The Middle East Institute, an influential Washington, D.C.-based think tank that has enthusiastically pushed for U.S. wars and military intervention in the Middle East, has received tens of millions of dollars from authoritarian Gulf regimes.
Chock-full of former U.S. government officials, the Middle East Institute has been one of the leading voices in Washington for defending the joint U.S.-Gulf war on Yemen, which has created the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet, killing thousands and pushing millions of civilians to the brink of famine.
While the Middle East Institute and its employees are regularly quoted as experts by large corporate media outlets, what is never disclosed is that one of the Gulf regimes waging the war on Yemen — the United Arab Emirates — is bankrolling the very think tank defending its catastrophic war.
The most recently available annual reports from the Middle East Institute from the years 2012 and 2013 show that the organization has received significant funding from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and even the U.S. State Department. Other top funders are arms manufacturers including Northrup Grumman, Raytheon and BAE Systems, along with fossil fuel companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil and banks such as Goldman Sachs.
The extent to which Gulf regimes have financially supported the think tank was not exposed until August, when the Intercept obtained an email from Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the U.S. and a prominent diplomat in Washington, D.C. Between 2016 and 2017, the UAE pledged a staggering $20 million to the Middle East Institute, according to the email.
This disclosure has led watchdogs in Washington to begin blowing the whistle. Robert Naiman, policy director of the group Just Foreign Policy, created a petition calling on the FBI to investigate the Middle East Institute over its UAE funding, and in particular to look into whether the think tank is violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Naiman’s petition singled out Gerald M. Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen now serving as the director for Gulf affairs and government relations at MEI. In March, speaking at the invitation of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Feierstein defended the sale of U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia. In June, he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, discussing the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Feierstein appears to have lied to Congress about his relationship to Gulf regimes. In his required disclosure form, he claimed that his organization, MEI, has not "received any contract or payment originating with a foreign government related to the subject of the hearing."
Yet the UAE has played a lead role in the war on Yemen and the Intercept’s report shows it has given MEI many millions in funding.
As of August 20, the petition calling for an FBI investigation of the Middle East Institute had more than 5,000 signatures.
How Gerald Feierstein plays the media
AlterNet has previously shown how U.S.-backed Gulf regimes work with the media to push for war. In this latest investigation, we show how Gerald Feierstein, MEI’s director for Gulf affairs and government relations, has played the press.
Corporate media outlets have dutifully given Feierstein a platform from which to defend U.S. and Gulf military intervention. He has written articles for Foreign Affairs, the influential journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations, and for Atlantic Media’s arms manufacturer-sponsored website Defense One.
Feierstein plays his part in four principal ways: defending U.S. arms sales to Gulf regimes; supporting a potentially catastrophic escalation of the U.S.-Gulf war on Yemen; applauding the Trump administration’s close collaboration with Saudi Arabia; and demonizing Iran.
Before moving to the Middle East Institute, Feierstein was a key figure in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he served for 41 years. He was an influential figure in the State Department, where he served as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, the number-two U.S. diplomat for Middle East policy from 2013 until he retired in May 2016.
From 2010 to 2013, under former president Barack Obama, Feierstein also served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Before that, during his 41 years in U.S. diplomacy, Feierstein worked in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan, Lebanon, Oman and Tunisia, and specialized in so-called counter-terrorism policy.
Defending U.S. arms sales to the Gulf
Feierstein has been a consistent supporter of U.S. arms deals with Gulf regimes. In a March Washington Post report, Feierstein was cited as an expert who backed the Trump administration’s plans to sell so-called precision weapons to Saudi Arabia.
“My own view is that we should be able to sell these,” Feierstein said. He justified the sale of more arms on supposed humanitarian grounds, claiming, “We should provide more help, more support, to get them to stop doing stupid things.”
This argument, which Feierstein also used in his testimony before Congress, presupposes that the coalition is only accidentally killing civilians. Yet reports suggest the Saudi-led coalition has intentionally targeted civilian areas in Yemen.
More than one-third of all U.S.-Saudi-UAE coalition airstrikes have hit civilian areas in Yemen, and experts say coalition airstrikes have intentionally targeted food production and agriculture in the impoverished country. The coalition has also launched double-tap strikes that were clearly intentional on civilian areas such as funeral homes and a Doctors Without Borders medical facility.
Backing escalation in Yemen in the face of humanitarian catastrophe
Feierstein was a staunch advocate of a planned Saudi-led coalition assault on a critical port in the major Yemeni city Hodeidah, which human rights organizations warned would have pushed millions of Yemenis past the brink of famine.
A staggering 70 to 80 percent of Yemen’s food supply, humanitarian aid and fuel arrives through the port at Hodeidah. Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted to seize the port in order to strangle the Houthi movement. The U.S. government was internally divided on whether or not to carry out the operation. Humanitarian organizations warned the attack would almost certainly lead to mass starvation and death.
Yet Feierstein was a leading supporter of the Saudi-UAE operation. The Washington Post cited him as a “regional expert” who backed the plan for a Hodeidah offensive, supposedly “to relieve the humanitarian crisis.”
In a report on the issue in March, Al-Monitor highlighted the conflicting views of U.S. experts. Eric Pelofsky, former National Security Council senior director for North Africa and Yemen, warned, “moving against Hodeidah port could lead to terrible humanitarian consequences.”
Jeremy Konyndyk, a former top USAID official, told Al-Monitor “it would be disastrous in terms of humanitarian impact if the coalition were to disrupt the aid pipeline and commercial pipeline that moves through that port.” He warned, “if that port were to be lost, it would likely be enough to tip the country into famine.”
But Feierstein, the supposed regional expert, insisted otherwise. Flipping the facts on their head, he insisted to Al-Monitor, “If they [the Saudis] can get control of Hodeidah.. then repair the damage to the port and get it functioning again and provide unfettered access to humanitarian relief organizations, it may be a way of addressing the humanitarian crisis.”
Praising Trump’s Saudi policy, clamoring for Syrian regime change
As a Democratic foreign policy apparatchik, Feierstein has been vocally critical of Donald Trump. Yet when it comes to Trump’s wholehearted embrace of Gulf regimes, Feierstein sounds far more supportive.
“Atmospherically, the visit to Saudi Arabia was very positive,” Feierstein told the Washington Post in May. He added that Gulf leaders “appreciated the effort,” noting, “The strong language on Iran was welcome and reassuring.”
In March, Feierstein published an article in Foreign Affairs, writing admirably of “Saudi efforts to construct a united Sunni front to challenge Iran’s ambitions to amass power in the Islamic world.”
He added that “the Trump administration shows every sign that it reciprocates the Saudi desire to rebuild a relationship that had withered during the unhappy years of the Barack Obama presidency,” and noted further U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen was “part of its efforts to bolster its Iran containment strategy.”
Feierstein likewise commended Trump in April for launching a missile attack on a Syrian government air base. “Trump deserves credit for an appropriate response,” he wrote on Twitter. “But it can't end here. What is Act II? We need to demand a path to regime change.”
Channeling the grievances of MEI’s Gulf donors, Feierstein lamented that the Obama administration did not militarily intervene more directly in Syria, writing that Obama “was excoriated for refusing to lift a finger to stop wholesale murder of civilians,” resulting in a “failure.” Feierstein failed to acknowledge that the armed opposition in Syria has for years been dominated by extremist Salafi-jihadist militants, including al-Qaeda and ISIS.
When the Houthi movement ousted Yemen’s U.S.-backed puppet government and took over the majority of the populated areas in the country, seizing the capital Sanaa in late 2014, Feierstein began portraying the country’s civil conflict as a proxy war, with Iran exercising undue and nefarious influence. From inside the Obama administration, the diplomat was faithfully advancing the views of the Gulf nations that would soon become his paymasters.
In April 2015, while he was still U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Feierstein fear-mongered in an interview with The Hill, “We have seen a significant expansion of Iranian involvement in Yemen’s domestic affairs.” He portrayed the Houthis as Iranian proxies and said, “We believe that Iran sees opportunities with the Houthis to expand its influence in Yemen and threaten Saudi and Gulf Arab interests.”
Then, in October 2016, when the U.S. accused the Houthi movement of launching missiles at a U.S. warship off of Yemen’s coast — although there was little evidence of this — Feierstein again pointed the finger at Iran.
Now on the Gulf payroll, Feierstein has maintained a consistently anti-Iran line. In May 2017, he wrote an op-ed for Defense One whose headline highlighted his cynical view of the war in Yemen: “Yemen Could Be the Key to Solving the Iran Problem.” Feierstein wagged his finger at “Iran’s bad behavior” while fawning over the Trump administration’s escalatory moves in Yemen. He proposed a series of moves to make Oman a less “reluctant partner in the GCC’s desire to confront Iran.”
In March, Feierstein again hailed Saudi Arabia’s regional policies, claiming it is “on a winning streak.” Yemeni filmmaker Nasser Arrabyee took issue with the think tanker’s slavish praise for Riyadh, protesting on Twitter, “What you told Congress about Yemen was completely wrong. Just to appease Saudis. Iran is not in Yemen.”
Feierstein replied, “It would be nice to think so, but I know personally you're wrong.”