(Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates finances the military leader trying to topple a United Nations-recognized government in Libya. It helps lead a coalition of nations imposing an economic blockade of Qatar, despite U.S. calls to resolve the dispute. It hired former staffers of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) as elite hackers to spy in a program that included Americans as surveillance targets, a Reuters investigation found this year.
And yet, in a highly unusual practice, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) does not spy on the UAE’s government, three former CIA officials familiar with the matter told Reuters, creating what some critics call a dangerous blind spot in U.S. intelligence.
The CIA’s posture isn’t new. What’s changed is the nature of the tiny but influential OPEC nation’s intervention across the Middle East and Africa – fighting wars, running covert operations and using its financial clout to reshape regional politics in ways that often run counter to U.S. interests, according to the sources and foreign policy experts.
The CIA’s failure to adapt to the UAE’s growing military and political ambitions amounts to a “dereliction of duty,” said a fourth former CIA official.
The U.S. intelligence community doesn’t completely ignore the UAE. The NSA conducts electronic surveillance – a lower-risk, lower-reward kind of intelligence-gathering – inside the UAE, two sources with knowledge of the agency’s operations told Reuters. And the CIA works with UAE intelligence in a “liaison” relationship that involves intelligence-sharing on common enemies, such as Iran or al-Qaeda.
But the CIA does not gather “human intelligence” – the most valuable and difficult-to-obtain information – from UAE informants on its autocratic government, the three former CIA officials told Reuters.
The CIA, the NSA and the White House declined to comment on U.S. espionage practices in the UAE. The UAE’s foreign ministry and its U.S. embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
The CIA’s hands-off practice – which hasn’t been previously reported in the media – puts the UAE on an extremely short list of other countries where the agency takes a similar approach, former intelligence officials said. They include the four other members of an intelligence coalition called “The Five Eyes”: Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada.
CIA spies gather human intelligence on almost every other nation where the United States has significant interests, including some key allies, according to four former CIA officials.
The closest contrast to the UAE may be Saudi Arabia – another influential U.S. ally in the Middle East that produces oil and buys U.S. weapons. Unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia is often targeted by the CIA, according to two former CIA officials and a former intelligence officer for a Gulf nation. Saudi intelligence agents have caught several CIA agents trying to recruit Saudi officials as informants, the sources said.
The Saudi intelligence agencies do not complain publicly about CIA spying attempts but privately meet with the agency’s station chief in Riyadh to ask that the CIA officers involved be quietly ejected from the country, said the former intelligence official for a Gulf nation.
Robert Baer, a former CIA agent and author, called the lack of human intelligence on the UAE “a failure” when told about it by Reuters. U.S. policymakers, he said, need the best available information on the internal politics and family feuds of Middle Eastern monarchies.
“If you pride yourself on being a world service, it’s a failure,” he said. “The royal families are crucial.”
A former official in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said the lack of UAE intelligence is alarming because the desert monarchy now operates as a “rogue state” in strategic nations such as Libya and Qatar and further afield in Africa.
In Sudan, the UAE spent years and billions of dollars propping up long-serving Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, then abandoned him and supported the military leaders who overthrew him in April. The new government’s security forces in June killed dozens of protesters who were pushing for civilian rule and elections. The UAE has also built military bases in Eritrea and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland.
“You turn over any rock in the horn of Africa, and you find the UAE there,” the former Trump administration official said.
The UAE has asserted itself as a financial and military power in areas “far from its immediate neighborhood,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
“Whether Somalia, or Eritrea or Djibouti, or Yemen, the UAE is not asking for permission,” she said.