WASHINGTON ― Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the U.S. and a confidant of White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, repeatedly criticized President Donald Trump in private correspondence last year ― including with officials loyal to President Barack Obama ― emails obtained by HuffPost show.
Otaiba, one of the most powerful diplomats in Washington, figures in an unfolding regional crisis centered on U.S. partner nation Qatar, which hosts America’s largest military base in the region. The UAE and three other U.S.-aligned Middle East governments ratcheted up a simmering dispute with Qatar on Sunday night when they cut diplomatic and transportation ties to the Gulf nation over its support of the transnational Muslim Brotherhood and alleged assistance to Iran-backed militants around the region.
The Trump administration has not taken a formal position on the issue. Many in Trump’s orbit agree with the UAE on the need to combat forces that Qatar supports in the region, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The UAE has designated the group a terrorist organization and pushed for the U.S. to do the same, a step counterterrorism researchers say would be controversial and risky.
The leaked emails, which show Otaiba’s comments during a yearlong campaign to discredit Qatar in the U.S., threaten the UAE’s hope to win official American blessing for its pressure campaign against the Qataris. Trump is notoriously thin-skinned: He has banned people who publicly criticized him from his team (including GOP consigliere Elliott Abrams, a fellow Qatar skeptic who is friends with Otaiba) and seems unable to get over slights even years after they occur. And his administration already seems disinclined to pick a side. Top officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have emphasized the importance of resolving the dispute.
The leaker or leakers who shared the messages with HuffPost claimed they wanted to expose the two-faced nature of the Emirates’ foreign policy. The source has denied having links to Qatar. HuffPost independently confirmed the authenticity of the messages.
Taken together, the emails underscore the fragility of relations between Trump and the U.S.-friendly Arabs who have been his biggest fans in the international community.
At 9:12 p.m. on election night, as Trump’s odds of a win dramatically increased, Rob Malley, the top official for the Middle East in the Obama White House, wrote to Otaiba.
“You got room for me in Abu Dhabi?” Malley wrote, referring to the Emirates’ capital city.
“This isn’t funny. How/why is this happening??” Otaiba responded. “On what planet can trump be a president??”
Earlier emails in the same chain showed the ambassador apparently seeking Malley’s help in securing information about election results before they were public. “Do you guys receive advanced info from polls?” Otaiba wrote at 5:53 p.m. “Or does everyone see everything at same time?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know!” Malley responded at 6:11 p.m.
Otaiba seemed more dismissive of Trump in an email exchange from earlier in 2016, between the ambassador and Fox News personality Judith Miller.
The ambassador wrote to Miller, a former New York Times reporter, on May 9, 2016, after she appears to have sent him tweets from a Saudi whistleblower account that seemed to have disparaged Otaiba’s boss, Emirates Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed.
“The 7 minutes I spent reading this was the equivalent of watching 7 minutes of donald trump. A waste of my time,” Otaiba said.
The ambassador also joked about Trump, then a presidential candidate, with Chris Schroeder, an entrepreneur who worked for President George H.W. Bush. In a Jan. 26, 2016, conversation about different conferences in the UAE and the U.S., Otaiba wrote, “The government summit is big deal. In trump’s words, its uge!”
“It looks like pretty basic banter as we are friends,” Schroeder said in an email to HuffPost on Friday, adding that he did not recall the exchange.
Malley and Miller declined to comment for this piece.
The emails show how little Trump did prior to the election to win global confidence, and cast doubt on the president’s ability to be a mediator in the current tensions between vital U.S. partners. Henri Barkey, a former State Department official who now works at the Woodrow Wilson International Center think tank, told HuffPost in a Monday email that the entire UAE-Qatar tussle shows the president still has much progress to make in his stated aim of uniting the global Muslim community around his goals. “Coming after Trump’s much touted trip to the region it demonstrates how superficial his achievements were,” Barkey said in an email.
Otaiba has not responded to multiple HuffPost requests for comment on the leaked emails.
The email dump also shows the level of engagement between Otaiba and the Obama White House, despite the ambassador’s public claims that President Barack Obama was failing to lead in the Middle East. It includes multiple conversations between the ambassador and Obama’s last national security adviser, Susan Rice, including some in which she criticizes Vice President Joe Biden over his comments about U.S. partner nations such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey enabling violent extremism. When Otaiba sent Rice a note about a speech Biden made on the subject on Oct. 3, 2014, she responded, “Hadn’t seen before you mentioned. Not good. VP office will issue a statement clearing it up. Thanks.”
Rice, Malley and Otaiba spoke frankly about issues that worried them. The ambassador frequently sought Rice’s help in establishing contact between his boss and President Barack Obama. As congressional concern about the U.S.-backed war in Yemen heated up in October 2015, the two emailed about strategy there ― including about a peace process that has yet to bear fruit.
A spokesperson for Rice declined to comment.
On Nov. 6, 2016, Malley wrote to Otaiba warning him that the level of skepticism among Western leaders and societies about Saudi Arabia, an important partner to both the U.S. and the UAE, was reaching striking levels.
He wrote that he’d recently watched the primary debate for France’s center-right party nomination in its presidential election.
“I was struck by the virulently anti Saudi tone of almost all the candidates,” Malley wrote. “But it underscored to me that their problem really does run deep and the negative Wahhabi label they think the US unfairly attaches to them [to describe the controversial brand of Islam the Saudis espouse] is shared in the west and will require pretty drastic moves on their part.”
The “Wahhabi label” refers to the way Western commentators, particularly in the U.S., speak of the harsh strain of Islam sponsored by the Saudi government. Many observers, including President Barack Obama, have blamed Saudi support for preaching abroad for boosting extremism among Muslim communities. Critics of that reasoning say it’s overly simplistic about the causes of militancy, which include material and political deprivation, and misrepresentative of Saudi beliefs.
Otaiba and Malley remained in touch until at least March 2017, emails indicate. According to plans exchanged in their emails, the two appear to have had dinner together on Feb. 8, and in late February, the ambassador sent the former Obama aide a review of UAE-U.S. ties under Trump. “We’re good. Mattis just had an excellent visit to abu dhabi. And [Prince Abdullah bin Zayed] is coming this way mid March,” he wrote.
In the same exchange, he complained about an article Malley wrote about Trump with George Washington University professor Marc Lynch. “You really could do much MUCH better than lynch,” Otaiba wrote. “Even if it is a trump piece.”
This story has been updated to include an email exchange between Otaiba and Judith Miller.