Turning a blind eye: Emirati donations to US representatives and the perpetuation of human rights abuses

Over the last five decades, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has rapidly transformed from a sparsely populated desert territory, to the Middle East’s epicenter of business and luxury tourism. However, hidden behind the grandeur of Emirati wealth and prestige, lies an autocratic police state rife with human rights violations including human trafficking, religious persecution and the systemic imprisonment of political dissidents. Through extensive lobbying and public affairs efforts, the UAE has been attempting to buy access to US legislators. By donating to countless congressional campaigns via US lobbying firms, the UAE is supposedly strengthening its relations with the US – essentially it endeavors to buy off US representatives in an effort to maintain an economy built on human rights abuses.

Through a number of US firms, the Emirati government has made countless indirect donations to campaigns and political action committees (PACs). Twelve firms have represented the Emirati government via its embassy or through various government departments. Some of those most prestigious include the Glover Park Group, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and American Defense International, who alone have donated millions of dollars to candidates over the course of decades.

On top of these political donations, many of these firms have met with US politicians on behalf of the Emirati government. Last year, American Defense International donated nearly $3,000 to Representative Adam Smith, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, meeting with him on multiple occasions to “strengthen the ties between the US and the UAE”, advocating on behalf of the Emirati government. Bullpen Strategy Group and Gilliland & McKinney have taken similar actions, engaging in “activities in furtherance of the interests of the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates”, meeting with and donating to a number of notable Senators such as Chris Coons and Jeff Merkley, as well as leaders in the House such as Steny Hoyer and Adam Smith. Gilliland & McKinney donated over $3,000 to Congressman Antonio Delgado in 2019 and continues to meet with him regularly regarding US-UAE relations.

While some members of Congress have taken a tough stance on the UAE regarding its human rights violations and history of money laundering, most resolutions condemning the Emirati government fail to make it even to the floor. In 2019, Congressman William Lacy Clay introduced H.R. 524, a noncontroversial resolution condemning the UAE for its abuses; the bill never even made it past committee. In the first half of 2020 alone, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP donated over $100,000 to 190 campaigns and PACs. It is no wonder that bills and resolutions condemning the UAE never make it past committee. As long as the Emirati government continues to provide indirect campaign donations, they will be able to keep buying off US legislators and maintain the status quo of human rights atrocities.