The email account of one of Washington’s most influential foreign operatives, Yousef Al-Otaiba, has been hacked. A number of those emails were sent to the Intercept, as well as the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, the Intercept reports. The hacker has allegedly promised to release a trove of these emails publicly.
Otaiba is the United Arab Emirate’s ambassador to the United States, and the Intercept confirms that the Hotmail account in question is the one he used for his business in Washington. The Huffington Post further confirmed that at least one of the emails is authentic, and a UAE spokesperson confirmed Otaiba account had been hacked. None of the eight individuals whose names were involved in the email exchanges – and who were contacted by the Huffington Post for comment – denied that the exchanges took place.
Otaiba is well-connected inside Washington. According to Politico, he is “in almost constant phone and email contact” with Jared Kushner, whom he met in June last year through a mutual friend (a billionaire real estate investor). The hacked emails also include communications with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The Intercept reports:
“Otaiba’s influence derives largely from his pocketbook, as the ambassador is well known for throwing lavish dinner parties, galas, and hosting powerful figures on extravagant trips. Several Christmases ago, he sent out iPads as gifts to journalists and other Washington power players… There’s no telling what kind of messages might reside in that inbox.”
According to the Intercept, the hackers used a .ru email address, immediately associating them with Russia. They referred to themselves as GlobalLeaks (which ties them to DCLeaks, a website that previously released Democratic emails). It has been speculated that DCLeaks was a front used by Russian intelligence.
Either the hackers are connected to Russia or someone wants to give the appearance that they are. However, according to the Huffington Post, the hackers said they sought to expose “the UAE’s efforts to manipulate the U.S. government, and denied any allegiance to Qatar or any other government.”
The emails provided to the Intercept showed a growing relationship between the UAE and a pro-Israel neoconservative think tank known as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Technically, the UAE does not even formally recognize Israel as a country, yet the country has bonded with Israel over their mutual hatred for Iran.
On March 10th, 2017, FDD’s CEO Mark Dubowitz wrote an email to both Otaiba and FDD Senior Counselor John Hannah – a former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney – with the subject line “Target list of companies investing in Iran, UAE and Saudi Arabia.” Dubowitz’s attached memorandum also included a lengthy list of “non-U.S. businesses with operations in Saudi Arabia or UAE that are looking to invest in Iran.” The inference here was that those companies were identified so they could be forced “to [make] a choice” between investing in Iran or its rival counterparts.
Israel and the Gulf States have appeared to bond more and more over their distaste for Iran. The FDD is funded by pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson, an ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Adelson outright endorsed Donald Trump for president in an opinion piece for the Washington Post; this should tell you something about the types of circles Otaiba and the FDD are operating within.
As the Intercept notes:
“FDD has been involved in shaping Mideast policy debate during the Trump administration, so it is likely that the UAE views it as an important conduit to pressure Trump to adopt its more hawkish line on Iran. David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the organization, was quoted last month as saying that the UAE is ‘ecstatic’ about the Trump administration’s approach to the region.” [emphasis added]
In an email exchange on August 16 of last year, an email from Hannah to Otaiba seemed to implicate their involvement in the momentary coup attempt in Turkey.
However, one of the more important aspects of the email exchange is the mounting distrust and opposition to Qatar, particularly because of their decision to host Hamas at an Emirati-owned hotel. In their eyes, Qatari-based news outlet Al-Jazeera is “an instrument of regional instability.”
In order to understand the true depth of this anti-Qatari sentiment, one has to analyze the regional conflicts and the power struggle taking place since the Arab Spring. While Qatar shared common ground with the U.S. and the other Arab states in removing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and efforts to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Qatar actually supports different groups on the ground that are opposed to the U.S. backed forces, particularly in Libya. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as controversial, as many of these Arab states view the organization as a dangerous political enemy (though no one has seemed remotely concerned with the fact that Qatar also directly sponsors ISIS).
Most notable, however, was a recent report in the Qatari media that appeared to show Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani give a speech that described his respect for Iran and his support for Hamas. Qatar claimed the report was actually the result of a hack, but the UAE and Saudi Arabia still believe the report to be genuine. As Reuters reported, this disagreement actually forced the respective countries to take their feud public.
The assault on Qatar can be seen throughout the email exchanges, including the ones involving Robert Gates. The night before Gates was scheduled to speak at a high-profile Washington Conference on Qatar (hosted by the FDD at the end of May this year), Otaiba wrote to him to say “the subject of the conference has been a neglected issue in U.S. foreign policy despite all the trouble it’s causing…Coming from you, folks will listen carefully.” Otaiba also wrote that “MBZ [UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed] sends his best from Abu Dhabi…He says ‘give them hell tomorrow.’”
The next day, Gates’s speech was an all-out assault on Qatar, which told the country to choose sides, warning that if they didn’t, they would “…change the nature of the relationship.”
The email exchanges demonstrate a very significant stranglehold over current and former officials held by someone most Americans have probably never heard of. The fact that Robert Gates, a former CIA Director under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and secretary of defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama — a man who publicly admitted the depth of America’s role in Afghanistan in the 1980s — can be swayed by Otaiba’s emails is telling in and of itself.
In an almost scripted move, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt just cut ties with Qatar on Sunday and urged “all brotherly countries and companies to do the same.” Clearly, Qatar is not following the U.S.-Saudi-dominated playbook and there are many powerful players behind the scenes who have orchestrated the denigration of Qatari relations with the U.S. and other major Arab states.
What is also telling is that two rivals, Israel and the UAE, are putting aside their obvious differences and working together through these influential alliances to oppose Iran. Trump’s recent speech in Saudi Arabia was focused intensely on the alleged Iranian threat, something that has clearly excited the FDD and the people within Otaiba’s circles.
For all we know, Trump’s ramped up anti-Iranian rhetoric was done at the behest of these parties, who clearly maintain a strong degree of influence inside Washington.
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