Hacks, Money and Qatari Crisis: How Gulf States Entangled D.C. Think Tanks in Their Fight for Influence

D.C. think tanks find themselves in the line of fire of the Gulf states' feud, after anonymous hackers leak emails between UAE's top Washington diplomat and senior members of a pro-Israeli research foundation

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Vice President of the Brookings Institution Martin Indyk, Qatari FM Al-Thani (Middle) and Foreign Ministry's secretary general Al Hammadi sign an agreement in Doha, May, 2017
Vice President of the Brookings Institution Martin Indyk, Qatari FM Al-Thani (Middle) and Foreign Ministry's secretary general Al Hammadi sign an agreement in Doha, May, 2017Credit: Qatar's Foreign Ministry
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON - The biggest news story in the Middle East on Monday morning was the decision by a number of Arab states to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar over the support of the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchy for Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the background to this fight over regional influence is a story about fights over influence far away, in Washington. Over the weekend, several U.S. news websites were contacted by anonymous hackers who offered to share with them hacked emails from the private account of the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States. The UAE, also a petroleum-rich Gulf nation, has a long-standing rivalry with Qatar, its much-smaller neighbor.

Some of the news outlets published the stolen messages, nearly all of which focused on contacts between the powerful ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that has been highly critical of the Qatari government in recent years over its support for Hamas and other terrorist groups.

One thing that rival neighbor states Qatar and the UAE share is a desire to increase their influence in Washington and a willingness to spend lavishly to achieve that goal. In recent years, both nations have put millions of dollars into various think tanks, institutions at the crossroads of politics and research that drive much of the defense and diplomacy conversation in the American capital.

In 2014, the UAE helped to found the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. The organization, which has also received donations from Saudi Arabia, is the first institution of its kind in the capital to focus exclusively on the Gulf region.

The UAE has also announced partnerships with other influential think tanks such as the Atlantic Council and the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

Qatar, meanwhile, has donated millions of dollars to the Brookings Institution. Just last month it announced a new partnership with the influential research group, part of an attempt to “carry out a research project on the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world.” The UAE has also donated to Brookings over the years.

The think tank at the center of the latest news story, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, does not receive any funding from foreign governments. It is considered strongly pro-Israel and it has received contributions from Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson (The FDD’s CEO Mark Dubowitz said this weekend that Adelson has not donated to the organization since 2013.) One issue the think tank has focused on in recent years is Qatar’s support for terror organizations such as Hamas, and that’s probably the main reason it has become embroiled in the Qatar-UAE feud.

Just two weeks ago, FDD hosted a conference on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliate groups. One of the main speakers was former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but exactly one week later the stolen emails from the UAE ambassador’s account, focusing almost entirely on Otaiba’s contacts with FDD figures and conference speakers such as Gates, were offered to journalists.

According to the Huffington Post, one of the news outlets that reported on the stolen emails, the hackers claimed they were not connected to Qatar. Another report said that they used a Russian email address, which doesn’t indicate much, since anyone can easily obtain an email adresss with a different country suffix. There are no clear indications thus far as to who was behind the hack, but it seems obvious that the two main targets of the stolen emails that have been published — the ambassador himself and FDD — are both rivals of the Qatari government.

Jonathan Schanzer, the Senior Vice President for Research at FDD, told Haaretz that "FDD has a long track record of analysis on Qatar. We have been researching the country's ties to terrorism for six years. And we have been rather open about it. The fact that we speak to others in Washington about our work should come as no surprise. This is what think tanks do."

Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador, is considered one of the most influential, well-connected diplomats in Washington, and has served in the post since 2008. Despite the fact that Israel and the UAE do not have diplomatic relations, Otaiba is considered close to many figures in the “pro-Israel” community in Washington, since Israel and the UAE share common interests with regards to Iran and regional terror threats.

The Qatari government, it should be noted, claims that it was also the victim of a recent cyberattack. Last week, an official news agency in Qatar published a story in which the country’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, was quoted praising Iran and criticizing the new U.S. administration. The country’s foreign ministry announced shortly afterward that the story was fake and had been planted in the news agency’s website. Qatar blamed the hack on other Gulf countries, and claimed they were trying to hurt its relations with the United States.

Qatar is home to one of the largest American military bases on foreign soil, and is viewed as an important economic partner of the United States in the Middle East. One of the issues that came up in Otaiba’s stolen emails was his attempts to create a public discussion on the idea that the United States should shut down the base in Qatar and move it to another country. If such a step is implemented, it would be a serious blow to Qatar’s diplomatic, strategic and economic situation.

The tension between the two Gulf countries severely escalated on Monday, with the announcement of the severance of diplomatic relations. It will be interesting to see if the renewed rivalry will continue to play out not only in the region itself, but also in Washington, through the political combination of our time — hacks, leaks, money and influence.

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