Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the United States since 2008, is a diplomat in Washington who lives like a movie star in Los Angeles.
Since his appointment, al-Otaiba has become one of the most powerful and well-connected men on Capitol Hill, and since 2017 has reportedly been in contact with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, on a weekly basis.
Al-Otaiba (1974) does not come from humble beginnings although he seems keen to underline his ‘modest upbringing’, as WikiLeaks cables have shown. He is the son of Mana al-Otaiba, a petroleum magnate who served as the president of OPEC a record six times and was the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first petroleum minister as well as a confidant to the late UAE founder and President Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan (1918-2004).
Al-Otaiba’s mother, an Egyptian and one of his father’s four wives, raised her son in Cairo where he had a first-rate liberal arts education.
In 1991, he moved to Washington where he studied international relations at Georgetown University. Although the website of the UAE embassy says he earned a degree there, an investigative piece in The Intercept, titled ‘The Sordid Double Life of Washington’s Most Powerful Ambassador’, claims he never graduated.
Al-Otaiba is married to to Abeer al-Otaiba who is originally from Egypt who is originally from Egypt. They have two children: Omar (six) and Samia (four). Abeer’s job as a civil engineer brought her to the UAE in 2004, where she met and married al-Otaiba.
Al-Otaiba then attended the Industrial College of the US Armed Forces at the National Defence University in Washington as an international fellow. Upon graduation in 2000, he joined the immediate staff of Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (known as MBZ), then the UAE’s armed forces chief of staff and now crown prince. Aged just 26, al-Otaiba was appointed as MBZ’s senior advisor and seven years later as his director of international affairs. He also served as the country’s principal security, anti-terrorism and defence liaison with other governments, adding international experience and recognition to his profile.
In 2006-2007, he played a crucial role in convincing other Gulf countries to support President George W. Bush’s troop-surge strategy in the Iraq War, according to Kristofer Harrison, a Defence and State Department advisor during the Bush administration who worked closely with al-Otaiba.
Specifically, his role entailed translating the ‘Anbar Awakening’ strategy in Iraq into language Gulf monarchs would accept, in addition to convincing them to support the campaign to drive out the al-Qaeda terrorists who had taken over a large part of Anbar province.
His success in holding up his end of the Anbar agreement landed him the job in Washington as ambassador and MBZ’s top confidant in the US. Unlike other diplomats, he seemed to understand Washington better than anyone else.
Upon his arrival, he hired Amy Little-Thomas, a former State Department staffer in the Bush administration, and made her the UAE embassy’s chief of protocol. ‘She opened every door he could possibly need. The guy was everywhere. He’d go to an envelope opening,’ the Huffington Post reported in a piece about his rise titled ‘His Town’, a reference to how influential he had become in DC. It was not long before other people began to register his presence.
He established the nonprofit Oasis Foundation, which served ‘to advance positive relations between the UAE, a significant American ally (particularly in the Middle East), and the United States’.
He was among the engineers of the landmark US-UAE Agreement for Peaceful Civilian Nuclear Energy Cooperation (123 Agreement), which came into force in 2009 and allowed the UAE to obtain nuclear materials from the US for a civilian programme – a first among Arab countries.
Another landmark deal he helped to seal with the US was the state-of-the-art Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system, making the UAE the first nation in the world to obtain the system.
However, al-Otaiba’s rapid rise in Washington was not solely the result of personal effort. The ambassador had the full support of MBZ, who in turn was willing to pour huge sums of money into think tanks and PR companies to advance his agenda and improve the UAE’s public standing in the political capital of the world.
In 2014, the Washington Post reported that the UAE had spent $14.2 million – the most of any country – on PR firms to influence American opinion, among others by making contacts with columnists and reporters to discuss ‘illicit finance issues’. That was the case again in 2016, as al-Monitor reported.
In June 2017, al-Otaiba was hit hard by GlobalLeaks, a hacker group that stole his personal emails and began disseminating them. The emails confirmed previous reports that he was ‘buying’ influence in Washington. As of 2013, the UAE has spent more money on lobbying than any other foreign government. Millions went to the Camstoll Group and Harbor Group, companies operated by ex-US Treasury staff responsible for relations with Gulf states and Israel as well as countering funding of terrorism.
Documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal implicate al-Otaiba in the multi-billion-dollar scandal surrounding the Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The newspaper reported that al-Otaiba’s emails included details of meetings between Shaher Awartani, an Abu Dhabi-based business partner, and Jho Low, ‘the Malaysian financier the [US] justice department says was the central conspirator in the alleged $4.5 billion 1MDB fraud’.
Companies connected to al-Otaiba received $66 million from offshore accounts that contained money allegedly embezzled from 1MDB. They included Densmore Investments Ltd in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and Silver Coast Construction & Boring in the UAE.
Aside from embezzlement and corruption, al-Otaiba was implicated in even more serious scandals. The Intercept, which received its share of the hacked emails, broke the story of al-Otaiba’s double life, which allegedly involved the exploitation of trafficked girls.
According to the emails, which were not verified by any other source, al-Otaiba and his friends had allegedly frequented ‘gentlemen’s clubs’, spending six to eight hours a day in such establishments, both in the US and abroad, hiring $10,000-a-night prostitutes, and had at some point even contemplated having sex with underage girls and making them sign a ‘contract’ stating they were over 18.
Al-Otaiba had also allegedly sent prostitutes to Abu Dhabi for his friends. Roman Paschal, previously one of al-Otaiba’s close confidants, claimed that al-Otaiba had flown him to Abu Dhabi to have sex with various high-class sex workers, who would enter a luxury apartment dressed in abayas to conceal their profession. Paschal was then free to choose a woman with whom he wanted to sleep. However, Paschal does not accuse al-Otaiba of human trafficking.
Moreover, the Huffington Post, which was provided with another batch of the leaked emails, broke the story of al-Otaiba supporting a major effort to raise doubts about Qatar in the minds of Americans since 2014, a mission in which he has been largely unsuccessful despite the row between the Gulf state and several other countries, including the UAE, over its alleged support of terrorism that erupted in May 2017.