In 2007, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer attracted global publicity for their book, The Israel Lobby. Being prominent academics, they gave their ignorant and sometimes antisemitic ideas the patina of credibility. Worse, the book became a staple in many university courses. Three years later, I thought my book, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, would at least get a fraction of the attention because, unlike Walt and Mearsheimer, I am an expert on U.S. Middle East policy, the topic was virtually unknown, and it was written from a scholarly perspective. Alas, it was ignored by the major media and, to my knowledge, not assigned to students.
Now, The Washington Post has discovered at least one Arab country engaged in lobbying our government, often to the detriment of our foreign policy. In a front-page story, “U.S. intelligence report says key gulf ally meddled in American politics,” the Post reported the United Arab Emirates has engaged in “illegal and legal attempts to steer U.S. foreign policy in ways favorable to the Arab autocracy.” The UAE has exploited U.S. “vulnerabilities in American governance, including its reliance on campaign contributions, susceptibility to powerful lobbying firms and lax enforcement of disclosure laws intended to guard against interference by foreign governments.”
Among what the Post called its “more brazen exploits,” the UAE hired “three former U.S. intelligence and military officials to help the UAE surveil dissidents, politicians, journalists, and U.S. companies. In public legal filings, U.S. prosecutors said the men helped the UAE break into computers in the United States and other countries. Last year, all three admitted in court to providing sophisticated hacking technology to the UAE, agreeing to surrender their security clearances and pay about $1.7 million to resolve criminal charges.”
As I documented in my book, the Arab lobby, starting with State Department Arabists, has been active since the 1930s. My book focused on how the Saudis attempted, and sometimes succeeded, in influencing U.S. policy. At the time, the other Gulf nations were far less involved in lobbying, but that has changed. The Post reported, for example, that since 2016, the UAE has spent more than $154 million on lobbyists, and “hundreds of millions of dollars more on donations to American universities and think tanks, many that produce policy papers with finding favorable to UAE interests.”
As of 2007, I wrote that Arab governments and donors from Arab countries had donated more than $320 million to American universities. Qatar had given $150 million, Saudi Arabia, more than $130 million, and the UAE $52 million. In a study published last year, I reported total contributions since 1986 had ballooned to more than $8 billion (most donated since 2015) with 80% coming from Qatar ($4.3 billion), Saudi Arabia ($2.1 billion) and the UAE ($1.1 billion).
Most of the Arab lobby is focused on Arab states, not the Palestinians. A tiny component of the lobby is pro-Palestinian. It is also the least influential. Even when the Arab states were lobbying the United States to oppose partition and, later, criticized support for Israel, their interest was never in the establishment of a Palestinian state. Even Jimmy Carter revealed in 1979, “I have never met an Arab leader that in private professed the desire for an independent Palestinian state.” Arab leaders might rant about Israel, but their primary interest was acquiring weapons, economic assistance, and promises of protection.
The UAE and the Arab lobby in general operate mostly below the radar. Unlike supporters of the Palestinians who make a lot of noise without having any influence, the Arab states prefer to remain invisible and quietly impact policy. The Arab states also lobby for something—their national interests—whereas homegrown pro-Palestinian groups primarily attack Israel.
Before deciding to finance political candidates, AIPAC also had a more Rooseveltian approach of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. The pro-Israel lobby, however, can’t avoid attention because of the conspiracy theories, sometimes promoted by the Arab lobby, about Jewish power and the constant media focus on Israel. By contrast, most Americans couldn’t find the Gulf states on a map let alone care about their lobbying activities.
The Post’s revelations may prompt some members of Congress to scrutinize the UAE’s activities, but don’t expect any dramatic change in U.S. policy. Members of Congress often benefit from the activities of the Arab lobby. As the Post noted, countries like the UAE can take advantage of their need for campaign contributions.
Arms sales to the Gulf states also create jobs in many congressional districts. Presidents also benefit because those jobs are often in states that are important for their reelection. As an incentive to sign the Abraham Accords, then-President Donald Trump agreed to sell the UAE our most sophisticated aircraft, the F-35 stealth fighter, and President Joe Biden approved the sale. In a rare instance of the Arab lobby not getting its way, Congress has held up the sale.
Unlike the pro-Israel lobby which operates in the open and is transparent, the Arab lobby is a many-headed hydra that is less visible and more difficult to define. In the case of the Arabists, who are essentially pro-Arab/anti-Israel lobbyists within our government, their influence has waned as their views have proven consistently wrong, from the idea that U.S.-Arab relations would suffer if we allied with Israel to the conviction that no Arab nation would make peace with Israel until the Palestinian issue was resolved. The individual Gulf states, however, have at times achieved their goals while acting counter to U.S. values (freedom, democracy, human rights) and interests.
The Post’s disclosures about the UAE’s activities reinforce the conclusion I reached in my book that for too long the Arab lobby has been allowed to operate behind the scenes, beyond public scrutiny, to guide American policy in directions counter to the views of the public and to the nation’s detriment.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby,” “Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”