UAE's Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed's Growing Influence On The U.S.

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 10, 2019 7:06 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The story we're going to talk about today is one you probably haven't heard much about even though it involves secret meetings with Jared Kushner and with Donald Trump Jr., and brokering talks between the Trump administration and Russia, and America's increasingly aggressive rhetoric against Iran. One person involved in the story was just indicted for having child pornography. Another paid hush money to a former Playboy model he'd had an affair with in a deal arranged by Michael Cohen.

At the center of the larger story is arguably the most powerful leader in the Gulf. It's not the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. It's his mentor, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, a tiny confederation of seven states in the Gulf including Dubai and Abu Dhabi. How the Prince got to be one of the most influential foreign voices in Washington and got Donald Trump's ear is the subject of my guest, David Kirkpatrick's, latest article. Kirkpatrick is a New York Times international correspondent and former Cairo bureau chief. He covered the Arab Spring and wrote a book about it, called, "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers."

David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So the United Arab Emirates, which is a federation of seven city states, it's really pretty small. The number of citizens of the UAE is smaller than the population of Rhode Island. So what gives the UAE so much sway in the region and in the U.S.?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, the short answer is money. They have a lot of money. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, has 6% of the known oil deposits of the world. And they have more money in their sovereign wealth funds put together than any other country in the world, $1.3 trillion. So they've got a lot of money. And with that money, they've made their country a kind of hub for business and tourism in a way that no other Arab country in the Middle East has been able to do. So they've got a real functional economy.

And they've taken those resources - and this is the second thing - they've put them into defense. They've put them into building a uniquely effective military for the Arab world. And they've made that military effective by fighting alongside American forces in as many as six different conflicts, as they often remind people. In particular, in Afghanistan. They've been fighting alongside the Americans for a long time. And through that process, their special forces have gotten to be pretty good. The American military is very impressed with them. And they have a really unique capability among the Arab governments to try to project force outside their own borders.

So the combination of money and the military might that it has bought makes them a really unique player in the Arab world.

GROSS: That sounds great. I mean, they have great, you know, they have a great military. They have great military capacity. They've worked side by side with the U.S. in some conflicts. But they are also taking sides that many Americans think are against America's best interests. For example, the UAE is very opposed to Qatar - maybe you can explain the reasons why - but we have a military base in Qatar. Qatar has in that sense been very helpful to the U.S. It's maybe not in our best interests to alienate Qatar to serve the interests of the UAE. Can you talk about that a little bit?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. So I mean, there are three big examples of cases where the UAE has gone a different way from American foreign policy. One is the Arab Spring. The U.S. was ostensibly for it. The UAE acted as hard as it could to roll it back and was successful in Egypt. The second is Libya. The U.S. has supported a U.N. government to try to find a nonviolent resolution among all the competing factions. The UAE has opposed that process and backed militarily a proxy in Libya who is now fighting that U.N. government. And the third big example is Qatar. Right. Qatar is another small Arab monarchy and another American ally, a place where the U.S. has a military base, like it has a military base in the UAE.

It's inconvenient for the Americans that there would be a feud between them. But Qatar has made, for its own selfish reasons, a calculation that it could increase its influence by betting on an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. So they have supported political Islam around the region. That's appalling to Crown Prince Mohammed of the UAE. And so after years of trying to put pressure on Qatar diplomatically to get it to change that support, two years ago, he led allies around the region, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in imposing a kind of a cutoff of trade and all diplomatic relations with Qatar.

GROSS: Right. So what was Trump's response to that conflict between the UAE and Qatar?

KIRKPATRICK: So it starts as a surprise. Somebody hacks into the website of the Qatari news organization. That turns out to have been done by the UAE, according to American investigators. As soon as this cutoff of trade and diplomatic relations is announced, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense start making statements like, gosh, we've got to patch this up. There's got to be a resolution. There's no reason for this fight.

Trump comes out to the microphones in front of the White House and says, this is a great idea, basically. That he says, you know, Qatar has been supporting terrorism, which is the Emirati line, because they include the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorism, and for that reason, I, Trump, will back this isolation campaign.

GROSS: So this is an example of Trump listening to the UAE and taking its lead over the lead of his own administration.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. That's how it seems. I mean, when he spoke that day, he even referred to meetings and conversations he had had in Riyadh at an Arab summit, which can only have been conversations with the Emiratis and the Saudis. But on this issue, especially on the issue of Qatar, it's been the Emiratis who've taken the lead. It's been their particular gripe that has driven that feud.

GROSS: So when President Trump supported the UAE over Qatar, how did that change the relationship between Qatar and the U.S. and between Qatar and the American military?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the military relationship is still strong. You know, one of things that keeps it strong is that the government of Qatar actually substantially subsidizes the cost of the American airbase there. So that's something the American military really appreciates. The biggest thing that it's done is it has enriched a lot of lobbyists, frankly. Since that Gulf dispute began between the UAE on one side and Qatar on the other side, both sides have been pouring their resources into Washington advocacy. The Qataris in particular have really amped up their efforts to try to get their voice heard inside Washington.

So at the moment, neither side has bowed in the Gulf. Nothing has changed on the ground. But there are a lot of people in Washington who are substantially richer because they are getting paid by one side or the other to fight it out on K Street.

GROSS: So I've gotten the impression from your articles that there have been times when President Trump has followed the advice of the Saudi and the Emirati crown princes more carefully than he's followed the advice of his own advisers.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. That appears to be the case. The specifics get numerous and a little bit complicated. But to list them quickly, if you look at Trump's moves to try to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, that's something that the foreign policy establishment is against and may also be illegal that Trump has done in accord with the Emirati prince and the Saudi prince. If you look at his position on their dispute with Qatar, that's someplace where he contradicted the statements of his own secretary of state and secretary defense at the time. If you look at his recent moves to support General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, that is a high priority of the prince, again. His own Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had just come out on the other side and said Haftar should retreat. He's endangering the peace process, and he's causing all kinds of problems.

Right after that, after one day after a phone call from Prince Mohammed from Abu Dhabi, President Trump comes out and says, I think Haftar's doing a great job. And again the big one - the Iran deal. There were many people arguing against it. Certainly one of them, and an influential one, was Prince Mohammed. After the Obama administration had signed that deal, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson at the time and others in the administration both argued that the U.S. ought to stick with it. President Trump agreed with Prince Mohammed and others to try to get out of it.

GROSS: And what is the UAE's agenda with Iran? Why are they in conflict?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the truth is that the UAE's conflict with Iran goes way back to before the Iranian revolution. Iran is right across the Persian Gulf from the UAE. The UAE is a tiny country with an enormous amount of money, an enormous amount of oil. So they are understandably nervous about their larger and adversarial neighbors. And that has always included Iran since 1971 when the UAE first became a country and Iran took the opportunity of that weekend to snatch three disputed islands. So they've got a thing about Iran.

In the current moment, they are very interested in making sure that the U.S. also stays unfriendly with Iran. What they would like most of all is to keep the American allied block at their back and opposed to Iran, so they're very invested in those tensions. And they were dismayed, really panicked, when President Obama tried to reach a deal - did reach a deal - with Iran to constrain its nuclear program, thereby conferring some kind of legitimacy on the Iranian regime.

GROSS: And they were probably very pleased when Trump pulled out.

KIRKPATRICK: Delighted.

GROSS: So what's the UAE's agenda for the Middle East, for Israel and the Palestinians?

KIRKPATRICK: The UAE's vision is very much that the UAE and other like-minded Arab states can be partners with Israel against their common foes, which include Iran and political Islam. And now this is something that is very appealing to a lot of Americans who are concerned about Israel's security. And it's something that's been quietly known, a sort of open secret, for a long time that the UAE cooperates deeply with Israel in its securities.

Israel sells fancy weapons, upgrades to American F-16s, to the UAE. That means Israel trusts the UAE that much. Israel even sells the UAE fancy spyware to invade people's personal mobile devices. So behind the scenes, those connections are deep and the trust is very significant. Now, only recently are we beginning to see that manifest itself in public.

Prince Mohammed has been articulate for a long time about how Israel can be part of this block of Arab states allied against Iran. Now he's beginning to send signals like inviting an Israeli minister or Israeli athletes over. It's sort of beginning to come to the surface. And you even see Prince Mohammed and the Saudis coming to help Jared Kushner with his planned peace conference, you know, which appears to be the kernel of a very pro-Israel, if you will, approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Recently, we've seen the UAE and also Saudi Arabia agree to go to a donor conference, which is the kind of kernel of this peace plan that Jared Kushner has put together. The Palestinians have boycotted it. They were the first two countries in the region to agree to go along. And so although they haven't yet endorsed Kushner's plan, nor has Kushner yet shown us what that is, we already see that they're willing to support his project in that arena.

GROSS: So my impression is, and correct me if I'm wrong here, that Jared Kushner in his pursuit of peace in the Middle East has spent more time talking to Gulf leaders than he has to Palestinian leaders.

KIRKPATRICK: That certainly seems to be the case. When you talk to folks who worked in those diplomatic relations under the Obama administration, Prince Mohammed of the UAE was already saying - he was arguing in the last years of Obama's presidency that working with the Gulf states was a way to bring the Palestinians around, work with the Israelis and patch together a peace deal. What's known in the trade, if you will, as the outside-in approach - that if you work with the Gulf, you can bring the two sides together and the Palestinians will come along later.

And that appears to be what Jared Kushner has done - to try to go over the heads of the Palestinians, if you will, to reach some kind of an agreement with the Persian Gulf states who may, for example, be willing to contribute money to some sort of Palestinian reconstruction and to use that as the foundation of some kind of a peace deal.

GROSS: So I know Jared Kushner has a close working relationship with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. What about with the prince of the UAE?

KIRKPATRICK: He appears to have a close relationship there as well. You know, if you follow his travel schedule, Jared Kushner stops in the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia when he's on his trips to the region. And Prince Mohammed of the UAE made a really striking visit to connect with Jared Kushner, even during the transition. That was the last month of the Obama presidency in 2016. And the prince had said to the Obama White House, look; Obama and I have been friends. We've known each other a long time now. I'd like to have one final meeting with him, just a personal goodbye.

In the end, at the last minute, he backed out and instead tried to fly secretly to New York to meet with Jared Kushner and begin to build that relationship. Now, he was detected and the Obama administration was perturbed, but it is a demonstration of how ready he was to commit to that relationship with Jared Kushner early on.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's an international correspondent based in London for The New York Times, former Cairo bureau chief for the Times and author of a book about the Arab Spring called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's an international correspondent based in London for The New York Times, former Cairo bureau chief and author of a book about the Arab Spring called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers." And we're talking about how the Trump administration, specifically President Trump, has aligned himself with the crown princes of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. So something else that seems to be consonant with the UAE playbook is that President Trump recently took steps to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. And the UAE and Prince Mohammed bin Zayed do not like the Muslim Brotherhood. So do you see a connection between the UAE and President Trump's attempts to declare the group a terrorist group?

KIRKPATRICK: I have to assume there is one. Throughout the world, there is no greater opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. And he's somebody who has the ear of the American government and of the White House, so I can't say what was said behind closed doors between those two. But it can't be a coincidence. I mean, the - Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE has been arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood should be considered a terrorist group for years. He pushed the British government in that direction and managed to get them to at least carry out a report. He's been trying to get the U.S. to do it for a long, long time, especially since the Arab Spring uprisings. American diplomats also often observe that Prince Mohammed uses the term Muslim Brotherhood to - as a kind of catch-all for all political Islamist or extremist groups, so he uses the term as though it's indistinguishable from al-Qaida. And that's always been his approach, in part because he is afraid of its appeal to his own citizens.

GROSS: Why is the prince from the UAE opposed, like, so opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, that's a really good question. So what he would say is, we've embraced a kind of cosmopolitanism liberalism, if you will, in the UAE. And these Islamist groups, which are very traditional-minded, are a threat to that. But the truth of the matter is if you look around the region, you see the UAE allying itself with many, many very conservative Islamist forces in Yemen, in Libya, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. What they really don't like is that the Muslim Brotherhood, especially since the Arab Spring, are Islamists who are calling for elections. And it's the elections part which is really very threatening to the hereditary rulers of the Gulf.

GROSS: Right, because they don't have elections.

KIRKPATRICK: That's right.

GROSS: So there's two crown princes you've been writing about. There's Mohammed bin Zayed, who is from the United Arab Emirates. And then there's Mohammed bin Salman, who's the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. I've heard a lot more about the crown prince of Saudi Arabia than the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates. But you write that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is actually a protege of the crown prince from the UAE. So, like, tell us a little bit more about their relationship.

KIRKPATRICK: You know, people in the region - their relationship is a real subject of fascination. So Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is a young man. A lot of Americans have surely heard a lot about him, in part because he seeks the spotlight. He likes to give interviews. He likes high-profile meetings. He enjoys the attention. He rose to power, in part, with the help of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. Early on, when he was sort of in the mix to try to ascend to the role of crown prince, he quickly identified Mohammed bin Zayed and the UAE as a model. You know, he told everybody who would listen, this is where I would like to see Saudi Arabia going. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed quickly identified the young Saudi as his kind of guy.

He also had reason to dislike other contenders. You know, the other princes who were in the mix competing to be next in line for the throne, one of them - the leading contender, who was, actually, pretty close to the Americans, was a well-known foe of the Emirati leader. So if you're the leader of little UAE right next to big Saudi Arabia, the last thing you want is to see an enemy on that throne. So Mohammed bin Zayed threw himself into doing what he could to try to help his Saudi protege, Mohammed bin Salman, get to the throne. And for him - for Mohammed bin Zayed, that was principally using his weight and influence in Washington.

There was really a full-court press lobbying campaign in Washington - it even reached my ears - where the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and his many friends and representatives in Washington were putting out the word that this young Saudi - at the time, he was just 29 years old - Mohammed bin Salman, was the future; that he was the guy you need to get behind. In fact, he was the only one who could save Saudi Arabia from the danger of internal instability. And so the whole region and America's interests in the region all depended on the rise of Mohammed bin Salman.

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, international correspondent for The New York Times. After a break, we'll talk more about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed's relationship with Donald Trump and how the crown prince comes up in the Mueller report. And John Powers will review the new season of HBO's "Big Little Lies." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with David Kirkpatrick about how a crown prince from the United Arab Emirates - Mohammed bin Zayed - became one of the most influential foreign voices in Washington and got Donald Trump's ear - and Jared Kushner's ear - and Don Jr.'s ear. Mohammed bin Zayed also figures into the Mueller report. The United Arab Emirates is aligned with Saudi Arabia. It's bought arms from Israel and considers Iran its archenemy.

David Kirkpatrick is based in London. He's an international correspondent for The New York Times and was the paper's Cairo bureau chief during the Arab Spring. He wrote a book about the Arab Spring called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers."

So President Trump has aligned himself with the United Arab Emirates and with Saudi Arabia. And how do we figure out whether that is really in America's best interests or not?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, that is a great question. And there are certainly people in Washington who would say that it is absolutely America's best interest to ally with the UAE for its own reasons, right? And that argument goes like this - the UAE has embraced a kind of internal pluralism, right? They let Christians and Hindus build houses of worship. They're very progressive relative to the rest of the Arab world in terms of opportunities for women. They're willing to work with Israel against Iran. They fight alongside American forces when the United States goes to war, as they have done in six different conflicts. And they're willing to do all kinds of favors for the U.S. in the region. They're an ideal ally. They're our kind of people. Right?

So if that's the case, and furthermore, if you agree with their recipe for stability - right? - if you think that what the Arab world needs is to continue to be ruled by strong hands, that elections, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE would argue are trouble - right? - that if you open up the Arab world to elections, you're going to see political Islamists coming to power. And those people are not in America's interest. So if you buy into all of that, then President Trump is just acting as any American president should. That said, there are a good number people inside the American government and in Washington who question some of those assumptions - right? - who note that although the UAE may be liberal on some social or cultural issues, it's certainly authoritarian - and argue, as American presidents often have, that the road to durable stability in the region is actually open government and democracy, that not all political Islamists, if they win elections, are necessarily going to be bad news for the U.S. in the long term and that elections are actually the way to have a more stable and a more prosperous region - to have more responsive governments.

Now, if you buy that rationale, then the UAE is a much less natural ally. And you begin to wonder about other things, like President Trump happens to have some golf courses, some joint ventures in the UAE. Might that influence his thinking? Might the money that the UAE spends on lobbying and advocacy of various kinds around Washington influence the public debate about the UAE, the money they spend on think tanks and so forth? So then you get into the more murkier questions of whether there are other factors at play.

GROSS: Yeah. There's a Trump International Golf Club in Dubai in the UAE. What other properties does he have there? I know he wanted to build a Trump hotel there. I think that didn't work out. But I don't know if they're still trying to pursue it as a future project.

KIRKPATRICK: As I understand it, he has two Trump-branded properties in Dubai, both with the same developer, kind of a high-profile figure over there who's sometimes referred to as the Donald of Dubai.

GROSS: So there are two people who are especially involved in opening up the doors between the United Arab Emirates and the Trump campaign and Trump administration. On the Emirati side, you have George Nader, who is working with - he's a Lebanese American who is working with the Emiratis.

On the American side, you have Elliott Broidy, who was like the head fundraiser with the Republican National Committee and was working with the Trump administration - the Trump campaign first. And both of them - Nader and Broidy - are now under scrutiny by prosecutors. Explain the reasons why.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, they're both a couple of interesting characters. So George Nader is a Lebanese American businessman but also a kind of diplomatic gadfly. He had attached himself as a close adviser to Prince Mohammed over in the UAE for a long time. Come the 2016 election, he begins trying to insert himself into the Trump campaign, even showing up at Trump Tower in August of 2016, showing off pictures of himself with Prince Mohammed of the UAE and Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia, saying these guys want to help you get elected. After that, he goes on - there's no evidence yet that he was taken up on that offer. But he was embraced as a friend of the campaign and met again and again with Steve Bannon, a Trump adviser, and also with Mr. Kushner and stayed sort of in the loop as a liaison on the part of the Emiratis and helped to set up that secret meeting for the crown prince in December of 2016. Elliott Broidy is a different story. Elliott Broidy...

GROSS: Can we just stop here and say that, on Monday of this week, George Nader was arrested on charges of child pornography. And he had videos of pornographic videos of young boys on his cellphone.

KIRKPATRICK: That's right. I've read the complaint. And the contents of his cellphone were truly revolting. Yeah. Oddly, both of these guys - George Nader and Elliott Broidy - have each, in their own way, been caught up in a sexual scandal apparently unrelated to their work for the UAE. Elliott Broidy, the fundraiser who became a friend of George Nader, was also exposed as having cheated on his wife with a Playboy model and had been involved in some secret payments to try to keep that under wraps. So each of them now has their...

GROSS: Can we mention - there's an abortion involved there, too.

KIRKPATRICK: I'm not as well versed in those aspects of the allegations, but there is said to have been an abortion involved as well.

GROSS: And the payoff money was handled through Michael Cohen.

KIRKPATRICK: It's all very tangled, isn't it? But yes, that's the case. The - President Trump's own lawyer, who handled similar payoffs for him, did the same thing for Elliott Broidy.

GROSS: So Cohen handled the hush money. And so Broidy, the hush money guy, his role in opening up the door between the UAE and Trump?

KIRKPATRICK: So Elliott Broidy, in addition to being a Republican fundraiser, he has a private security company. He has a security company that hires a lot of former American military officers and provides intelligence and other services to foreign governments. He met George Nader around the time of the inauguration, I believe, and thought it would be great to sell those services to the UAE. So while he was in talks with the UAE through George Nader to sign a contract worth more than $200 million with the UAE, he turned around and began to carry messages on the part of Prince Mohammed to President Trump, making suggestions like, let's get out of the Iran deal. Why didn't you get rid of Secretary of State Tillerson? And wouldn't it be nice if you could just meet privately outside the White House one-on-one with Prince Mohammed of the UAE? He made all these suggestions, and then he reported back in detail about the whole process to George Nader, who was working as an advisor to the court. Those emails, as we once discussed before, have become public. So we see their complicated courtship back and forth.

GROSS: At least five people working for the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates have been caught up in criminal investigations growing out of the Mueller inquiry. Who are they? Does that include Nader, who you've been talking about - the child porn guy?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that includes Nader, who was stopped at the airport when he landed in the U.S. As I understand it, he was stopped because the prosecutors wanted a connection - they wanted to question him in connection with foreign influence matters, in connection with matters related to Mueller's inquiry. And by accident, they found the child porn that has now landed him in jail. So one of those is George Nader. Another one is Erik Prince, who founded the company Blackwater. It was known for recruiting mercenaries. He also had worked for years for the UAE and acted as a kind of intermediary on the part of Erik Prince.

Another is Elliott Broidy, who's come under an investigation growing out of the Mueller probe of the question of whether or not he should have registered as a foreign agent for the UAE because of the work that he was doing carrying messages to the Trump administration. Another is a hedge fund manager, Rick Gerson, who had worked with the crown prince for a long time and happened to be very close to Jared Kushner. He was involved in setting up that secret meeting in December 2016. And - I'm sorry it's so complicated, but I just have to tell you - he also was involved in trying to help the Russians connect with the Trump administration.

One of the weirdest things here that has really captured a lot of people's attention is that Prince Mohammed and the Emiratis played a pretty active role trying to help Vladimir Putin's men find their own inroads into the Trump circle. So they used their own connections that they had built up to try to help the Russians get in with the Trump team. And why? That's clearly still an ongoing matter. So Mr. Gerson is also under scrutiny and is at least a witness in the Mueller probe.

GROSS: We're going to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's an international correspondent for The New York Times based in London, former Cairo bureau chief and author of a book about the Arab Spring called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a New York Times international correspondent based in London and former Cairo bureau chief. And we've been talking about the Gulf region, specifically the crown princes of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and their influence on the Trump administration and before that on the Trump campaign.

So what was in it for the Emiratis to try to help the Russians help Trump win?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, we don't know that the Emiratis helped the Russians help Trump win. All we know is that George Nader offered Emirati help during the campaign. And once the campaign was over, once President Trump was the president-elect, the Emiratis certainly helped the Russians try to make their own inroads into Trump's inner circle. Now, why did they do that? One reason might be that Prince Mohammed and the Emiratis have tried for years to kind of pull Russia away from Iran. For their regional political reasons, they would like Russia to be less supportive of Iran. They would like Russia to help diminish Iran's influence in Syria, so they've been courting and wooing Russia to that end for some time. So you might say, well, this effort to help the Russians reach out to the Trump team is just part of that larger regional geopolitical ploy.

At the same time, it's still really weird, in part because it seems foreseeable that trying to help the Russians develop backchannels to the incoming presidential team is going to catch someone's attention and raise a lot of questions in Washington.

GROSS: So what kind of help did George Nader say that the United Arab Emirates wanted to offer the Trump campaign?

KIRKPATRICK: As far as we know, he wasn't specific. But when he showed up at Trump Tower in August of 2016, he brought with him an Israeli operative, Joel Zamel, who is another person connected to Crown Prince Mohammed. Joel Zamel has a company that does social media manipulation - using false avatars, putting out propaganda online - the kind of thing that actually it turns out the Russians really did do. This stuff had been Joel Zamel's specialty. He had worked in Abu Dhabi and for the crown prince for a long time. And he shows up in Trump Tower next to George Nader in the meeting where they're talking about helping the Trump campaign. In fact, Mr. Zamel separately had been in contact with the campaign in early - in, I think, January of 2016 and April of 2016 - trying to offer similar services.

Now, we have no reason to believe that he was taken up on any of those offers or was in any way hired by the campaign. But that gives you a flavor of the kind of help the Emiratis or George Nader and certainly Joel Zamel may have been talking about when they met with the Trump team. And weirdly enough, it looks a lot like the kind of help the Russians did provide.

GROSS: So when was that meeting?

KIRKPATRICK: That meeting was in August of 2016.

GROSS: During the campaign.

KIRKPATRICK: During the campaign.

GROSS: So did you read the Mueller report? And if so, like what did you learn from it that relates to the issues you've been covering?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I learned two things. I learned that there were some very suggestive blackouts indicating that some of these matters may still be under scrutiny. And I also learned more about the role the Emiratis played helping the Russians try to connect with the Trump team. We had known that Crown Prince Mohammed invited Erik Prince, the Blackwater guy, to his - the crown prince's retreat in the Seychelles where he met with a Russian business man very close to Putin, who had been Putin's point man for reaching out to the Gulf and was Putin's point man for reaching out to the Trump team. So the prince brought these two sides together for a secret meeting in the Seychelles. That was weird enough.

In the Mueller report, we also learn that the prince appears to have worked through this hedge fund manager, Rick Gerson in New York, with whom the prince had a long relationship and who was close to Kushner. And he - the prince through his brother introduced this hedge fund manager to the same Russian businessman. They started working on proposals for Russian and American reconciliation. And then this same hedge fund manager, who's so close to the prince, took that proposal, a two-page version of that proposal, and gave it personally to Jared Kushner. So the Mueller report - this part gets kind of lost because the main thrust of it, of course, is about obstruction and about what the Russians did. But if what you're interested in is the Emiratis, it really redoubled the question of why were the Emiratis so interested in helping the Russians connect to the Trump team during that transition period?

GROSS: So I guess everything we've been talking about helps explain why Trump has been celebrated in the Emirates and in Saudi Arabia in spite of his Muslim ban, in spite of his anti-Muslim rhetoric. Do you feel like you understand why the crown princes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are willing to be so solidly connected to President Trump when Trump has been so anti-Muslim in his rhetoric and policies?

KIRKPATRICK: That is quite a paradox, isn't it? Because, you know, he's arguably been anti-Muslim in his rhetoric - certainly in his call for a Muslim ban. And yet these Muslim rulers really appreciate him and feel very grateful for his presence. I think the explanation has to be in that his view of the region syncs with theirs. He's not a guy who is enthusiastic about democracy. He's somebody who is comfortable with authoritarianism. In his approach to the Middle East, he seems to buy the idea that the best response to any kind of unrest is a strong man. You see that in his embrace of Sisi. And he's also willing to go along with their very confrontational approach - or so far, he's been willing to go along with a very confrontational approach - to Iran. So despite the fact that he deprecates Muslims, these Muslim rulers seem to find a great deal to like about him.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick, thank you so much for talking with us.

KIRKPATRICK: Thank you.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick is an international correspondent for The New York Times. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new season of HBO's "Big Little Lies." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "INTO THE FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.