its unrelenting criminalization of dissent, with the recent prosecution of dozens of activists and human rights defenders in mass injustice legal proceedings known as the UAE94 and UAE84 trials.

I have directly witnessed the UAE’s repressive overreach as an international human rights barrister. I represent Western nationals like US citizen Zack Shahin and Briton Ryan Cornelius who have been arbitrarily detained for years in the UAE, with the United Nations affirming their imprisonment violates international law.

There must be tangible consequences for the UAE’s interference in domestic affairs, human rights abuses, and active subversion of the rule-based international order. Democratic nations can no longer indulge the facade of the UAE as a reform-minded ally while turning a blind eye to its assault on human rights, sovereignty, and rules-based norms. Western institutions and governments must wake up to the reality of the UAE’s intent and infiltration. A firm line should be drawn, with the potential imposition of sanctions and curtailing of economic ties if the UAE’s attempts to play both sides continue unabated. Likewise, with the UAE’s well-documented appetite for lobbying, there are genuine risks of the UAE attempting to manipulate upcoming US and European Union elections. Proactive measures, such as stringent monitoring of UAE-linked entities, finance flows, and influence operations, are crucial to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

The UAE’s lobbying efforts in the U.S., coupled with its use of transnational repression, highlight a disturbing trend. While portraying itself as a democratic ally, the UAE is actively undermining democratic institutions abroad while cracking down on dissent at home. This necessitates a strong international response to hold the UAE accountable for its actions. For too long, the international community has indulged the UAE’s blatant misconduct as a way to preserve a pragmatic yet thoroughly unpalatable status quo. But the regime has demonstrated it is not a status quo actor, but one actively seeking to subvert democracy, sovereignty and human rights norms from within and without. Accountability is long overdue.


Rhys Davies is an international human rights barrister based in London, United Kingdom, and will be speaking at the “Hostile Intent: UAE Subversion & Transnational Repression” seminar on June 11th at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author(s) alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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