As a recent New York Times profile of Emirati prince Mohammed bin Zayed illustrated in minute detail, a deft, decades-long strategy to work the levers of power in Washington has paid off spectacularly for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Prince Mohammed (more commonly known as MBZ), whose official title is Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi but who in reality rules the entire country, could be considered the richest and most powerful leader in the Arab world. He is almost certainly the most influential one among the American foreign policy establishment.
As the New York Times explains, MBZ has deftly navigated the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations, managing to develop a close rapport with both presidents but enjoying unprecedented success in getting his vision for the Middle East across to President Trump. By establishing close contacts with the administration and its key figures, MBZ has pushed the Trump administration to adopt his own uncompromisingly hard line on both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia and its own crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman or MBS, attract most of the criticism within the Washington establishment over the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. MBZ, however, was the primary driving force behind that military intervention – and indeed of his protégé MBS’ ascension to effective control of Saudi Arabia. Even so, MBZ has made sure his government can count on a warm welcome from both sides of the aisle by cultivating close relationships with leading Washington think tanks and foreign policy figures.
Kuwait suddenly gets a very different reception
Until recently, the same could have been said of Kuwait, a country with one of the region’s most conciliatory foreign policies and perhaps the closest ties of friendship with the United States. Washington’s long-standing reliance on Kuwait as a stable ally in the Middle East explains why there are more than 15,000 American troops still based there, nearly three decades after George H.W. Bush led an international coalition to free Kuwait from the invading forces of Saddam Hussein in 1991. Since then, American policymakers from both parties have counted on Kuwaiti assistance to pursue their diplomatic, military, and humanitarian objectives throughout the Middle East.
Over the past several months, however, a number of prominent American political voices – primarily from the conservative end of the political spectrum – have turned on Kuwait over the prosecution of Kuwait-based Russian businesswoman Marsha Lazareva. Lazareva is reportedly a graduate of the Wharton Business School and has served as a senior executive of the Kuwaiti logistics company Kuwait & Gulf Link (KGL) since 2004, but she is best known for spending much of the last two years in prison on fraud, money laundering and embezzlement charges.
Kuwaiti courts jailed her and another KGL executive, chairman Saeed Dashti, in 2017 for allegedly pilfering money from investors using corporate entities based in the Cayman Islands. With appeals in their cases still ongoing, both Lazareva and Dashti were ordered released on bail on June 2nd.
A wide array of well-paid voices
In the interim, KGL has hired a star-studded team of American, British, and Russian lobbyists to discredit Kuwait’s case against them and undermine its international reputation, spending as much money on US lobbying as American corporate titans Verizon and AT&T. Indeed, the company seems to have taken a page out of the MBZ playbook. The UAE spent $21.4 million on US lobbying in 2017 and a further $14.3 million in 2018, while Abu Dhabi alone spent $14.8 million.
Thanks to KGL’s efforts, Lazareva in particular now has the vocal support of some prominent political allies in the United States, including former US Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former Trump campaign fundraiser Brian Ballard, former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, and former US House Foreign Relations Chair Ed Royce. As part of his services rendered, Freeh penned a piece in Morning Consult calling on the Trump administration to work with Congress in imposing sanctions on “those responsible for Marsha’s false incarceration.”
The most striking name on the list, however, may be Neil Bush – the late George H.W. Bush’s son. In an editorial piece published on the Washington Times, the younger Bush accused the Kuwaiti courts of “human rights abuses” and warned the Lazareva case threatens Kuwait’s international standing. In doing so, he offered an edifying example of just how far some of the most prominent American political names are willing to bend their allegiances for lucrative contracts, in spite of the high stakes facing American interests in the Gulf.
Has the campaign impacted US foreign policy?
KGL’s lobbying operation has cast a wide net, but it has not managed to win the entire American conservative establishment to their side. Instead, one of the very Congressional leaders like Freeh and Bush hope to convince has openly called for investigations of KGL.
In January 2018, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida wrote a scathing letter to the inspector-general of the US Department of Defence to ask for an investigation into whether KGL violated not only the regulations governing US government contractors (of which KGL is a major one), but also the sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran in the midst of international efforts to stop the Iranian regime’s nuclear program. The allegations mentioned by Rubio include claims that KGL may have set up front companies in order to do business with Iran, in direct violation of US sanctions on the country and at the same time KGL was handling lucrative contracts on behalf of the US government.
Freeh, Bush, and other members of the KGL lobbying effort are continuing their outreach to the Trump administration, but they do not yet appear to have caused a noticeable difference in how the US approaches Kuwait. If nothing else, their willingness to endorse a campaign undermining an American ally’s judicial system for a payday demonstrates just how arbitrary global allegiances in Washington truly are – a lesson leaders like MBZ apparently learned years ago.
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