Atlantic Council Helps Oil-Rich Gulf Nation Peddle Influence in Washington

The think tank hosted a junket in Abu Dhabi where congressional aides met with UAE donors

Atlantic Council president and CEO Frederick Kempe / Getty Images
November 28, 2022

The Atlantic Council organized a junket last month for senior congressional staffers and officials in an oppressive Gulf monarchy—the United Arab Emirates—the latest example of the Beltway think tank peddling influence for one of its foreign donors.

According to records reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon, the Atlantic Council shelled out $45,000 to host 10 House and Senate staffers in Abu Dhabi from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8. Think tank officials organized a series of briefings with Emirati officials and business leaders to tout the Arab country’s "impressive" green energy industry and to push for a stronger U.S.-UAE relationship, according to an itinerary of the trip. They also convened briefings with two advisers to White House climate czar John Kerry to discuss "what the Administration is doing on international collaboration in climate change efforts, particularly with the UAE," the itinerary reads.

The United Arab Emirates has a documented record of human rights abuses, including "torture in detention; arbitrary arrest and detention [and] undue restrictions on free expression and the press," according to the State Department. Human rights groups have accused UAE-backed forces of committing torture and sexual assault against detainees in Yemen. It is unclear whether the junket gave Americans the opportunity to press their Emirati hosts on these issues.

As foreign governments have ramped up their giving to Beltway think tanks, the junket shows the sorts of things they are getting for their donations: access, on their own turf, to influential Beltway insiders who have the ears of some of the country's most powerful lawmakers.

The Atlantic Council invited a mix of Democrat and Republican staffers on House and Senate committees that oversee energy, climate, and appropriations issues and "play an instrumental role in driving American energy policy and international engagement," according to an invitation sent to congressional aides. The aim of the trip, according to the Atlantic Council, was "to strengthen the US-UAE energy relationship" and provide an "opportunity to learn more about the impressive advancement in energy of one of our key allies in the Gulf." The UAE has touted its commitment to reaching "net zero" carbon emissions by 2050, though some foreign policy experts say the oil-rich Gulf nation is using the initiative as a public relations tool to curry favor in the West.

It’s the latest example of the Atlantic Council helping foreign governments influence American policymakers. The think tank has hosted events for the Turkish government, another foreign sponsor, since 2008. Sources familiar with that relationship have told the Free Beacon that Atlantic Council officials have removed panelists from think tank events at the behest of Turkish government officials. Two of the Atlantic Council’s scholars lobbied on behalf of the Russian gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2. And two board members helped the Atlantic Council land a lucrative sponsorship from Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy company linked to Hunter Biden. The think tank took $300,000 in Burisma donations even after State Department officials warned that the company was corrupt.

Atlantic Council organizers hosted field trips and briefings for the congressional aides and UAE’s energy minister, climate minister, the head of its sovereign wealth fund, the Mubadala Investment Company, and the head of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation.

Those organizations are among the Atlantic Council’s biggest donors. The embassy donated at least $1 million to the Atlantic Council last year, according to its annual report. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation gave between $100,000 and 250,000. The state-owned Mubadala Investment Company gave between $100,000 and $250,000 to the think tank. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation contributed between $25,000 and $50,000.

While the UAE is considered an ally of the United States, American officials have recently sounded the alarm over its stealth lobbying campaign to influence American policymakers. According to the Washington Post, intelligence officials compiled a classified report detailing UAE’s efforts to manipulate the American political system through both legal and illegal means. The White House has also soured on the UAE after it joined other OPEC+ nations to cut oil production, overriding U.S. pressure to increase oil output to lower energy costs.

The United Arab Emirates works to influence Washington more fervently than most other countries. The Emiratis have spent more than $150 million on lobbying since 2016. In other cases, UAE has used deceptive means to lobby policymakers. Trump ally Thomas Barrack was charged with operating as an unregistered agent of the UAE, though he was acquitted in the case this month.

Think tanks like the Atlantic Council have largely skirted foreign lobbying regulations, prompting a growing group of watchdogs and lawmakers to urge legislation to require them to disclose their activities on behalf of foreigners to the Justice Department.

"Think tanks have an enormous influence on U.S. public policy, and many receive millions from foreign entities who have a significant interest in how our policy is shaped," said Rep. Jack Bergman (R., Mich.), who sponsored the Think Tank Transparency Act of 2022, which would require think tanks to disclose funding from foreign governments. "Congress and the American people deserve to know what these think tanks are up to, and who they’re working for."

It is unclear if the Atlantic Council disclosed UAE funding to the congressional delegation. An Atlantic Council official said in a congressional filing that the think tank was "organizing, conducting, and funding all aspects of this trip." The Atlantic Council’s itinerary does not mention the financial relationship with the United Arab Emirates. The think tank did not respond to a request for comment. The staffers who attended did not respond to requests for comment.