Beyond Impartiality: The Middle East Institute’s UAE-Driven Narrative

The Middle East Institute (MEI), Washington D.C.’s oldest think tank dedicated to Middle East studies, has been advocating for greater U.S. involvement in the region’s security. However, behind the scenes, MEI’s narrative appears to be heavily influenced by its key backers, the United Arab Emirates.

Established in 1946, MEI has been a prominent fixture in Washington D.C., solely devoted to studying the Middle East. While it projects an image of non-partisanship, there are allegations of the institute being co-opted by the UAE as a tool to safeguard its international interests, a fact often omitted from its narrative. MEI has faced censure for producing work lacking critical analysis while excessively praising the UAE. Its involvement in activities that advance the UAE’s narrative raises concerns about its authenticity as an impartial entity. This article exposes the inner workings of MEI and sheds light on how it champions the UAE’s foreign policy objectives while presenting itself as an impartial institution.

The Political Nexus

MEI emerges as an unconventional think tank, straddling policy analysis and cultural promotion. With substantial UAE funding, it seems obligated to align its activities with the UAE’s preferred narrative, raising questions about its true independence. Critics contend that MEI actively advances the UAE government’s foreign policy, essentially serving as a mouthpiece for the nation’s interests. The close financial support from the UAE government further adds to suspicions about the institute’s impartiality.

Conflict of Interest: Gulf Funding and Think Tank Independence

In March, Firas Maksad of the Middle East Institute (MEI) labeled the divide between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and the UAE a “crisis” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, urging President Biden to reaffirm a strategic alliance with these countries to maintain regional defense. He warned that without such affirmation, both nations could further strengthen ties with Beijing and Moscow. During a CNN appearance, Maksad accused the United States of neglecting its role as the “underwriter of regional security,” causing concerns in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi about diversifying away from the U.S.

MEI’s Bilal Saab and Karen Young continued the call for a new U.S. “strategic defense framework with the Gulf Arab states” in an article for Foreign Policy. Their stance was influenced by an MEI policy memo claiming U.S. support for Iran’s expansionism, which allegedly pushed Saudi Arabia and the UAE towards China and Russia.

Interestingly, these appeals for increased U.S. military involvement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE conveniently overlook the fact that MEI receives significant funding from these very countries. Leaked emails from 2017 revealed a “secret” $20 million grant from the UAE to MEI.

Furthermore, Firas Maksad has personal ties to Saudi and Emirati funds through his association with Global Policy Associates, which previously listed Teneo as a client, representing various Saudi and Emirati interests.

Despite the clear conflicts of interest, MEI and other think tanks in Washington, D.C., funded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, promote pro-Gulf messaging while avoiding disclosure of their financial ties. While not acting as “lobbying firms,” these think tanks often present themselves as objective while silencing criticism of the Gulf dictatorships.

A Broader Trend: UAE’s Influence Over Think Tanks

MEI is just one among many think tanks receiving UAE funding. Alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE has become a top foreign funder of think tanks in Washington, D.C. These institutions may not function as traditional lobbying firms, but they face accusations of propagating pro-Saudi and UAE messaging while obscuring their conflicts of interest.

The case of The Middle East Institute provides a glimpse into the challenges faced by think tanks straddling policy analysis and cultural promotion. While they present themselves as impartial, their association with influential governments like the UAE can significantly shape their messaging and raise doubts about their objectivity. Transparent disclosure of funding sources and potential conflicts of interest is essential for maintaining public trust and informed analysis.

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