How the UAE courted David Rothkopf, the former head of powerful Foreign Policy Magazine

Editors note: I had started working on this story when I was still at The Intercept, but I didn’t get it out to publish in time by time I left to do my fellowship. However in writing this story several former staff at Foreign Policy told me it was important to write, so I decided to get it out via this blog. It is not directly related to 2020, however it is important to realize that the UAE has tried to influence presidential candidates and policy debate; furthermore, Rothkopf is an important foreign policy commentator who likely will be tapped to advise candidates. Lastly, I just want to say that both Rothkopf and his wife were gracious in terms of responding to inquiries about this story and that although they are the focus of this particular story, I don’t think they are that important as individuals. This is a broken system and it can influence just about anyone, even if someone else was in their place.

 

David Rothkopf is one of the country’s most influential foreign affairs journalists. From 2012 to 2017, he was the CEO of the Foreign Policy Group. In this prestigious position, he was tasked with conducting and overseeing journalism that was read by elites both in the United States and abroad. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidential race, there was speculation he would have served at a senior level in her administration.

It’s no wonder that Rothkopf soared to such heights under the banner of FP. The Foreign Policy Group oversees a small empire of products bearing its name: publishing Foreign Policy Magazine; ForeignPolicy.com; and managing FP Events, which has, according to its website, for decades “convened global leaders at the intersection of business and policy.”

Rothkopf left Foreign Policy in 2017 but he continues to be an influential foreign affairs pundit – a pundit whose work is hobbled by a key conflict of interest. As The Intercept recently reported, Rothkopf’s private firm, the Rothkopf Group, held a lobbying contract with the United Arab Emirates. Despite the contract, Rothkopf appeared in several media outlets opining on Middle East policy without his role lobbying for the Gulf dictatorship being disclosed.

The lobbying contract with the UAE may have only come into effect in September 2018, but Rothkopf’s informal relationship with the UAE stretches back years — well into his tenure at Foreign Policy Group.

While he was the CEO of Foreign Policy Group, Rothkopf arranged a series of event that were openly underwritten by the government of the UAE. The events were called “Peace Games.” Influential foreign policy elites would meet to tackle the big foreign policy problems of the day through simulations and discussion. It was amid the planning of these events that the compromises of tangling a journalism business with a PR-minded dictatorship came into focus.

In an email to me Rothkopf denied that the parent company’s business decisions affected the news side’s editorial judgement. “I can’t comment specifically on any aspect of my work at FP,” Rothkopf wrote to me. “That said, the UAE was treated like any other client of the business side which included a wide variety of governments and businesses. There was a strong, clear separation of the business side and the editorial side on such issues as would be the case in any media organization. No business relationship influenced our editorial coverage of any story ever.”Conflict, however, sometimes arose on the business side itself. One case was the events put on by the FP group, inevitably with the patina of journalistic integrity offered by the news side’s brand. I have reviewed emails between Rothkopf and the UAE’s Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Otaiba that describe, in detail, the level of control that the UAE exerted over the format and composition of the FP events.

In April 2014, prior to the first Abu Dhabi Peace Games in the summer of that year, Rothkopf wrote to Otaiba and a UAE embassy adviser, the Washington lobbyist Richard Mintz, asking them for advice. “Hi Richard, as we have discussed with Yousef last week, one thing we will need the help of the Foreign Ministry on is inviting guests from the region,” he wrote. Rothkopf noted that “we can’t really identify who is [sic.] acceptable to the government of the UAE. We need to work with them to understand parameters, develop the lists and then the letters of invitation need to go out from the UAE to ensure the invitees get the right message.” Rothkopf particularly wanted to know how the UAE would like Qatar and Israel to be treated. (Mintz did not respond to a request for comment.)

Through underwriting the events, the UAE had gained the ability to control the message at an event that was put on by a company whose core mission was ostensibly journalism. Rothkopf, according to the email exchanges I obtained , deferred to the UAE government’s sensibilities throughout the process of planning and carrying off the events.

***

The emails I obtained  come from a group calling itself Global Leaks, which came to posess a copy of Otaiba’s inbox and began selectively distributing its contents to media outlets, including at The Intercept, over the summer of 2017. It’s not clear whether Otaiba’s inbox was hacked or passed along by someone with access to the account. Nor is it clear who controls Global Leaks, though the name is a winking reference to DC Leaks, the group responsible for leaking Democratic operatives’ emails during the 2016 election that has been linked to Russian state hackers.

Included in the batch of emails I receivedwas a draft contract between Foreign Policy Group, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, and the Canales Project, an arts nonprofit founded by opera singer Carla Canales. The draft contract doesn’t specify an event, but the parties listed match up with the sponsors of a “Culture Summit” hosted by the UAE. (The UAE’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.)

 

In a statement to me, Canales said that her arts firm TCP Ventures was the co-creator of the Abu Dhabi “Culture Summit,” an Abu Dhabi-based event that was co-sponsored by the Foreign Policy Group and the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
TCP Ventures “handled the artistic curation of the project in year one and in year two. The organization is no longer affiliated with CultureSummit,” Canales said. (She also clarified that the Canales Project, the arts nonprofit she founded, was not involved, despite being on the draft contract.) A Facebook post by the Canales Project features a photograph of Canales, Rothkopf, and UAE Culture Minister Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan. The minister has one arm draped across Rothkopf, with a broad smile on his face. Canales said that the company is under a non-disclosure agreement and thus cannot confirm the amount of money that she was paid.

Canales had a previous relationship with Foreign Policy. In 2015, she was named to the magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers list. Shortly after that, she became involved in a romantic relationship with Rothkopf and, in 2017, they married. More than one former Foreign Policy staffer told me their understanding was that Rothkopf had insisted that Canales be included on the list.

The draft contract says that FP would receive $3.45 million over the “initial three year commitment” and TCP would get $1.05 million over the same period of time. The contract itself has no date, but it notes that the agreement is being made prior to the first meeting of the “governing committee” that runs it, which was schedule for June 16, 2016.

In a lengthy article on the Foreign Policy website, Rothkopf explained the rationale behind co-sponsoring the event with the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and TCP: “The five-day event will feature government ministers, internationally known artists and arts administrators, media and tech leaders, and philanthropists in a program designed to explore the future of culture and how its power can be harnessed to produce positive social change: from combating violent extremism to reversing climate change, from empowering women to promoting arts education.”

He concluded, “Foreign Policy is committed to making this an annual event. But we also hope to produce an impact right now, raising awareness of the opportunity that exists if we recognize that the most potent force for good on the planet is our collective imagination.”

***

During this period of lucrative financial arrangements for Foreign Policy, Rothkopf’s public writing on the UAE was glowing. In March 2016, he wrote a piece that was so effusive it could be mistaken for a diplomatic prospectus. In the story, Rothkopf lauds the UAE’s crown prince as “one of the most thoughtful world leaders I have ever met.” He praises the country’s standard of living and educational attainment. He boasts that the UAE had only been around 44 years and had accomplished so much, while the United States was in its first 44 years still embracing slavery and conducting genocide.

The fulsome praise didn’t sit well with everyone. “I can only marvel at the tragic irony that Rothkopf would present as a regional role model a country that punishes non-violent dissidents with jail terms and the stripping of citizenship,” wrote Iyad el-Baghdadi, a human rights activist who was raised in the Emirates before being deported under mysterious circumstances.

Rothkopf, who said he recused himself from editing others’ stories about the UAE while at Foreign Policy, denied that the financial relationship with the UAE affected his own work. “Not only have I never hesitated to be critical of them, they have never commented to me in any way or sought to influence my position,” he said. “It has always been clear that was not for sale.  When I see something wrong or that I disagree with, I say so. When I see something that I think is positive, I say so.”

The e-mails I obtained when I worked at The Intercept show an extraordinary coziness between the two men — a friendship, even. As they exchanged emails — on everything from analysis of events in the Middle East and North Africa to arranging private meetings with officials — Rothkopf lavished praise on the young and powerful diplomat. There were signs of ideological convergences as well.

In the summer of 2013, Egypt’s democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown in a military coup backed by massive protests. Long a bete noir of the Gulf monarchies, the UAE had been particularly opposed to Islamist populism of the Brotherhood. Otaiba was elated by the developments, emailing a number of media figures to say that the “situation in Egypt is a second revolution.” He urged the United States to get off the sidelines and support the new military government.

Rothkopf quickly replied, “Great analysis.”

The magazine editor went on to urge Otaiba to consider writing it for publication, but Otaiba noted that his official title may get in the way. Otaiba later added, “By the way, I think I’m a terrible writer.” Rothkopf sought to cheer him up: “You’re not a terrible writer. You’re actually a very good writer. And a terrific analyst. Even if your current job title means most people can’t read your candid take because it is so valuable.”

Rothkopf seemed to wholesale adopt Otaiba’s view of events. “Will be very interesting to see how the Brotherhood responds…short term and long term. Military has been very canny about handling this so far. Packaging of statement…folks on stage with Sisi…was smart.”

Another media executive on Otaiba’s email, Sam Feist, a VP at CNN, was more skeptical. He said Otaiba offered some “great thoughts,” but worried that if the “U.S. Abandons Morsi, isn’t the U.S. Abandoning the election that the U.S. pushed for? How does the U.S. Support democracy and at the same time push out the democratically elected president, however inept he may be.” Otaiba quipped back, “Hamaz, Hezbollah, and hitler were democratically elected too.” (Feist did not respond to a request for comment.)

In his statement to me, Rothkopf said his relationship with Otaiba did not affect his analysis. “I like and respect Yousef,” he said. “But my views are shaped by 40 years of experience in government, business and the media and I have always been assiduously careful that they are independent.”

***

In addition to his analysis, Otaiba offered Rothkopf opportunities for access — especially to Emirati officials. In April 2013, Otaiba wrote to Rothkopf, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, and others to invite them to a “private off-the-record chat” with UAE Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed .

“I’d be delighted to attend,” Rothkopf wrote back. (The exchange came just as talks were getting started over FP’s UAE-sponsored Peace Games event, and Rothkopf took the opportunity to let Otaiba know he’d be sending along a document about the event soon.) Rothkopf and Friedman both confirmed to me that the meeting occurred. Otaiba followed up with another email twelve days later. “Once again, thank you for taking the time to meet with the crown prince last week,” he wrote. “He was extremely happy with the discussion and he found it very helpful in understanding where the US is on many of these subjects.”

Despite the tenor of Otaiba’s follow-up email, Rothkopf inisited to me that the purpose of the meeting was to give the journalists an opportunity to hear out Bin Zayed. “It was an off-the-record conversation with several journalists,” Rothkopf said. “It was purely to listen and ask him questions.  There was absolutely no advisory role.” (Ignatius did not respond to a request for comment. In an email, Friedman said, “I have a vague recollection of a meeting with journalists with MBZ in DC that was at Otaiba’s residence. But I do not remember who all was there or what year it was. I also have no idea if it is even the meeting to which you are referring.”)

Rothkopf’s chumminess with UAE officials extended beyond Otaiba. In a January 2014 email, Rothkopf wrote to Otaiba to offer him an update after a meeting with the UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash.

“We had a great discussion. Actually, we had two. I met with him for 90 minutes this afternoon and then he invited me to join him for dinner,” Rothkopf wrote. “So we (joined by one of his sons) had a great Catalonian meal at the Rosewood Hotel” — liklely a reference to the hotel’s location in Abu Dhabi. Rothkopf went on: “It was a wide ranging discussion, his enthusiasm for the Peace Game was clear, his ideas were very much dovetailed with ours…and we spent a considerable amount of time talking about how great you are at your job.”

Rothkopf told me his lavish praise of UAE figures never affected his journalism. “I have, over the course of my career, developed lots of relationships worldwide and I would like to think one of the reasons I have been able to maintain them is that my friends and acquaintances value my candor and independence,” he said. “In any event, even if it was sometimes uncomfortable for the relationship, I have been direct in the views contained in my writing or media commentary.”His flattery went beyond just Otaiba’s analytical and diplomatic acumen. In one exchange, Rothkopf wrote to Otaiba that he was “very impressed by your culinary know-how.”

Rothkopf seemed eager to please — even in his capacity as a purportedly objective commentator on the news. After the UAE bombed Libyan militias in the Summer of 2014, U.S. officials reacted angrily. Rothkopf, however, struck a different note. “If indeed you were involved you should have received a thank you note and a fruit basket from the White House,” Rothkopf wrote to Otaiba. He also shared a tweet quoting an appearance he made on CNN condemning the U.S. response.

***

 

In 2017, Rothkopf would leave the FP Group. “I left to pursue other ventures,” Rothkopf told me. With his departure, the company’s interim CEO Ann McDaniel sought to shore up FP Group’s lucrative relationship with the UAE. She wrote to Otaiba to inform him of Rothkopft’s departure and to make a bid to keep the country’s business nonetheless.

“The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates is a valued client of the FP Group,” McDaniel wrote to Otaiba during May 2017, “and we are committed to continuing to deliver the high quality events and reports that have defined our work together to date, while exploring new approaches and seeking greater depth and new analytical insights. The full FP Group team that has undertaken all work for you to date is still in place and looking to this new era of the organization with energy and enthusiasm.”

The following year, however, the Foreign Policy Group would be absent from the list of sponsors for the UAE’s Culture Summit. Instead, the sponsors would be the Abu Dhabi culture ministry, TCP Ventures, and the Rothkopf Group — David Rothkopf’s new private consulting firm.

Though he said he could not comment on specifics, Rothkopf told me that he had been involved in initiating the Culture Summit while at FP, which was born out of discussions with a friend, a former UAE media figure who now serves in the country’s government. “When I started TRG, my company continued in that role given my involvement in the conception of the project,” he told me.

In his role as a pundit — in his written works as well as a podcast he hosts — Rothkopf told me he discloses all his conflicts. He said the Rothkopf Group’s recent contracts with the UAE for “some events in the US on arts and culture, green energy, tech education, tolerance and women’s empowerment issues” were “immediately announced it on our podcast in the interest of transparency.”

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