David D. Kirkpatrick
Mohammed bin Zayed, the 29-year-old commander of the almost negligible air
force of the United Arab Emirates, had come to Washington shopping for weapons.
In 1991, in
the months after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the young prince wanted to buy so
much military hardware to protect his own oil-rich monarchy — from Hellfire
missiles to Apache helicopters to F-16 jets — that Congress worried he might
destabilize the region.
Pentagon, trying to cultivate accommodating allies in the Gulf, had identified
Prince Mohammed as a promising partner. The favourite son of the semi-literate
Bedouin who founded the United Arab Emirates, Prince Mohammed was a
serious-minded, British-trained helicopter pilot who had persuaded his father
to transfer $4 billion into the United States Treasury to help pay for the 1991
war in Iraq.
Clarke, then an assistant secretary of state, reassured lawmakers that the
young prince would never become “an aggressor.”
is not now and never will be a threat to stability or peace in the region,” Mr.
Clarke said in congressional testimony. “That is very hard to imagine. Indeed,
the U.A.E. is a force for peace.”
years later, Prince Mohammed, now 58, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto
ruler of the United Arab Emirates, is arguably the most powerful leader in the
Arab world. He is also among the most influential foreign voices in Washington,
urging the United States to adopt his increasingly bellicose approach to the
Mohammed is almost unknown to the American public and his tiny country has
fewer citizens than Rhode Island. But he may be the richest man in the world.
He controls sovereign wealth funds worth $1.3 trillion, more than any other
influence operation in Washington is legendary (Mr. Clarke got rich on his
payroll). His military is the Arab world’s most potent, equipped through its
work with the United States to conduct high-tech surveillance and combat
operations far beyond its borders.
decades, the prince has been a key American ally, following Washington’s lead,
but now he is going his own way. His special forces are active in Yemen, Libya,
Somalia and Egypt’s North Sinai. He has worked to thwart democratic transitions
in the Middle East, helped install a reliable autocrat in Egypt and boosted a
protégé to power in Saudi Arabia.
the prince has contradicted American policy and destabilized neighbours. Rights
groups have criticized him for jailing dissidents at home, for his role in
creating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and for backing the Saudi prince whose
agents killed the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi.
the Trump administration, his influence in Washington appears greater than
ever. He has a rapport with President Trump, who has frequently adopted the
prince’s views on Qatar, Libya and Saudi Arabia, even over the advice of
cabinet officials or senior national security staff.
diplomats who know the prince — known as M.B.Z. — say he is obsessed with two
enemies, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Trump has sought to move strongly
against both and last week took steps to bypass congressional opposition to
keep selling weapons to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
an extraordinary way of telling Americans his own interests but making it come
across as good advice about the region,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national
security adviser under President Barack Obama, whose sympathy for the Arab
Spring and negotiations with Iran brought blistering criticism from the Emirati
prince. When it comes to influence in Washington, Mr. Rhodes added, “M.B.Z. is
in a class by himself.”
Mohammed worked assiduously before the presidential election to crack Mr.
Trump’s inner circle, and secured a secret meeting during the transition period
with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The prince also tried to broker
talks between the Trump administration and Russia, a gambit that later
entangled him in the special counsel’s investigation into foreign election
least five people working for Prince Mohammed have been caught up in criminal
investigations growing out of that inquiry. A regular visitor to the United
States for three decades, Prince Mohammed has now stayed away for two years, in
part because he fears prosecutors might seek to question him or his aides,
according to two people familiar with his thinking. (His brother, the foreign
minister, has visited.)
Arab Emirates’ Embassy in Washington declined to comment. The prince’s many
American defenders say it is only prudent of him to try to shape United States
policy, as many governments do, and that he sees his interventions as an
attempt to compensate for an American pullback.
Mohammed’s critics say that his rise is a study in unintended consequences. The
obscure young prince whom Washington adopted as a pliant ally is now fanning
his volatile region’s flames.
the United Arab Emirates with such advanced surveillance technology, commandos
and weaponry, argued Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official
and fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We have created a little
royals are paunchy, long-winded and prone to keep visitors waiting. Not Prince
graduated at the age of 18 from the British officers’ training program at
Sandhurst. He stays slim and fit, trades tips with visitors about workout
machines, and never arrives late for a meeting.
officials invariably describe him as concise, inquisitive, and even humble. He
pours his own coffee, and to illustrate his love for America, sometimes tells
visitors that he has taken his grandchildren to Disney World incognito.
time for low-ranking American officials and greets senior dignitaries at the
airport. With a shy, lopsided smile, he will offer a tour of his country, and
then climb into a helicopter to fly his guest over the skyscrapers and lagoons
of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
always a ‘wow’ factor with M.B.Z.,” recalled Marcelle Wahba, a former American
ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
capital, Abu Dhabi, he has overseen a construction craze that has hidden the
former coastline behind man-made islands. One is intended to become a financial
district akin to Wall Street. Another includes a campus of New York University,
a franchise of the Louvre and a planned extension of the Guggenheim.
meets Americans, Prince Mohammed emphasizes the things that make the United
Arab Emirates more liberal than their neighbours. Women have more
opportunities: A third of the cabinet ministers are female.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates allow Christian churches and Hindu or
Sikh temples, partly to accommodate a vast foreign work force. (The country is
estimated to have nine million residents, but fewer than a million citizens;
the rest are foreign workers.)
the point, the prince last year created a Ministry of Tolerance and declared
this the “Year of Tolerance.” He has hosted the Special Olympics and Pope
“I think he
has done admirable work not just in diversifying the economy but in
diversifying the system of thought of the population as well,” said Gen. John
R. Allen, former commander of United States and N.A.T.O. forces in Afghanistan,
now president of the Brookings Institution. (In between, General Allen was an
adviser to the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Defence.)
Arab Emirates are a tiny federation of city-states, yet Abu Dhabi alone
accounts for 6 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, making it a tempting
target to a larger neighbor like Iran. In 1971, when the U.A.E. gained
independence from Britain, the shah of Iran seized three disputed Persian Gulf
Brotherhood, a 90-year-old Islamist movement founded in Egypt, has become
mainstream in many Arab countries. On that subject, Prince Mohammed says his dread
is more personal.
assigned a prominent Brotherhood member, Ezzedine Ibrahim, as Prince Mohammed’s
tutor, and he attempted an indoctrination that backfired, the prince often
“I am an
Arab, I am a Muslim and I pray. And in the 1970s and early 1980s I was one of
them,” Prince Mohammed told visiting American diplomats in 2007, as they
reported in a classified cable released by WikiLeaks. “I believe these guys
have an agenda.”
about the appeal of Islamist politics to his population. As many as 80 percent
of the soldiers in his forces would answer the call of “some holy man in
Mecca,” he once told American diplomats, according to a cable released by
reason, diplomats say, Prince Mohammed has long argued that the Arab world is
not ready for democracy. Islamists would win any elections.
Muslim country, you will see the same result,” he said in a 2007 meeting with
American officials. “The Middle East is not California.”
Arab Emirates began allowing American forces to operate from bases inside the
country during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Since then, the prince’s commandos
and air forces have been deployed with the Americans in Kosovo, Somalia,
Afghanistan and Libya, as well as against the Islamic State.
recruited American commanders to run his military and former spies to set up
his intelligence services. He also acquired more weaponry in the four years
before 2010 than the other five Gulf monarchies combined, including 80 F-16
fighters, 30 Apache combat helicopters, and 62 French Mirage jets.
American officers describe the United Arab Emirates as “Little Sparta.”
from former top military commanders including former Secretary of Defence James
Mattis and General Allen, Prince Mohammed has even developed an Emirati defence
industry, producing an amphibious armoured vehicle known as The Beast and
others that he is already supplying to clients in Libya and Egypt.
Arab Emirates are also preparing a low-altitude propeller-driven bomber for
counterinsurgency combat — an idea Mr. Mattis had long recommended for the
United States, a former officer close to him said.
Mohammed has often told American officials that he saw Israel as an ally
against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel trusted him enough to sell him
upgrades for his F-16s, as well as advanced mobile phone spyware.
To many in
Washington, Prince Mohammed had become America’s best friend in the region, a
dutiful partner who could be counted on for tasks from countering Iranian
influence in Lebanon to funding construction in Iraq.
well known that if you needed something done in the Middle East,” recalled
Richard G. Olson, a former United States ambassador to Abu Dhabi, “the Emiratis
would do it.”
Mohammed seemed to find a kindred spirit when President Barack Obama took
office in 2009, White House aides said. Both were detached, analytic and
intrigued by big questions. For a time, Mr. Obama sought out phone
conversations with Prince Mohammed more than with any other foreign leader,
several senior White House officials recalled.
Arab Spring came between them. Uprisings swept the region. The Muslim
Brotherhood was winning elections. And Mr. Obama appeared to endorse the demands
for democracy — though in Syria, where the uprising threatened a foe of the
Emiratis, he balked at military action.
emerged that the Obama administration was in secret nuclear talks with Iran.
not only ignored — they felt betrayed by the Obama administration, and I think
Prince Mohammed felt it particularly and personally,” said Stephen Hadley, a
national security adviser under President George W. Bush who has stayed close
to the prince.
uprisings, Prince Mohammed saw the United Arab Emirates as the only one of the
22 Arab states still on its feet, with a stable government, functional economy,
able military and “moderate ideology,” said Abdulkhalleq Abdulla, an Emirati
political scientist with access to the country’s senior officials.
is part of this very dangerous region that is getting more dangerous by the day
— full of chaos and wars and extremists,” he said. “So the motivation is this:
If we don’t go after the bad guys, they will come after us.”
Prince Mohammed hired a company linked to Erik Prince, the founder of the
private security company formerly known as Blackwater, to create a force of Colombian, South African and other
mercenaries. He crushed any hint of dissent, arresting five activists for
organizing a petition for democratic reforms (signed by only 132 people) and
rounding up dozens suspected of sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Arab Emirates revved up its influence machine in Washington, too. They were
among the biggest spenders among foreign governments on Washington advocates
and consultants, paying as much $21 million in 2017, according to a tally by
the Centre for Responsive Politics. They earned good will with million-dollar
donations after natural disasters, and they sought to frame public debate by
giving millions more to major think tanks.
East Institute recently received $20 million. Its chairman is Mr. Clarke, the
former official who pushed through the U.A.E. defence contracts. After leaving
government in 2003, he had also founded a consultancy with the United Arab
Emirates as a primary client. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Ambassador Yousef Otaiba hammered his many contacts in the White House and on
Capitol Hill, arguing that Mr. Obama was ceding the region to extremists and
Iran. The prince himself made the case at the highest levels. He “gave me an
earful,” former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates recalled in a memoir.
Middle East, Prince Mohammed did more than talk. In Egypt, he backed a military
takeover in 2013 that removed an elected president who was a Muslim Brotherhood
leader. In the Horn of Africa, he dispatched a force to Somalia first to combat
piracy and then to fight extremists. He went on to establish commercial ports
or naval bases around the Gulf of Aden.
Prince Mohammed defied American pleas and a United Nations embargo by arming
the forces of the militia leader and would-be strongman Khalifa Hifter. Emirati
pilots carried out airstrikes in Tripoli and eventually established an air base
in eastern Libya.
past, the prince looked for a “green light” from Washington, said Ms. Wahba,
the former American ambassador. Now he may send a heads-up, she said, but “he
is not asking permission anymore.”
Arabia, the giant next door, had quarrelled with the United Arab Emirates over
borders and, as the regional heavyweight, also constrained U.A.E. foreign
policy. By the end of 2014, the position of crown prince — next in line for the
throne — had passed to a known foe of the Emirati prince.
plunged into the internal Saudi succession battle and waged an all-out lobbying
campaign in Washington on behalf of a little-known alternative: the 29-year-old
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a favorite son of the aged Saudi king.
message was, if you trust me and you like me, you will like this guy because he
is cut from the same cloth,” recalled Mr. Rhodes, the Obama adviser.
2015, the two princes had invaded Yemen together to roll back a takeover by a
faction aligned with Iran. Then in 2017, as the Saudi prince consolidated his
power, they cut off all trade and diplomatic ties with Qatar to pressure it
into abandoning support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yemen and Qatar conflicts are routinely described as Saudi-led, but the Emirati
prince first sought to sell them to Washington, Mr. Rhodes and other former
2015, American diplomats say, Prince Mohammed was also suggesting that the
United Arab Emirates and a new Saudi leadership could be crucial in bringing
the Palestinians around to some new peace agreement — the so-called
“outside-in” approach to a deal.
that, Prince Mohammed awaited a new administration.
meant to be a personal farewell.
their sharp differences, Prince Mohammed had remained cordial with Mr. Obama,
and the president thought they shared a mutual respect, according to four
senior White House officials. So when the prince requested a final meeting, as
friends, Mr. Obama agreed to a lunch at the White House in December 2016.
Mohammed backed out without much explanation. He flew instead to New York for
his first face-to-face meeting with Jared Kushner and other advisers to the
president-elect, Donald J. Trump.
the meetings, Prince Mohammed had turned to a financier, Richard Gerson,
founder of Falcon Edge Capital. He had worked with the prince for years, and he
was also a friend of Mr. Kushner.
I am always
here as your trusted family back channel any time you want to discreetly pass
something,” Mr. Gerson wrote to the prince after the election in a private text
message, one of several provided to The Times by a third party and corroborated
independently. He signed off another message as “your loyal soldier.”
was supposed to be secret, but intelligence agencies detected the prince’s
arrival. Mr. Obama’s advisers were stunned. But Prince Mohammed was already
working to reverse the administration’s policies, talking to Mr. Trump’s
advisers about the dangers of Iran and about Palestinian peace talks, according
to two people familiar with the meetings.
deeply impressed with you and already are convinced that you are their true
friend and closest ally,” Mr. Gerson wrote to the prince after the meetings.
Mohammed was positioning himself as an intermediary to Russia, too.
Prince Mohammed’s younger brothers had introduced Mr. Gerson to a Russian
businessman who acts as a liaison between President Vladimir V. Putin and the
Persian Gulf monarchs, according to the special counsel’s report. The Russian
businessman, Kirill Dmitriev, conferred with Mr. Gerson about a “reconciliation
plan” for the United States and Russia, and shortly before the inauguration Mr.
Gerson gave a two-page summary of the plan to Mr. Kushner.
declined to comment for this article.
month, in January, Prince Mohammed invited Mr. Dmitriev to an Emirati retreat
in the Seychelles to meet with someone else they thought represented the Trump
team: Mr. Prince, the Blackwater founder who had recruited mercenaries for the
United Arab Emirates.
Mohammed would seek to connect Russia with Mr. Trump’s circle remains a matter
of debate, but he has worked for years to try to entice Mr. Putin away from
Iran, according to American diplomats and leaked emails from the Emirati
ambassador in Washington.
prosecutors are also investigating the activities of other operatives and
go-betweens working for the prince who tried to insinuate themselves around Mr.
are still examining the campaign contacts of an Israeli specialist in social
media manipulation who has worked for Prince Mohammed and of a
Lebanese-American businessman who acted as his emissary. Other prosecutors are
investigating whether another top Republican donor whose security company
worked for the prince should legally have registered as his agent.
counsel’s office has also questioned Rashid al-Malik, an Emirati real-estate
developer based in Los Angeles who is close to Prince Mohammed and to his
brother — the head of Emirati intelligence. Mr. al-Malik is also close to Mr.
Trump’s friend Tom Barrack, and investigators are asking whether Mr. al-Malik
was part of an illegal influence scheme, according to two people familiar with
investigation, prompted by a whistle-blower, is examining the possibility that
the United Arab Emirates used cyber espionage techniques from former American
operatives to spy on American citizens.
prince’s courtship of the Trump administration has not been damaged. In the two
and a half years since his first meeting with Mr. Kushner, Prince Mohammed has
received almost everything he sought from the White House.
Prince Mohammed invites financiers and former officials to Abu Dhabi for a
salon that demonstrates his global influence.
list last December included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; former
French President Nicolas Sarkozy; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice;
Mr. Hadley, the Bush-era national security adviser; the American investors
Mohamed A. El-Erian, David M. Rubenstein and Thomas S. Kaplan; and the Chinese
computer scientist and investor Kai-Fu Lee.
the prince also included Mr. Dmitriev, the Russian businessman linked to Mr.
Mohammed’s post-Arab Spring interventions have hardly stabilized the region. An
aide he sent to Cairo to help turn around the moribund economy has returned in
military-backed government still depends on billions of dollars a year in
assistance from the United Arab Emirates and its Gulf allies, and despite
Emirati help and Israeli airstrikes, Cairo has not yet quelled a militant
backlash centred in the North Sinai.
isolation of Qatar has failed to change its policies. In Libya, Khalifa Hifter
is mired in a bloody stalemate.
Mohammed’s push in the Horn of Africa has set off a competition for access and
influence among rivals like Turkey and Qatar. In Somalia, after allegations of
bribery by the fragile central government, Emirati forces have shifted to the
semiautonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland.
alleging neglect, last year replaced its Emirati port managers with a Chinese
he is Machiavelli but he acts more like Mussolini,” said Bruce Riedel, a
scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former official in the Central
Arabia, the Emirati prince has been embarrassed by the conclusion of American
intelligence agencies that his Saudi protégé had ordered the brutal murder of
Mr. Khashoggi, a Virginia-based Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.
Their joint, four-year-old intervention in Yemen is turning into a quagmire,
with horrific civilian casualties.
is a stain on the world conscience — the U.A.E. as it is currently governed is
violating every norm of the civilized world,” said Representative Ro Khanna,
Democrat of California.
prince’s standing remains strong inside the Trump administration. The
“outside-in” proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace passed over by the Obama
administration are at the core of Mr. Kushner’s emerging plans.
has repeatedly backed the positions of the Emirati prince: by endorsing his
Saudi protégé after the Khashoggi killing, by applauding the isolation of Qatar
even as the secretary of state and secretary of defence publicly opposed it, by
cancelling the nuclear deal with Iran, by seeking to designate the Muslim
Brotherhood a terrorist group, and by vetoing legislation to cut off American
military support for Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen.
Mr. Trump publicly endorsed the Emiratis’ favoured militia leader in Libya one
day after a phone call with Prince Mohammed — even through Secretary of State
Mike Pompeo had previously urged the same leader to retreat.
the former secretary of defence, last month delivered a lecture in Abu Dhabi
sponsored by Prince Mohammed. When he joined the Trump administration, Mr.
Mattis disclosed that he had received $242,000 in annual fees as well as
valuable stock options as a board member at the defense contractor General
Dynamics, which does extensive business with Abu Dhabi. He had also worked as
an unpaid adviser to Prince Mohammed.
Year of Tolerance. How many countries in the world right now are having a year
of tolerance?” Mr. Mattis asked. “I don’t know of any,” he said. “You are an
Mark Mazzetti and Adam Goldman contributed
reporting from Washington, and Ronen Bergman from Jerusalem.