US turns blind eye to UAE’s machinations

US turns blind eye to UAE’s machinations
Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, bids farewell to Pope Francis following his three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates last February. Picture: Vatican handout/EPA

The US monitors everyone, apart from Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, so this exception for a militarily ambition nation is a ‘dereliction of duty’, writes Aram Roston

The United Arab Emirates finances the military leader who is trying to topple a United Nations-recognised government in Libya. It co-leads a coalition of nations that is imposing an economic blockade of Qatar, despite US calls to resolve the dispute. And it hired former staffers of the US National Security Agency as elite hackers for a programme that had Americans as surveillance targets, a Reuters investigation found this year.

And yet, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) does not spy on the UAE’s government, three former CIA officials told Reuters, creating a dangerous blind spot in US intelligence.

The CIA’s posture isn’t new. What is new is the nature of the tiny, but influential nation’s intervention across the Middle East and Africa: Fighting wars, running covert operations, and using its financial clout to reshape regional politics in ways that often run counter to US interests.

The CIA’s failure to adapt to the UAE’s growing military and political ambitions amounts to a “dereliction of duty”, said a fourth former CIA official.

The US intelligence community doesn’t ignore the UAE. Another branch, the National Security Agency (NSA), conducts electronic surveillance — a lower-risk, lower-reward kind of intelligence-gathering — inside the UAE, two sources with knowledge of NSA operations told Reuters. And the CIA works with UAE intelligence in a ‘liaison’ relationship that involves intelligence sharing on common enemies, such as Iran or al-Qaeda.

But the CIA does not gather ‘human intelligence’ — the most valuable and difficult-to-obtain information — from UAE informants on its autocratic government, the former CIA officials told Reuters.

The CIA, the NSA, and the White House declined to comment on US espionage practices in the UAE. The UAE’s foreign ministry and its US embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

The CIA’s hands-off practice puts the UAE on an extremely short list of other countries to which the agency takes a similar approach, former intelligence officials said. They include the four other members of an intelligence coalition called ‘The Five Eyes’: Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and Canada.

CIA spies gather human intelligence on every other nation where the US has significant interests, including some key allies, according to four former CIA officials.

The closest contrast to the UAE may be Saudi Arabia, another influential US ally in the Middle East that produces oil and buys US weapons. Unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia is often targeted by the CIA, according to two former CIA officials and a former intelligence officer for a Gulf nation. Saudi intelligence agents have caught several CIA agents trying to recruit Saudi officials as informants, the sources said.

The Saudi intelligence agencies do not complain publicly about CIA spying, but privately meet with the agency’s station chief in Riyadh to ask that the CIA officers involved be quietly ejected from the country, said the former intelligence official for a Gulf nation.

Robert Baer, a former CIA agent and author, called the lack of human intelligence on the UAE “a failure”. US policymakers, he said, need the newest, best information on the internal politics and family feuds of Middle Eastern royalty.

“If you pride yourself on being a world service, it’s a failure,” he said. “The royal families are crucial.”

A former official in US president Donald Trump’s administration said the lack of UAE intelligence is alarming, because the desert monarchy now operates as a “rogue state” in strategic nations, such as Libya and Qatar, and further afield in Africa.

In Sudan, the UAE spent years, and billions of dollars, propping up long-serving Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, then abandoned him and supported the military leaders who overthrew him in April. In June, the new government’s security forces killed dozens of protesters who were pushing for civilian rule and elections. The UAE has also built military bases in Eritrea and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland.

“You turn over any rock in the Horn of Africa, and you find the UAE there,” said the former Trump administration official.

The UAE has asserted itself as a financial and military power in areas “far from its immediate neighbourhood”, said Sara Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

Whether Somalia, or Eritrea or Djibouti, or Yemen, the UAE is not asking for permission

In Yemen, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have led a coalition of nations fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, but the UAE recently started drawing down troops, amid international criticism of air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians and a humanitarian crisis that has pushed millions to the brink of famine. The US Congress recently passed resolutions to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but Trump vetoed the measures.

The UAE government has spent $46.8m on US lobbyists since 2017, says the Center for Responsive Politics.

One of the three former CIA officials with knowledge of the agency’s UAE operations said intelligence on its government is needed for reasons beyond its regional interventions. The UAE is also forging closer ties with Russia — including a wide-ranging strategic partnership signed last year to co-operate on security, trade, and oil markets — and with China, where Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s de facto ruler, last month made a three-day visit for a UAE-China economic forum.

Some national security experts, however, see enough alignment between US and UAE interests to explain the continued lack of spying.

“Their enemies are our enemies,” said Norman Roule, a retired CIA official, referring to Iran and al-Qaeda.

Abu Dhabi’s actions have contributed to the war on terror, particularly against al-Queda in Yemen.

The Abu Dhabi crown prince controls the foreign policy of the UAE, a federation of desert emirates, with a small group of advisors. He installed his US-educated brother, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, a mixed-martial arts buff who owns a stable of Arabian racehorses, as his national security Advisor. His son, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed, runs the country’s sprawling internal surveillance network.

The UAE’s rising interventionism dates back to 2011. Mass protests, demanding democracy, across the region, during the so-called Arab Spring, sparked concern within the UAE palace elite about the preservation of its own power, said Jodi Vittori, a former Air Force Intelligence officer, now with the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

Like many Gulf royals, UAE leaders viewed the demonstrations as a threat to monarchic rule in the region. They have since fought the rise of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, the international Islamic party that briefly rose to power in Egypt after the 2011 protests that ousted the president, Hosni Mubarak. The UAE cut off financial support to Egypt when Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012, and then resumed sending billions in aid after Egypt’s army ousted Morsi a year later.

Vittori acknowledged some shared goals between the US and UAE governments, but said those interests are diverging, as the UAE’s monarchy focuses on self-preservation.

“When the goal is regime-survival at all costs,” she said.

It’s not one that’s going to align with the US.

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