Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a former member of Congress who now works for the lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld ("Akin Gump") as a registered foreign agent representing the United Arab Emirates government (UAE). The firm has made more than $38 million from the Emirati government since it started lobbying for them in 2007, according to the firm's Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) filings, for a full range of services that have included whitewashing the UAE's human rights abuses and ensuring the flow of US weapons to the country despite its record of quashing freedom of the press, imprisoning reformist activists, and using US weapons to indiscriminately bombard Yemen.
According to FARA filings as of February 2023, Ros-Lehtinen is the only ex-lawmaker currently registered to lobby for the UAE in the US and has pressed the US government to sell increasingly sophisticated weapons to the UAE, despite its gross abuses of human rights domestically and abroad. Under the UN Guiding Principles, businesses have a responsibility to "avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities" as well as "to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts." Lobbying on behalf of governments, agencies, or officials like those in the UAE responsible for grave crimes including torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, and including but not limited to misrepresenting or omitting information about their abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law, and/or obtaining, sustaining or expanding military, political or economic support for them, effectively contributes to, and benefits from their abuses. Ros-Lehtinen and her firm, Akin Gump, are contributing to and benefiting from the UAE government's abuses by supporting arms transfers, omitting material information about the UAE's rights abuses, and encouraging continued political support for its dictatorial leadership. Akin Gump should immediately end its contract with the UAE government.
The Grave UAE Human Rights Record
The UAE is a small country of seven "emirates" ruled by a cabal of unelected "emirs" or princes since 1971. Absolute power in the UAE resides in the hands of the emirs. Nearly 90% of people in the UAE are noncitizens, most of whom are low-wage workers and are vulnerable to severe abuses, including withholding of wages, confiscation of passports, and poor and unsanitary living and work conditions. Even a tiny fraction of the population who hold Emirati citizenship have no enforceable civil or political rights, despite vague assurances in the UAE constitution. Significant human rights issues, as documented by the US State Department's 2021 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, include:
- torture in detention; arbitrary arrest and detention, including incommunicado detention, by government agents; political prisoners; government interference with privacy rights; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including very restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully in free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government restrictions or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults; and outlawing of independent trade unions or significant restrictions on workers' freedom of association.
Emirati authorities do not tolerate dissent. For example, they have kept constitutional lawyer Mohammed al-Roken imprisoned for the last nine years, under abusive conditions, because he argued for democratic reforms.
The UAE also remains a leading sponsor of the war in Yemen, alongside Saudi Arabia. The UAE has engaged in war crimes, torture, allegedly recruited child soldiers, reportedly directed assassination campaigns using ex-US soldiers as mercenaries as part of this war effort, and reportedly deployed Colombian and Sudanese mercenaries to fight in Yemen as well. US weapons possessed by the UAE have also reportedly been transferred to Al Qaeda-linked fighters. Despite the UAE's claims of withdrawal from Yemen in 2019, the UAE still provides weapons and support to abusive local militias, has continued air operations in support of such militias, and continues to illegally occupy parts of Yemen.
The UAE is also deeply engaged in the ongoing war in Libya, providing extensive economic and military support in violation of the U.N. arms embargo for the militia controlled by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who has been implicated in war crimes, and carrying out airstrikes and drone strikes in favor of Haftar The Emiratis have also been accused of using Sudanese mercenaries to buttress Haftar's forces, financing Russian Wagner Group mercenaries fighting for Haftar, and engaging in alleged war crimes in Libya.
UAE violations of international law and transnational repression extend far beyond the Middle East. In the US, three former US intelligence operatives pleaded guilty to spying for the UAE and hacking into various computer networks within the US in 2021. In China, the UAE has supported Beijing's persecution of its Uyghur Muslim population, publicly endorsing China's policies, arresting and deporting exiled Uyghurs to China at Beijing's request, and reportedly hosting a Chinese-run secret detention facility in Dubai used to target, detain, and deport Uyghurs who have fled China.
The Emirates also operates a powerful surveillance apparatus abroad: A comprehensive investigation published by Reuters in December 2019 documents how former western security officials and various intelligence contractors established a surveillance operation in the UAE now controlled and directed by the Emirati firm DarkMatter. Originally led by former US counterterrorism czar Richard Clark in 2008 while serving as a consultant for the UAE, the secret unit was initially designed to assist the Emiratis in fighting terrorism. However, as revealed by the Reuters investigation, the unit's targets expanded to all those deemed foes by the UAE government, particularly following the Arab uprisings. New targets included women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia, diplomats at the United Nations, personnel at FIFA, human rights activists, journalists, political dissidents, Qatari government officials, and US citizens.
Following the revelations of UAE spying using former American intelligence personnel, the US government passed a law banning former intelligence officers from working for foreign governments for a "30-month period following the date on which the employee ceases to occupy a covered intelligence position."
The UAE has also sought to influence US domestic politics to advance its own agenda in Washington. One incident in particular, reported by the New York Times, highlights well the extent to which George Nader, an emissary for then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sought to infiltrate Trump's inner circle. According to the New York Times, shortly before the 2016 election, three individuals gathered at Trump Tower to meet with Donald Trump Jr., then-candidate Trump's eldest son. The three individuals were Nader; Joel Zamel, an Australian Israeli specialist in social media manipulation; and Erik Prince, former head of the private security contractor Blackwater. According to the report, Nader "told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president," and Zamel offered his company's services, which "specialized in collecting information and shaping opinion through social media." The plan involved, according to the New York Times, "using thousands of fake social media accounts to promote Mr. Trump's candidacy on platforms like Facebook." Although it is unknown whether the plan was actually executed, the UAE has been accused multiple times by Facebook and Twitter of engaging in sophisticated disinformation campaigns using fake accounts. The emissary mentioned above, Nader, later pleaded guilty in 2022 to funneling money into then-candidate Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign on behalf of the UAE.
Ros-Lehtinen and Akin, Gump Contribute to UAE Abuses
Despite the UAE's widespread and systematic human rights abuses, Ros-Lehtinen and Akin Gump have continued to press the US government to sell weapons to the UAE, including advocating for a $23 billion deal in early 2021, and lobbying members of Congress against a joint resolution of disapproval that would have blocked arms sales to the UAE.
According to their FARA filings, Ros-Lehtinen and Akin Gump work for the UAE has included hundreds of meetings, phone calls, and emails with US government officials to lobby for "UAE arms sales," "UAE weapons package," "pending arms sale," and "relationship building, and monitoring, compiling information, and analyzing the potential and legal ramifications of the legislation." Their lobbying also includes conveying the UAE viewpoint about the war in Yemen, Iran, US-UAE military cooperation, and UAE-related legislation. Such legislation includes the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which determines US defense policies and spending. They also "monitored and informed the Embassy about Congressional hearings and other events and developments regarding matters of interest." Ros-Lehtinen specifically lobbied for the US government to authorize sales of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE following the signing of the so-called "Abraham Accords" in 2020, calling the UAE a "steadfast ally" and arguing that the US government should "advance" its strategic relationship with the Emirates. There is no information available to indicate that Ros-Lehtinen and Akin Gump included material information about the UAE's human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, knowledge and information about which would have impeded any arms sales to the country. Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act prohibits security assistance, including arms sales, to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights. The Hill further confirms that Akin Gump has lobbied hundreds of US government officials, including members of Congress and US government officials, on behalf of the UAE on issues including US sanctions on Iran, the war in Yemen and relevant arms sales, US human rights reports, and the UAE and Saudi blockade of Qatar. It ranks as the second-largest US lobbying firm by revenue. Every year since 2007, Akin Gump lobbyists representing the UAE either met with or contacted the staff of nearly every US Congressional office, as well as US government officials from the National Security Council, USAID, Congressional Research Service, State Department, Pentagon, and other agencies. They also met journalists, think tanks, and pro-Israel groups, according to the Quincy Institute's report, "The Emirati Lobby in America."
Members of Congress are barred from working as agents for a foreign government for one year following their departure from office. Despite this, Ros-Lehtinen joined Akin Gump in January 2019, the same month she retired from office, resulting in criticism and calls for an investigation. She avoided registering as a foreign agent under FARA rules by describing her role as an "advisor" and not a lobbyist; FARA only requires lobbyists to register, not advisors. Following the one-year probationary period, she did register as a lobbyist and began officially working as an agent for the UAE government. According to her FARA filings with the Department of Justice, her services have included "outreach to US government officials and counsel on policy issues related to a number of issues including, among others: export controls and sanctions, trade policies, human rights, US foreign and defense policies, foreign media registration, and strengthening bilateral relations and regional security."
Instead of conveying accurate and complete information about the UAE's record, Ros-Lehtinen has used her reputation as a long-serving public official to market the UAE government as a close and deserving ally of the United States, apparently omitting material information about its unlawful, dangerous and destabilizing conduct in the Middle East and North Africa. "I am proud to support the UAE and to continue my close association with it because the UAE is a key strategic and economically [sic] of the United States," she wrote in a July 2020 report.From sending holiday emails to her professional contacts featuring photographs of the sun setting over the Gulf in UAE, to writing op-eds glorifying the country while omitting mention of its human rights abuses, to lobbying the US government to continue the flow of arms to the UAE government, Ros-Lehtinen's work for hire has whitewashed the UAE's shameful record of human rights abuses and provided its government with critical access to US audiences and officials.
Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the United States when she was seven years old. She received her Bachelor of Arts in education and her Master of Arts in educational leadership from Florida International University. She attended the University of Miami where she earned an Ed.D in higher education. She was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1982, then she represented Florida's 27th congressional district from 1989 to 2019. By the end of her tenure, she was the most senior US Representative from Florida. She was Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 2011–2013. Ros-Lehtinen sits on the Leadership Council of Kids In Need of Defense and is a board member of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute (CHLI), Close Up Foundation, US Capitol Historical Society, Running Start, and Middle East Media Research Institute. She is also an Advisory Board Member for the American Jewish International Relations Institute, American Latino Veterans Association, and the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, McCourt School of Public Policy.
DAWN calls on Ros-Lehtinen and her firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, to drop their contract with the UAE government, to conduct a thorough review of all their clients, and to cease representation of abusive clients such as the UAE. Akin Gump should comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights "to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities" as well as "to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts." Lobbying on behalf of governments, agencies, officials, or companies responsible for serious human rights abuses, while misrepresenting or omitting information about their abuses of international human rights law or violations of international humanitarian law, or obtaining, sustaining, or expanding military, political, or economic support for them, effectively contributes to, and benefits from, such abuses. Ros-Lehtinen is contributing to and benefiting from the UAE government's abuses by supporting arms transfers and encouraging continued political support for its dictatorial leadership.
Under international law, firms such as Akin Gump have a responsibility to avoid contributing to, or benefiting from, adverse human rights impacts through their business relationships and activities. Lobbying on behalf of government agencies and officials responsible for arbitrary arrests and detention of activists, dictatorial rule without respect for the basic rights of citizens, and indiscriminate bombardment of civilians run counter to these responsibilities. Such lobbying provides support and cover for human rights abusers.
DAWN's recommendations to Akin Gump, Ros-Lehtinen, and others include the following:
Ros-Lehtinen and Akin Gump should immediately terminate their contract with the UAE government and conduct a due diligence review of all of Akin Gump's clients.
They should decline representation of any foreign government where there is credible information implicating the government in the commission of gross violations of human rights or violations of international humanitarian law.
Congress should bar lobbyists from representing foreign government clients implicated in serious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, such as Ros-Lehtinen's representation of the UAE.
US officials should refrain from meeting with Ros-Lehtinen and other lobbyists for the UAE government.
Congress should reintroduce and pass the "Fighting Foreign Influence Act," which curbs foreign influence and bars former members of Congress and senior government officials from lobbying on behalf of foreign governments when their public service ends.
State Bar Associations should investigate and suspend from the practice of law any lawyers, including those at Akin Gump, who may have communicated false and misleading statements, including material omissions, to lawmakers and the public in their capacity as a lobbyist.
Akin Gump has not responded to DAWN's request for comment on our findings as set forth above. Consistent with international and domestic legal responsibilities, see DAWN's detailed recommendations to Congress, lobbyists, and US State Bar Associations on our Lobbyist Gallery webpage.