The United Arab Emirates is one of the world’s largest lobbyists to project an image of moderation and stability. Meanwhile, it engages in bloody wars, from Libya to Yemen. An investigation published this Friday by the Corporate Europe Observatory reveals the lobby of the autocratic kingdom in Brussels: from a group of experts headed by former European prime ministers, among them José María Aznar, to lobby consultancies specialized in “privatized diplomacy” and its use of “social media disinformation platforms.”
The United Arab Emirates, where King Juan Carlos has fled because of his problems with the law, has established several footholds in Brussels, in line with its ambition to be a “global soft superpower.” Thus, the lobbying work not only helps to polish the country’s image as a “moderate and friendly ally of the EU”, but “the aim is to proactively shape the narrative and the way the rest of the world, including Europe sees you, as well as your role in the region, “states the CEO report.
For example, the United Arab Emirates and its lobbyists attempt to project autocratic rulers “as a stabilizing force in the Gulf; and it paints any attempts at pluralism, development of civil society, or the activity of rival powers such as Qatar or Turkey, as a gateway to Islamist chaos and terror, “says the document.
Lobbyists whitewashing the UAE do so by “presenting it as a stable partner in the region, committed to humanitarian aid, an ally against terrorism and climate change, and promoting increasing secular restraint, to aid the autocratic state rich in Oil to hide its darker side: the UAE has been accused of perpetrating war crimes in Yemen, has crushed dissent and backed the brutal Sisi regime in Egypt, and has played a crucial role as a key supplier of weapons in the conflict in Libya. Not to mention internal human rights violations such as the abuse of migrant workers or the crushing of dissent within its borders. ”
A report by the Center for International Policy cited by the CEO notes that the United Arab Emirates spent a minimum of $ 15.4 million in 2019 on regular donations to think tanks in Washington between 2014 and 2018. While transparency gaps are translate into the absence of equivalent lobbying spending figures for the EU, Brussels has been a lesser target for the UAE than Washington DC. However, since 2017 the Gulf kingdom has redoubled its efforts in Brussels, with several major players.
The Bussola Institute is a group of experts founded in Brussels in October 2017 with total opacity about its income and expenses. While he claims to be working on behalf of relations between the EU and the Gulf region as a whole, all his institutional ties are with the United Arab Emirates.
No financing information is available from Bussola. However, like many think tanks which they refuse to disclose to their sponsors, is a sophisticated combination of serious academic research and strategic communications. In addition, it benefits from the networks of several former European heads of state, mainly conservatives, at its top, including a former NATO secretary general.
Among its tasks, “are to offer Abu Dhabi a hub in Brussels to legitimize its narratives; for example, the Bussola Institute’s policy documents are an elegant way of stating the Emirates’ foreign policy goals, and at its events. high-level officials (such as commissioners and members of the European External Action Service) regularly participate in lobbying in Brussels “, says the investigation, which describes the Bussola institute as” mysterious “due to its” total lack of transparency: it does not reveal how it was finances, but its list of honorary members includes former Spanish President José María Aznar, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen; former Irish Prime Minister Mary McAleese; former Prime Ministers of France, François Fillon; and Croatia, Jadranka Kosor ; and former EU Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou. In addition, several MEPs are listed as “guests of honor”, including former Polish Prime Minister Jer zey Busek, the secretary general of the European People’s Party, Antonio López-Isturiz; and the Chairman of the Party of European Socialists, Sergei Dmitrievich Stanishev, former Prime Minister of Bulgaria and Vice Chairman of the EU-UAE Parliamentary Friendship Group.
“It is not appropriate for high-ranking European politicians and officials to lend their names and influence to an opaque think tank that does not disclose its funding sources. Furthermore, this is a group of experts that, although it appears to represent the entire Gulf, operates in interest of the autocratic rulers of the United Arab Emirates to perpetuate their image of ‘authoritarian stability’ as part of the ‘soft power’ of the kingdom’s campaign “, states a spokesman for the Corporate Europe Observatory:” European citizens have the right to know which regimes repressive are putting pressure on our officials and on what issues. ”
Andreas Krieg, an academic at Kings College London, told British newspaper The Times: “The danger of teams like Bussola is that they suggest a degree of academic objectivity, when in fact it serves the foreign policy interests of a Middle Eastern country whose track record in human rights policies is incompatible with the values and interests of Europe I think it is therefore problematic for any government to engage with Bussola, as the presence of senior political leaders on the board, or at events, provides legitimacy to this Emirati lobby group. ”
The Bussola Institute was registered as a non-profit organization in October 2017 in Brussels, and it appeared in the EU Transparency Register at the end of 2018. Its budget is, according to its entry in the Transparency Register, 400,000 euros, with annual lobbying costs calculated between 50,000 euros to 90,000 euros. Five staff members are registered with the European Parliament.
The PP MEP Antonio López-Istúriz White has been president of the Parliamentary Group of Friends of the European Union-United Arab Emirates since 2014. He is secretary general of the European People’s Party (EPP) and a former advisor to José María Aznar. López-Istúriz is on the Bussola Institute’s “guests of honor” list, while Aznar is a member of the expert council. “There are no indications of direct payments to López-Istúriz by the Bussola Institute in its financial statements, and the Institute did not respond to inquiries either,” details the Corporate Europe Observatory.
López-Istúriz has traveled to the United Arab Emirates as an MEP on numerous occasions, including one for a conference where the United Arab Emirates’ main lobbyist in Washington, Yousuf Otaiba, spoke. On a 2017 official visit for the EU-UAE friendship group, he met with Mohammad Bin Zayad Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi commonly known as MBZ.
Antonio López-Istúriz White also co-chaired a session on the UAE in the European Parliament, with an exhibition in January 2019 inside the compound highlighting the humanitarian activities of the autocratic kingdom around the world, and its alleged achievements in rights. Women’s. The exhibition even featured a presentation by the then President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, in which human rights concerns were not addressed, a theme that has traditionally centered Tajani’s countless speeches on Venezuela.
The event was co-organized by López-Istúriz, and the then president of the Federal National Council of the United Arab Emirates, Amal Abdullah al-Qubaisi.
The UAE’s positions on terrorism tend to permeate conservative MEPs. For example, López-Istúriz usually abstains or votes against language critical of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to the CEO. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates have been pressuring the United States to impose sanctions on Turkey, something López Istúriz added, demanding that the EU also impose sanctions through the European Council.
Indeed, several MEPs from the UAE friendship group either abstained or voted against a resolution in the European Parliament to control arms exports to Saudi Arabia and Yeme.
London-based public relations firm Project Associates, based in London with an office in Brussels since 2017, has a contract with the UAE’s National Media Council, the CEO’s report states. And Project Associates recently enrolled in the EU voluntary Transparency Register, where its client is not listed. In contrast, the UAE National Media Council is listed as a current customer (as of August 2020) on the United States’ Mandatory and Legally Required Foreign Agent Lobby Registry (FARA).
“This contract,” explains the Corporate Europe Observatoy, “shows that Project Associates outsourced the controversial data mining and disinformation company on-line SCL Social (sister company of better known Cambridge Analytica) to attack UAE rival Qatar. This work included propaganda on social media and posting stories in the European press, including Brussels-based New Europe and the UK newspaper The Independent. SCL Group founder Nigel Oakes is now a resident of the United Arab Emirates. ”
Westphalia Global Advisory
It is a public relations company based in Brussels created in 2018; their main client appears to be the UAE Embassy to the EU in Brussels, explains the CEO: “A March 2020 report on the Westphalia Global Advisory website suggests strategic ways in which the UAE’s autocratic leadership can present itself. as offering ‘authoritarian stability’ in the Gulf. Its two co-founders and directors, Timo Behr and Tim Eestermans, have years of experience working for the Foreign Ministry as advisers to Mohammed Issa Hamad Abushahab. Abushahab became the Ambassador to the Emirates Arabs in the EU, and now they represent him and the embassy as a client. ”
The NGO report explains that “there are many other lobbying issues that have affected the UAE in recent years, from visa-free travel to the EU, to its quest to be removed from the blacklist of tax havens and avoiding arms embargoes. Unfortunately, without an improvement in the transparency of the EU lobby, we are left in the dark as to what is going on behind. It is worth noting that the UAE already has official diplomatic channels with the EU. This raises the question of whether it is legitimate for EU-based lobbying consultancies to play a role in a third-country propaganda effort to influence European institutions and the press; and, in particular, whether they should be able to partially conceal their participation while they do it. ”