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foreign influence

Think Tanks Under the (Foreign) Influence

New report follows the money from foreign powers to DC think tanks

Words: Jessica Draper and Morgan Palumbo
Pictures: Eric Prouzet

“Yousef: Here is the CNAS proposal for a project analyzing the potential benefits and costs of the UAE joining the MTCR, as we discussed. Please let us know whether this is what you had in mind,” wrote Michele Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

“Yousef” is Yousef al-Otaiba, United Arab Emirates’s ambassador to the United States. After completion of the project — which made the case for the UAE joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), effectively allowing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or drones) to be sold to the UAE—he wrote back to her: “Thank you for the report. I think it will help push the debate in the right direction. Some of the UAV manufacturers are pushing for a similar conclusion, so this report might reaffirm their arguments.”

And how much did Otaiba pay CNAS for this project? $250,000.

This exchange between the head of a prominent national security think tank and the UAE ambassador, originally reported by The Intercept back in 2017, highlights a disturbing phenomenon: the impact foreign funding can have on the work of US think tanks. Not only did CNAS provide this private study for them, but they also subsequently released a public paper on drone proliferation aimed at the Trump administration. The policy paper recommended that the US “loosen restrictions on drone exports” and “consider targeted exports of uninhabited aircraft, including armed uninhabited aircraft, to close partners and allies” – precisely what the drone-seeking UAE wanted.


Positive reinforcement of think tanks with positions that happen to align with those of foreign powers still has great influence, whether think tanks are conscious of it or not.

In addition to this private study, the UAE was also listed as a CNAS donor within the range of $100,000 to $250,000 in both fiscal years 2016 and 2017.  But CNAS isn’t the only US think tank that the UAE has funded. A report, “Foreign Funding of Think Tanks in America,” from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy (where we work), tracked a total of $15.4 million given by the Emirates to six of the top 50 US think tanks from 2014 to 2018. Most of this funding went to the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Brookings Institution, each receiving at least $4 million and each conducting work quite favorable to the Emiratis.

For example, in 2018, the Aspen Institute co-hosted “Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend 2018” at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. This was an event meant to bring “the world’s top leaders, CEOs, scholars, students, scientists, and activists” together to explore “moonshot” ideas in “a variety of disciplines.”  This theme was supremely ironic given that academic freedom is crushed at many universities in the UAE, notably leading to outcries from faculty members working at NYU’s branch in Abu Dhabi, where this event took place. Even worse, while this conference was celebrating “the most exciting ideas of today and tomorrow,” the UAE was holding a British doctoral student named Matthew Hedges in solitary confinement under suspicion of espionage for simply conducting dissertation research in the country.

Funding US think tanks can both help to launder the Emirati’s reputation, as the Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend did, and also help promote the country’s strategic interests abroad. According to the New York Times, the UAE covertly funded a conference hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that supported a more confrontational attitude towards Qatar, a rival of the UAE. While a hostile approach to Qatar may be a core Emirati interest, it is not necessarily an American one. Qatar hosts al-Udeid Air Base, home to over 11,000 American servicemen and women as of 2017, which has been crucial in the fight against ISIS. But hey, covertly hosting anti-Qatari conferences can make for great fundraising!

Then there is the case of the leaked emails between Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba (oh, hi again!) and Bilal Saab, the former Director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Peace and Security Initiative. In these emails, Saab sent Otaiba an advanced copy of a report on the future of US policy towards Iran, providing the Emirati ambassador the opportunity to offer suggestions and corrections. While the nature and scope of Otaiba’s edits are not known, the Emirati establishment’s hostility towards Iran is. Bilal Saab now works for the Middle East Institute, a think tank in the apple of UAE’s eye, which received a secret donation that amounted to at least $20 million between 2016 and 2017.


The scale of UAE’s known influence operations via think tanks is alarming, but what is even more troubling is the fact that the UAE is just one foreign funder of US think tanks. In our report, we identified over 70 countries and international institutions that altogether contributed at least $174 million to the top 50 US think tanks between 2014 and 2018. Most foreign donors were Western democracies, with Norway being the top donor. The Norwegians contribute extensively to think tanks like the World Resources Institute and the Center for Global Development to promote sustainable environmental and development work.

This highlights an important point: the issue at hand is not necessarily the foreign contributions themselves. We live in an interconnected world with global problems that often require global solutions. Foreign donations are not inherently bad: good-will governments’ investments in research, advocacy, and solutions that benefit citizens of the world are commendable. The real issue is transparency. If countries like the UAE — autocracies with numerous human rights violations — are spending millions on prominent US think tanks in an effort to wield policy influence and gain a strategic edge at the expense of American values, that is a serious cause of concern and must be made transparent.

Foreign influence is hot these days and, Norway or not, disclosure of these donations from foreign countries ought to be required by all US think tanks (currently, they’re not required to disclose any of their donors). It’s difficult to say with certainty what direct impact these Emirati contributions have had on think tanks throughout the years, but even positive reinforcement of think tanks with positions that happen to align with those of foreign powers still has great influence, whether think tanks are conscious of it or not. Policymakers and the public alike deserve the opportunity to make their own judgements about how foreign funders might be influencing the work of think tanks.

Jessica Draper is a Researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative and Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

Morgan Palumbo is a Researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.

Jessica Draper and Morgan Palumbo

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