Abu Dhabi Secrets: How the UAE exports its smear campaign across Europe
What began as an attempt by Abu Dhabi to compete in the regional information environment has developed into a network-based subversion of sociopolitical discourse [originally published at Middle East Eye]
Revelations from a leak of more than 78,000 documents recently made headlines across Europe. What these documents revealed reads like the plot of a cheap spy novel: A Swiss private intelligence company working on behalf of a Gulf monarchy launched a large-scale attack on European citizens, civil society groups and companies in 18 countries.
European readers were taken by surprise. Yet, the almost amateurish smear campaign is just the tip of the iceberg in a years-long campaign by the United Arab Emirates to subvert discourse in Europe.
While it began as an attempt by Abu Dhabi to compete in the information environment against regional rivals, it has developed into a network-based subversion of sociopolitical discourse in Europe, targeting not just Muslim Europeans but any academic, journalist or policymaker who stands up for social justice and against authoritarian oppression.
In my new book, I define subversion as “the weaponisation of narratives in an effort to incline target audiences to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the information warrior”.
Abu Dhabi has gained considerable experience over the past decade in emulating Russia’s subversion skills. Both fight for the same thing: promoting authoritarian stability in the Middle East and Africa, and demobilising civil society, which both consider to be a fundamental threat to regime security.
Both have cultivated extensive information networks of academics, policymakers and journalists who, when not paid directly, happily volunteer as “useful idiots” for their narrative campaigns. But unlike Russia, the UAE does not yet register as an enemy, and its undue influence campaigns have long not been taken seriously. In the eyes of many Europeans, they “just” concern the interests of European Muslims.
Yet, the Islamist bogeyman that Abu Dhabi has created is no longer just a tool to counter violent extremism (a field known as CVE). The Emirati crusade against the “Muslim Brotherhood” resembles a 21st-century version of McCarthyism, spreading fear-based narratives about an alleged conspiratorial network of Muslim Brothers who are out to seize Europe.
The Brotherhood has become a broad-brush, catch-all label to vilify, delegitimise and ostracise individuals, organisations and even companies. The fact that many on the list compiled by the Swiss firm, Alp Services, on behalf of Abu Dhabi are not even Muslim exposes the hollowness of the concept.
But it has worked. This weaponised narrative recycles very old bigotries, staggeringly reminiscent of those found in a 1913 Orientalist article entitled “The Menace of Pan-Islamism”, which warned of an Islamist conspiracy. When Alp Services disseminated its inaccurate list of “Muslim Brotherhood”-affiliated individuals and organisations to its network of journalists and policymakers, the move played on the cognitive wiring of Europeans.
The notion of an omnipotent and omnipresent web of Muslim Brothers conspiring to undermine European society needed “useful idiots” in order to be disseminated. This approach resonates with inherent biases, attracting armies of pseudo-scientific CVE experts like flies to honey. Many had gotten used to making a quick buck from consulting European governments about how to defend against the very Islamist straw man they had created.
The narrative resonates with illiberal liberals who turn the achievements of the Enlightenment on their head, trying to repress ideas they deem as potentially harmful to their radical interpretation of liberalism. They can rely on the support of self-styled “progressive Muslims” who are desperately seeking approval from their non-Muslim peers.
They provide ammunition for the more sinister nodes in the UAE’s information networks: the far-right Islamophobes who are desperately trying to protect the Occident from the imaginary hordes of Muslim proselytisers conspiring for the “Great Replacement”.
With the help of its willing or unwilling footmen, Abu Dhabi has strategically ripened the CVE environment over the past decade to make its fear-mongering conspiracy theory of the Muslim Brotherhood fall on fertile ground.
Think tanks and researchers are funded by Emirati money and offer outlets to publish their pseudo-science on the Brotherhood. Journalists have been fed “expert” comments. And spin doctors such as Alp Services have helped to convey these weaponised narratives to the doorsteps of policymakers, who in the context of violent extremism, are often empty vessels waiting to be filled with talking points.
Like any good subversion campaign, Emirati meddling in Europe’s information environment triggered the target audiences to voluntarily alter their attitudes and behaviour towards not just Muslim citizens, but more widely towards the UAE’s region-wide counterrevolutionary crusade across the Middle East.
As a consequence, the information environment has become far more polarised, and suspicions against Muslims and Muslim organisations more widespread. Amid the heated debate about migration and integration, the UAE’s bogeyman fuelled the flames of xenophobia and Islamophobia, mobilising new audiences - all while smear campaigns helped to demobilise and silence Muslim voices.
Much more, Emirati-aligned networks have changed policy-relevant discourse. In the United Kingdom, the information environment was ripened for the Cameron government to go as far as investigating the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014 - an inquiry compelled from the bottom up, through UAE information networks, and coerced from the top down by Emirati transactional foreign policy.
At the same time, the UAE has been able to set the context to whitewash its own authoritarian crackdown on civil society at home and across the region. In the name of fighting the “Muslim Brotherhood”, Abu Dhabi has spearheaded the Arab counterrevolution since it helped stage the military coup in Egypt in 2013.
Emirati money has funded warlord Khalifa Haftar’s campaign against the UN-backed process in Libya since 2014, all in the name of fighting “the Brotherhood”. In Yemen, it created the Southern Transitional Council, whose fight against “Brotherhood-aligned” groups legitimised war crimes and assassinations. And since April, Abu Dhabi proxy Hemeti and his armed thugs of the Rapid Support Forces have used narratives of fighting Islamism in Sudan to justify their coup against Khartoum.
A decade of Emirati subversion operations in Europe has created a permissive environment for UAE foreign and security policy. The Brotherhood scare has created a seemingly strong argument for Abu Dhabi to push back against any criticism of the human rights abuses committed by itself and its partners in the name of containing political Islam.
Innocent Europeans who dared to stand up against Abu Dhabi’s interests have become collateral damage for a small authoritarian state trying to play at being a middle power. It is up to European governments now to step in and hold the UAE to account for trying to export its authoritarian fears of civil society to the continent.