Yousef Al-Otaiba Is The Most Powerful Man in Washington You've Never Heard Of


Yousef Al Otaiba is the most charming man in Washington: He's slick, he's savvy and he throws one hell of a party. And if he has his way, our Middle East policy is going to get a lot more aggressive.

By Ryan Grim and Akbar Shahid Ahmed

Last September, as Islamic State militants rampaged through Syria and Iraq, the Pentagon hosted a top-secret meeting to debate strategy. At the invitation of the Defense Policy Board, which advises the secretary of defense, a small group of foreign policy eminences, including former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, gathered in a conference room in the E-ring of the building.

The assembled experts were trying to make sense of a Middle East in greater turmoil than it had been since World War I. Starting in 2010, the Arab Spring had toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A protest movement in Syria had morphed into an armed revolution, while sectarian violence in Iraq split the country apart. The Islamic State, or ISIS, surged to fill the resulting power vacuums, exploiting long-held resentments and capturing an extraordinary amount of American-provided weapons and equipment. In June, it swept across Syria, claimed Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and declared a global caliphate.

And so the group assembled at the Pentagon played out multiple scenarios and weighed policy options that ranged from awful to slightly-less-awful. Bombing ISIS in Syria meant effectively coming to the aid of dictator Bashar al Assad. Arming Syrian rebel groups against Assad risked empowering ISIS and other extremists, either directly or indirectly. Attacking both ISIS and Assad would essentially mean fighting on both sides of the same conflict.

The policymakers were split between those who wanted to intervene aggressively in Syria in support of moderate rebels against Assad, and those who hewed more closely to President Barack Obama's position that there is no military solution to the conflict. There was one proponent, however, for wiping Assad off the map entirely. He made a curious participant at a private gathering on U.S. strategy, as one of only two foreign officials at the meeting (the other, predictably, was the British ambassador). Yousef Al Otaiba, the ambassador for the United Arab Emirates, was known to be a forceful advocate for an aggressive U.S. military intervention in Syria. A bald, handsome 40-year-old with an extravagant air of self-assurance, he argued that the hands-off approach had only emboldened ISIS and other extremist groups.

But Otaiba was prepared to help the U.S with its predicament. At another private meeting with Wendy Sherman, a top State Department official, he struck a dramatic tone. "Our F16 is ready, Madame Sherman. Tell us what time you need them," he said, according to one participant and confirmed by others briefed on the meeting.

Within days of the Pentagon gathering, a photogenic female Emirati fighter pilot, Major Mariam Al Mansouri, led a UAE bombing strike on ISIS, in coordination with U.S. forces. It was the perfect PR move. "That's awesome," said Joe Scarborough when Otaiba appeared on "Morning Joe" to confirm the pilot’s identity. "You can't do this without us, and we can't do this without you," Otaiba replied, referring to the anti-ISIS effort. “I love it. I absolutely love it," Scarborough replied.

In just a few years, Otaiba has acquired an extraordinary influence in the capital. He can often be spotted dining with members of the media, Congress and the administration: the Four Seasons in Georgetown is a favorite power-breakfast spot. ("He doesn't work the tables. People come to him," says one regular.) He makes the perfect Washington dinner guest: A Muslim who’ll raise a glass and offer inside insights on the volatile politics of the region. “He is incredibly savvy,” says a former White House aide. “He throws great social events. He understands how Washington works, how the Hill works, which a lot of these countries don’t. He knows the dynamics and how to pit different entities against each other when he needs to.” Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says, “I’ve spent probably more time with Yousef than I have anybody.”

It’s not uncommon to hear him compared to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who reigned as Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington for decades, forging a bond between Gulf and Washington elites. Otaiba himself privately bristles at the comparison—and he has certainly carved out his own style. “Bandar had a reputation as being brilliant. [Otaiba] has a little bit more of a bro-ish, frat-boy vibe to him,” says one person who has dined at his mansion. He often schedules meetings at the café inside his gym (the Equinox at the Ritz Carlton). On the lower floors of the State Department, among some, he's known simply as "Brotaiba."

Above all, Otaiba’s rise as a powerful foreign policy operator reflects the ways in which the Arab Spring has upended the traditional power dynamics of America’s Middle East policy. Once-reliable U.S. allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have seen their regional power and their clout in Washington erode. New enemies, like the Islamic State, have emerged. And now a major adversary, Iran, is ever so slightly coming in from the cold. In the midst of these historic shifts, the UAE, led by Otaiba in Washington, has become a key ally for the U.S.—and an increasingly aggressive influence on U.S. foreign policy. Michael Petruzzello, the longtime representative of the Saudi diplomat-turned-foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir, observed that Otaiba does not fit the model of a typical ambassador. "What he understands is that the traditional way of conducting diplomacy, just getting close to a few key people in Washington, isn't enough any longer," he says. "You need to approach it like a public campaign, with everything that entails—media, philanthropy, the Hill, the White House, all of it."

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During the last half-century, the discovery of oil in the Gulf region has transformed the UAE from a poor tribal desert society into a fantastically wealthy tribal desert society. A government-owned wealth fund that the UAE established to manage the oil money is one of the two largest pools of investment capital in the world.

In the mid-2000s, a UAE-owned company, Dubai Ports World, moved to buy a British firm that managed a handful of American ports. The sale had already been approved by the Bush administration when it was spotted by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. Schumer, who was eyeing Senate leadership, painted the UAE as an infamous sponsor of terrorism. Fox News mentioned the deal at least 70 times during a space of two months; politicians on both sides of the aisle reacted as if Osama bin Laden himself would be working the cranes. Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator and the presumed frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, sponsored legislation to bar companies owned by foreign governments from buying U.S. ports. Humiliated, the UAE pulled out of the deal.

The UAE’s ruling bin Zayed Al-Nahyan family had long prided itself on the country’s reputation as a moderate Arab partner of the United States. Inside the government, the Dubai Ports World episode was seen as a crisis—and it was one that Otaiba was particularly well-suited to meet.

"Who's the new person in town? Maybe Yousef will sponsor this," a DC socialite recalls a prominent society event planner asking. "He was very quickly known as an easy source of money with no strings attached.”

Otaiba was born into a wealthy and well-connected merchant family. His father was the UAE's first oil minister and had at least twelve children with four wives, including Otaiba's Egyptian mother. He got a first-rate liberal arts high school education at the Cairo American College, and, while there, introduced himself to Frank Wisner, then the U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Wisner recalls being impressed by his seriousness. "He wasn't off to university to chase girls, drink beer, play football,” he says. “He wanted to prepare himself for the life that lay in front of him." After graduating, with Wisner’s encouragement, Otaiba studied international relations at Georgetown, and later went on to Washington's National Defense University. This left him with an understanding of the U.S. so intuitive that sometimes people who encounter him in Washington forget that he is not American. A 2008 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks emphasized Otaiba’s “American demeanor” and noted that he is “very much in tune with American culture and politics.”

In 2000, Otaiba became the director of international affairs for Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Bin Zayed, commonly referred to in Washington as MBZ, handles the UAE’s defense issues, including its military relationship with the United States and a multi-billion dollar weapons budget that makes it one of the leading consumers of U.S. arms. As MBZ's right hand, Otaiba became the point of contact for the U.S. military and intelligence community. “One of his great people that kind of put him under his wing was the former CENTCOM Commander, General Anthony Zinni,” says Bret Baier, then the national-security correspondent for Fox News and who is now a good friend. “He was plugged in with that entire retired military crowd.”

After the Dubai Ports World scandal, Otaiba worked hard to boost the UAE’s military cooperation with the U.S. In 2007, the Bush administration embarked on its surge strategy in the Sunni areas of Iraq. "Before I was introduced to him, the way he was described to me was the guy MBZ trusts most on foreign issues and one of the smartest people in the UAE," says one American intelligence operative who worked closely with him in the region at the time.

Otaiba was instrumental in getting other countries in the region to back the surge, the source said. His most significant contribution was "persuading other Gulfies to support the political components of the surge (e.g. the Anbar awakening), and helping 'translate' the general strategy into something they would support," he says. Without the support of the Sunni-dominated Gulf states, the strategy would have had little chance of success. When asked about Otaiba’s role in the surge, Burr, the intelligence committee chairman said, "I think he's been a very active partner, not just for the UAE but for the Gulf States." (Otaiba declined to be interviewed for this story, although his Washington-based representative, Richard Mintz, confirmed Otaiba's role but noted, “It wasn't like he was the architect.”)

Otaiba and his wife Abeer, an Egyptian-born civil engineer. (Courtesy of Washington Life)

In March 2008, Otaiba was named the UAE’s ambassador to Washington. Upon arriving in town, Otaiba hired one of the most plugged-in people in the Bush administration's office of protocol, Amy Little Thomas, (who became the UAE embassy's chief of protocol). "She opened every door he could possibly need. The guy was everywhere. He'd go to an envelope opening," says one source on the social scene who watched his rise. And it didn’t take long before people started to register his presence. Howard Berman, then the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, worked closely with him on an agreement that would allow the UAE to obtain nuclear materials from the U.S. for a civilian program. This required some deft diplomacy, since the agreement was entered into by the Bush administration but had to be certified by the incoming Obama administration. "He's a remarkable diplomat," says Berman, who is now with Covington & Burling LLP, a D.C. lobby shop. Matt Spence, who was the top Defense Department adviser on Middle East policy, explained, “He's been remarkably effective for two reasons: it's clear he's speaking on behalf of the government when he's talking and he's very accessible.”

Otaiba’s entrée to D.C. was aided by the UAE’s willingness to pour astronomical sums of money into improving its public standing in the U.S. It now spends more money on lobbying than any other foreign government ($14.2 million dollars in 2013). That’s in addition to hundreds of millions in philanthropic giving (UAE entities have given at least $3 million to the Clinton Foundation alone), as well as billion-dollar investments in U.S businesses. In a 2010 Aspen appearance, Otaiba made a point of remarking that the U.S. “is actually a beneficiary of our oil revenues," by way of at least $10 billion that the UAE had invested in various US projects just that year. One Washington operative who has the UAE as a client even created a video mashup of Dubai Ports World news footage, which he shows to wealthy Emirati to remind them of the importance of D.C.-oriented giving.

The Dubai Ports nightmare reel that one Washington operative uses to remind wealthy Emirati why they're spending so much money in DC.

Since Otaiba’s arrival, the UAE has made sizeable donations to a wide range of think tanks and policy centers, including the Center for American Progress, the Aspen Institute, the EastWest Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies—all institutions populated by former and soon-to-be-again government officials who formulate foreign policy conventional wisdom. (The Pentagon meeting Otaiba attended, which caught the attention of The Washington Post’s defense reporter, was organized by John Hamre, the CEO of CSIS.) This year, a UAE-based research institute also partnered with the Saudi Embassy in D.C. to launch the Arab Gulf States Institute, a think tank that has hired numerous recent administration officials as scholars and fellows (Otaiba's mentor, Wisner, serves as chairman of the board). "[The UAE] are a potential gravy train for them when they leave government, and so there's a lot of incentive to kind of have that relationship intact,” says one senior U.S. government official. “When you take your sabbatical from government you could head out to the UAE twice a year to give a speech or appear at a conference or something."

In his early years in D.C., it soon became clear that Otaiba, like MBZ, was driven by two key concerns: a deep antipathy for political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and what the Wikileaks cable described as “a forceful and at times aggressive” stance on Iran. Thanks to Otaiba's understanding of the U.S., he is adept at interpreting American policy and communicating it to other Arab leaders. “He more than anybody helps explain the U.S. position not only back to the UAE but to others in the region,” says Mintz. But when it came to his tactics in wooing official Washington, what people really noticed were the parties.

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There is a group of powerful women in Washington who hold a private luncheon at the end of each year that can run up a pricey tab. The gathering includes lobbyists, publishers and women with philanthropic foundations named after them. The group always seeks someone to foot the bill, and after Otaiba arrived in D.C., he soon popped up on its radar. One member of the group recalls someone asking, "Who's the new person in town? Maybe Yousef will sponsor this." She adds, "He was very quickly known as an easy source of money with no strings attached.”

And when Otaiba throws a party, he doesn’t take half-measures. He’s headlined a cancer research gala in New York that featured performances by Beyonce, Alicia Keys, and Ludacris; when he threw a surprise 50th birthday bash for Joe Scarborough, it led the next edition of Playbook, the tipsheet of the D.C. establishment.

Last spring, Otaiba co-hosted the 2014 Children's Ball at the Ritz Carlton with Baier of Fox News, the network that caused the UAE so many headaches during the Dubai Ports World episode. One society veteran called the gala the “most over-the-top, insane event I've ever been to." Baier, whose son required open-heart surgery as an infant, has dedicated himself to fundraising for the Children's National Health System, and in Otaiba, he found a willing supporter. In 2009, the UAE donated an eye-popping $150 million to Washington Children’s Hospital. (Several years later, Otaiba and his wife had a child who also needed critical surgery at the facility.)

The 2014 gala was attended by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Rahm Emanuel, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, all of whom observed the "black tie/white dress" code specified in the invitation. "It looks like a roomful of vestal virgins, but it's anything but," quipped one lawmaker, who was annoyed at having to locate a white dress. Jennifer Hudson serenaded the guests, and on a video screen, George W. Bush and Pharrell Williams praised Otaiba and Baier for their work. The event netted more than $10.7 million, with contributions from numerous defense contractors Otaiba had dealt with as MBZ’s military adviser—Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and others—plus banks, lobby shops and assorted Gulf entities. The UAE’s two top political figures, MBZ and the UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed , kicked in a million dollars each.

At a charity event for Children's Hospital in January 2010, philanthropist Joe Robert lavished praise on Otaiba's offer to "be brave and shave" to raise money for the cause. "I said, 'Yousef, you don't have to do this, you guys just gave 150 million dollars to the hospital,'" Robert said. The giving, he told the audience, "says an awful lot about this man and his country. We really owe—I mean all of us here—a great debt to you."

One prominent society figure, who throws a high-profile annual event connected with fundraising for disease research, said that sometimes major gifts of this nature are made after a hospital saves the child of a fantastically wealthy person. More often, she says, the agenda is utilitarian. "The other reason people do it in general—other than the philanthropic and the bigger picture and blah blah blah—is you can sit at that Children's Ball and you've got every congressman and senator in the world, and every White House aide there, and you can have a conversation and get something done that you couldn't get [otherwise]," she says. (Baier describes Otaiba as “a tremendous person.” When asked why the Gulf might make such generous donations to a hospital in Washington, he said, “I don’t know the motivations of why they do what they do.”)

Otaiba's home in McLean, Virginia. (Courtesy of Bing Maps)

Otaiba also often invites members of Congress, staffers, White House aides and other influential Washingtonians to dinner at the UAE's monumental embassy off Van Ness Street or at his home, a mansion on the Virginia bank of the Potomac. White House spokesman Josh Earnest, pre-disgraced congressman Aaron Schock; Betsy Fischer Martin, the longtime executive producer for NBC’s Meet The Press, the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin; and CNN’s Jessica Yellin are among those who’ve dined at his house. The guests make themselves at home, Otaiba told the glossy D.C. magazine Washington Life in 2012. “Often that means having a Cabinet secretary stepping carefully over [his son] Omar’s lego set, or an admiral scratching the ears of our dogs Coco and Marley, or shooting a game of pool with a member of Congress,” he said. A reporter for a national publication who attended one of these private dinners recalls journalists, top politicians and aides being led by Otaiba in substantive, if stilted, conversation about policy and politics that would be periodically interrupted when Wolfgang Puck popped out from the kitchen to announce the next course. After dinner, the group adjourned to Otaiba’s basement, possibly the most impressive man-cave in the entire metro region, to watch basketball. “He had the largest television I’ve ever seen in my life,” the reporter recalls.

These gatherings can sometimes serve as an audition. “If they come and they engage, what often follows is an invitation to travel to the UAE," says a former Hill staffer who was glad to land such an opportunity. An especially prized junket is the annual trip that Otaiba organizes to Abu Dhabi for the Formula One Grand Prix, a racing spectacle watched by some half a billion people around the globe. Guests have included Liz Cheney, retired Gen. John Jumper, D.C. philanthropist Adrienne Arsht and the Baiers. (Baier says he flew separately on his own dime and made it a work trip: He interviewed Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE foreign minister who donated a million dollars to the Children’s Ball.)

Otaiba and Amy Baier (center) in Abu Dhabi during Formula One weekend. (Courtesy of Facebook)
Raoul Fernandez, Jean-Marie Fernandez, Bret and Amy Baier, Norma Ramsey, and Russ Ramsey in Abu Dhabi for the Formula One motor race.

This year, most guests were flown to the event in a private 747; once on the ground, BMWs ferried them to the Emirates Palace Hotel, where there is a gold bullion machine in the lobby. Over the course of five days, they enjoyed falcon-hunting excursions, performances by Jay-Z and Depeche Mode and, at the Formula One race itself, royal-level passes that gave them access to the pit. Most of the travelers come away impressed. “They have freedom of the press, to a point. The only rule is you can’t criticize the monarchy,” says one. “But why would you want to? I met the sultan, or what do you call him—the emir. He was a totally great guy.”

"He's moving too quick, too fast, too hard, with too much money," says one respected foreign policy expert. “He could become someone you don’t want to take to the party.”
Photo by Andrew Harrer (Getty Images)

There is a point, of course, to all of this socializing. The Arab Spring created a schism among the Sunni Gulf states. Qatar threw its weight behind the protesters, arguing that repressing political Islam was a self-defeating strategy. Its Al Jazeera network gave a platform to advocates of the uprising. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, however, wanted nothing to do with it. "Qatar has placed this long bet that in the end, political Islam is going to be the next big thing in the region,” says Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director for the Project on Middle East Democracy. “The UAE and Saudi have been pushing back, leading a kind of counterrevolution."

Otaiba saw the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as an existential threat to the future of the UAE, whose prosperity is predicated on economic stability and the suppression of any form of political dissent. Frank Wisner, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, was tasked by the White House with helping to negotiate the end of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak’s reign. He recalls Otaiba being deeply skeptical of the Arab Spring. "Yousef said the United States should be very careful before over-interpreting political changes in the region and calling them changes in favor of human rights," Wisner says. “Once you lifted the strong hands of governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, a lot of things would come out, including the Muslim Brothers, who have very little time for the traditional rulers of the Gulf."

As protests spread in Egypt, Otaiba pushed the White House hard to support Mubarak, without success. After the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in a democratic election, he filled the inbox of Phil Gordon, the White House's top Middle East adviser, with missives savaging the Brotherhood and its backers in Qatar. (Gordon declined to comment.) “He’d robo-email people,” says the former White House aide. “You can be sure when Yousef has something to say on a topic like that, high-level people throughout the State Department and in the White House are going to hear it, in very similar if not identical emails.”

"Israel and the Arabs standing together is the ultimate ace in the hole," says a high-level source at the Israeli embassy. "Because it takes it out of the politics and the ideology. When Israel and the Arab states are standing together, it’s powerful."

In July 2013, the elected leader, the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown amid major demonstrations in a coup by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a former general who has attacked civil liberties even more harshly than Mubarak did. In response, top U.S. policymakers delayed the delivery of a number of big-ticket military shipments that Egypt had bought. Otaiba pressured the White House so relentlessly for those purchases to go ahead that he became known as "Sisi’s ambassador," according to multiple people on the receiving end of his lobbying. Not for the first time, he found himself on the same side of an argument as AIPAC, which also pushed for the sales to proceed. Eventually, in April of this year, the U.S. tacitly accepted the new status quo in Cairo and lifted the hold.

At the same time, the UAE’s aggressive support of military operations against ISIS in Syria has made it an indispensable U.S. ally. As The Washington Post reported last fall, more air strikes against ISIS have been launched from the UAE’s Al-Dhafra air base than any other location in the region. UAE pilots have also flown more missions than any of the United States’ other partners in the effort against the Islamic State. The article noted that the UAE had divulged these details to the Post out of concern that its role was being under-appreciated by the U.S. “We’re your best friends in this part of the world," Otaiba was quoted as saying.

The close relationship has seen the UAE become increasingly assertive. In August 2014, the UAE and Egypt launched secret bombing raids in Libya to aid anti-Islamist forces. The White House was furious. In December, the UAE publicly suspended its cooperation with the U.S in Syria, complaining that the U.S. needed to improve its search-and-rescue efforts for downed Arab pilots. The U.S. accordingly ramped up its capabilities, and the UAE came back onboard.

All of this, though, pales next to a quiet diplomatic achievement that has been unfolding in the Northeast’s tech manufacturing corridor. Otaiba often touts the fact that a UAE-owned firm named GlobalFoundries made a multi-billion-dollar bid to take over several plants in upstate New York and Vermont that are responsible for IBM’s entire microelectronics and semiconductor manufacturing business. The acquisition was so sensitive that it had to be cleared by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, since it would mean that one of the Department of Defense’s most trusted providers of semiconductors for weapons systems, aircraft and other government technology would be replaced by a foreign-owned entity. The deal won approval on June 30, less than a decade after the Dubai Ports World debacle. There was no outrage on Fox News, no protests in Congress—least of all from the UAE's onetime nemesis, Chuck Schumer, who has praised GlobalFoundries’s takeover of the plants as “great news about the Capital Region and its economic future.”

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In the summer of 2010, Otaiba appeared at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. He was interviewed on stage by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who asked if he thought the U.S. should launch a strike on Iran in order to stop its nuclear progress. "Absolutely, absolutely," Otaiba said. The audience quickly realized something unusual was happening. In an attempt to be sure that Otaiba hadn't misspoken, Goldberg phrased the question several different ways and got the same answer. The Aspen comments became global news, and Iran publicly called for the UAE to remove Otaiba from his post. His friends recall it as a low moment.

And yet Otaiba had merely stated in public what Gulf leaders were saying in private, as cables released by Wikileaks would later show. The UAE has always seen Iran as the most powerful threat to its existence—it is the major Shiite power in the region and sits only 35 miles away from Dubai across the Strait of Hormuz. In recent years, the UAE has become far more active in pushing this position in Washington.

This has become increasingly conspicuous during the years-long debate over the Iran nuclear agreement. The role of Israel and AIPAC in opposing the Iran agreement is well known. But Otaiba has played a critical role in casting doubt on the administration’s efforts to engage with Iran rather than isolate it. “He's influential with certain parts of the Hill, making them doubt what this administration is doing with regard to Iran. And it feels less partisan because it's not Israel but an Arab country,” says the second senior U.S. official. The first U.S. senior official added that Otaiba and Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer are very close. “They agree on just about everything,” he says. (Excluding the Palestinians, he clarified.)

A high-level official with the Israeli embassy confirms the value of this strategic alliance. "Israel and the Arabs standing together is the ultimate ace in the hole. Because it takes it out of the politics and the ideology. When Israel and the Arab states are standing together, it’s powerful," he says.

This year, Dermer invited Otaiba to attend Netanyahu’s speech on Iran to Congress, but Otaiba declined due to political sensitivities back home. Through a spokesman, Otaiba denied that he and Dermer are personal friends. And there are limitations to the relationship on the Israeli side, too. When Netanyahu met Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in July to discuss the Iran issue, he grumbled about how the U.S. had cornered itself into selling sophisticated weapons systems to Gulf Arabs, according to Israeli reports confirmed by a senior U.S. official. The skepticism goes both ways. “This Gulf-Israel detente is not real,” says the official. “If they are such close friends, maybe they could start by recognizing Israel.” In the spring, Obama held a Camp David summit with Gulf state leaders (Otaiba was conspicuous in his Western suit), and since then the UAE has refrained from publicly opposing the deal.

This summer, President Obama invited a handful of foreign policy journalists to the Roosevelt Room in the White House for a conversation about the Iran agreement. At the end of the briefing, Obama was asked how lopsided political spending played into the current debate (Iran is prohibited from lobbying in Washington due to political sanctions). “Welcome to my world,” Obama said, comparing the imbalance to the dynamics surrounding health care reform and climate change. “What we have to rely on are grassroots networks and me being able to get on the horn with a bunch of rabbis and hopefully they’re paying attention," he explained. "You work with what you got.”

(Afterwards, a Huffington Post reporter told Obama that the question had been prompted by this profile of Otaiba and the UAE’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to influence foreign policy. "Oh, I know it, it's crazy," Obama said. “Look, that's a whole big set of challenges that cuts horizontally across our system and is evident in the Republican primary, and in the fact that you get one rich sugar-daddy and you're off to the races no matter how wacky you are.")

Otaiba’s positions on Iran and Syria align him closely with the Republican foreign policy establishment. “He goes way out of his way to cultivate relations with members of Congress, and I think he represents his country very well,” says Republican Sen. John McCain. “It’s not just a normal representative of a nation. This is a nation that is literally conducting warfare against [the Islamic State].”

And Otaiba has also become openly more critical of the Obama administration. This year, Wisconsin Governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker reached out to Otaiba for a briefing on the Middle East. Walker has repeatedly referenced the meeting to beat up Obama for "disengaging" with the region. In the fall, Foreign Policy magazine published a scathing indictment of Obama's foreign policy by editor David Rothkopf. The story led with a quote from “a thoughtful man” and "top diplomat from one of America’s most dependable Middle Eastern allies" who said of the U.S. "You're still a superpower—but you no longer know how to act like one." In case there was any doubt about the identity of the thoughtful man, Otaiba handed out copies of the issue at the Four Seasons when it appeared, a slight that quickly was relayed down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. "We knew it was Yousef," says the first senior U.S. official.

Otaiba continues to talk frequently to Secretary of State John Kerry, Susan Rice and many commanders at the Pentagon. But his jabs at Obama have frayed relationships. “Here's the piece of the puzzle that he's missing, and that he frequently misses, which is that the American people aren't Washington," says the first senior U.S. official. "At the Four Seasons everybody's for bombing people and no deal with Iran, but Congress ultimately does have to be wary of public opinion." One respected foreign policy expert said he was worried that Otaiba was essentially trying to create “an Arab secular version of AIPAC.” "He's moving too quick, too fast, too hard, with too much money," he added. “He could become someone you don’t want to take to the party.”

And yet it’s more likely that Otaiba’s influence will only continue to grow. Either a Republican or a Hillary Clinton administration would share his saber-rattling approach to the region. And as the former White House aide explained, the UAE is now too important to U.S. policy for Otaiba to lose his standing in Washington, no matter who occupies the White House. These days, the aide went on, discussions about Otaiba within the administration tended to resemble conversations about Newman on Seinfeld. “You’ll open up a newspaper or you’ll hear about a conversation that happened on the Hill. Your [legislative] people will be like, 'This senator said this, and they’re against us because of X, Y and Z.' And you’re just like: 'Yousef!' You know that’s the source of it. And it’s just kind of like: ‘The man is good.’”

Read more on the Huffington Post about the UAE's lobbying operation, the harsh legal regime for migrant workers, and the extent of its soft power.


Story - Ryan Grim
Ryan is the DC bureau chief of The Huffington Post.
Story - Akbar Shahid Ahmed
Akbar is a reporter in the DC bureau of The Huffington Post.
Additional reporting - Jessica Schulberg and Ali Watkins
Development - Dan McCarey
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