The decision was taken to deport Hassan Iquioussen from France – an arbitration confirmed on 30 August 2022 by the Conseil d’État, – because the preacher had made anti-Semitic and misogynistic remarks, but also, unofficially, for his association with the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamic movement with an often-reactionary rhetoric which makes participation in politics one of its hobby horses.
It was a decision which must have pleased Abu Dhabi. For a long time now, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made the fight against the Brotherhood one of the mainstays of its politics. And more generally, in France and elsewhere, it never skimps on the use of ways to promote its work, to appear in a positive light and deliver its geopolitical messages. To this end it has enlisted, not only communication offices like the French Branch of a British firm, Project Associates, but also media like Euronews or think tanks like the Bussola Institute, while a number of media or political figures like Senator Nathalie Goulet have publicly voiced opinions very close to those of the Emirates.
Below is what we have discovered in the course of an investigation begun on 18 July 2022, in the French Foreign Ministry, where a signing ceremony was planned to take place during the visit of UAE ruler, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed (MBZ). For this first official journey since his appointment as chief of State in a country where he was already the regime’s strong man, France rolled out the red carpet: in the space of three days, the monarch met with the President, the Prime Minister, visited the Hôtel des Invalides, Versailles and the Arc de Triomphe plus those bastions of French democracy, the National Assembly, and the Senate.
In spite of our perfectly proper accreditation, Orient XXI was turned away by the Ministry’s communicators. Could it be that previous articles criticising the Emirates were at issue? Or was the Ministry afraid of questions that might embarrass the Emirati guest? Yet journalists and citizens have a right to wonder about the way France has chosen to tighten its relations with an autocracy that keeps its people under close surveillance, persecuting the rare pro-democracy activists who dare to speak out, or is accused of torture in secret prisons in Yemen. But, of course, the Federation of Emirates – of which the richest are Dubai, its financial, commercial and touristic hub, and Abu Dhabi, with its oil and military resources – prefers to be seen in a more favourable light as a safe country, with its state-of-the-art technology, tolerant and respectful of male-female equality.
The technique of carefully targeted media leaks
To enhance its image, the Emirates have relied, like Qatar, on the popularity of football, purchasing Manchester City in 2008. But they have also sought out other areas of influence, particularly through the use of the media and advertising: in 2017, the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (Admic) acquired 2% of Euronews. At the time, this pan-European channel, based in Lyon, was having financial troubles, and benefited until 2020 from an annual sponsoring account of 8.5 million euros. In the meantime, there appeared more and more “enthusiastic features on the United Arab Emirates and Dubai in particular” as Liberation pointed out on 20 November 2020.1
Events-wise, the Emirates organised, between 2021 and 2022 a universal exposition in Dubai, symbolising their opening to the world.
However, the UAE’s communication is not based solely on the promotion of its assets, but also on the criticism of its rivals, especially Qatar. The two countries are engaged in a war of influence in the Gulf. To tarnish their respective reputations, they vie with one another via the ingenuity of their hackers, organising leaks of stolen documents with techniques known as “hack and leak.” The French investigative website Blast makes no bones about the fact that the documents at the origin of its revelations on the “Qatar connection” are originally from an Emirati hacking operation.
Several years earlier, in 2017, the hacking by a group called Global Leaks of the inbox of the Emirati ambassador in Washington and the transfer of documents to The Intercept clearly played into the hands of Doha. The origin of these documents does not call into question their relevance in the public debate, nor the fact-checking undertaken by the journalists, but it would no doubt be interesting to spell out the context in which these leaks took place and the extent to which the temptations of third countries to instrumentalise them could be behind these revelations.
Good customers for PR agencies
Advertising, special events, carefully managed leaks, necessity to improve an image tarnished by the deplorable living and working conditions of the immigrant population, the links with terrorist groups, the lack of democracy and transparency or the close surveillance of their own people, the smearing of their neighbours… These are some of the many services which all the Gulf countries require of the countless agencies specialising in communication and public relations.
Thus Saudi Arabia has had contracts with, among others, Publicis and Havas2, Qatar has had dealings with Portland. As for the Emirates, Project Associates Ltd. opened its French branch in June 2019. The Paris office of this British company employs five people and landed a contract to handle the communication of the local UAE embassy, possibly in January 2022. "It organises events and trips, publishes material on the embassy’s network and takes care of its relations with the media,» as a person familiar with its activities explained to us.
An Emirati at the head of Interpol in Lyon
But that may not be all. The British tabloid Daily Mail made a bit of a splash in 2021 with the revelation, based on leaked documents the details of which it did not release, that Project Associates had been commissioned to advocate the candidacy of the former Emirati Minister of Interior Affairs, Ahmed Al-Raisi, for the presidency of Interpol. As the headquarters of the international police organisation happens to be in Lyons, one wonders whether the mission assigned to Project Associates covered all of France? We contacted the president of Project Associates France, Jean Le Grix, but he refused to answer.
Retired General Dominique Trinquand, whose opinions coincide with those of the Emirates3 and who numbers among the occasional consultants connected with the office, made a statement to the media favouring this candidacy4: “Al-Raisi’s candidacy is interesting considering the current struggle against radical Islamism, on which France and the UAE see eye to eye,” he confirmed for Orient XXI, claiming to express a“completely personal opinion”. “I do not work with Project Associates on the UAE,” he specified. However, in November 2021, the Emirati candidate was indeed elected president of Interpol.
In the United States, we again find Project Associates behind the “Boycott Qatar” campaign, which began in 2017. The US database which lists foreign agents (Foreign Agents Registration Act or Fara) does indeed show that the National Council of Emirati Media has signed a 250,000-dollar contract with Project Associates. And the more detailed information published on Fara shows that Project Associates has subcontracted with SCL Social5, a company specialising in disinformation, for a campaign on the social networks entitled “Boycott Qatar.” The documents posted by Fara as examples of the contents used are an op-ed and what appears to be a newspaper article.6 In France, foreign countries are not obliged to register the representatives of their interests. “This is regrettable,” observes Kevin Gernier of the NGO Transparency France. “Such a register should include the lists of these agencies and the countries which they represent. So that, at every least, when they approach someone, he or she should know whose interests they are representing.”
Selling “authoritarian stability” as a barrier against the threat of Islamism
Besides its criticisms of Qatar, the UAE’s main target is the Muslim Brotherhood, frightened as its rulers were by the latter’s electoral successes in the wake of the Arab Springs. “[At that moment], Abu Dhabi began to promote the notion of “authoritarian stability”, postulating a simplistic dichotomy: either you have stability under autocratic rulers, or you have Islamist terrorism and chaos, which would be the inevitable result of democratic pluralism, free expression of the civil society and tolerance of critical voices”. Such is the analysis of the NGO, Corporate Europe Observatory.7
In 2017, tensions went up a notch. To better stymie Qatar in its support of the Brotherhood, as well as its news channel Al Jazira which played a major role during the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt decided to place the country under embargo. That same year the Emirates inaugurated its own “soft power” strategy.
To appeal to its international audience, especially France, Abu Dhabi tried to convince them that the Muslim Brotherhood constituted a danger. The latter aims indeed to take part in the political life of the countries where it is established – whence its ties with political Islamism – forming an association, a party or even a political-military movement as in the case of Hamas. But except for the terrorist attacks perpetrated in Palestine and specifically linked to the nationalist struggle against an occupying power, the movement has long ago abandoned violence and has never been caught out on this score.
While the Brotherhood’s fatwas never call for violence, their content remains rather reactionary, especially as concerns male-female equality. Moreover the Brotherhood welcomes into its ranks figures whose rhetoric has been criticised, like the Egyptian Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who died on 26 September 2022 and who was persona non grata in several Western countries, including France and the USA.
In France, the Brotherhood is represented by Musulmans de France (MF), successor to l’Union des organisations islamiques de France (UOIF), which has a much more polished rhetoric since it favours “an authentic and open interpretation of Islam, a ’balanced’ interpretation, which advocates taking into account the sociocultural context in its practices and preaching.” For the record, when Nicholas Sarkozy was Minister of Interior Affairs during Jacques Chirac’s presidency, he recognised the UOIF as ‘a privileged interlocutor.’
“Cognitive warfare” against political Islam
But Abu Dhabi dismisses such subtleties and systematically favours a much simpler association of ideas: Qatar=Muslim Brotherhood=terrorists. “Regardless of the facts, it is no longer merely a matter of advocating a narrative,” Pierre Gastineau, editor in chief of Intelligence Online, explained to us. “We are dealing with a vast offensive aimed at creating a media environment which will place the public in a position where it will lend a favourable ear to a certain type of rhetoric. Asserting systematically that Qatar finances the Muslim Brotherhood and automatically associating the Brotherhood with terrorism belongs to that strategy of cognitive warfare.”
Besides all the techniques already described – advertising, media relays, carefully managed leaks and the help of communication agencies – this “cognitive warfare” against political Islam absorbs much of the activity of the “think tanks,” those private research centres with often uncertain contours. “A sophisticated combination of academic research and strategic communication,” writes the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory, pointing out for example the proximity between Abu Dhabi and the Bussola Institute.8 But that campaign is also conducted vie book shops, as described very precisely in an Intelligence Online article dated 29 June 2020. Given this context, how are we to understand for example Nathalie Goulet’s latest publication? Challenged six years ago by journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot in their book Nos très chers Émirs (which described how money has corrupted France’s relations with the Gulf monarchies and how the Qatari ambassador in Paris was approached by politicians). Nathalie Goulet sued them for libel. Georges Malbrunot, Christian Chesnot and their publisher, Michel Lafon were sentenced in 2018 “to suspended fines of 500 euros each and to pay the Senator jointly 3,000 euros in damages” according to a 2018 article on radio Europe 1’s website. And according to Ouest France, a regional French newspaper, they proceeded to reissue the book that same year without removing the purportedly libellous passage and were again sentenced to pay Nathalie Gouret 2,500 euros.
Money laundering and editorial laundering
In March 2002 the middle-of-the-road senator published an Abécédaire du financement du terrorisme (“An ABC of terrorism financing”) in which she lists the various tools, the groups may use to finance their activities and in which Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood are mentioned several times, including on issues unrelated to the financial theme. “Qatar is mentioned in connection with its links with the Muslim Brotherhood whose actions I combat along with the principle of political Islam,” the Senator explained to Orient XXI.
At the same time, her ABC mentions only marginally the UAE, and somewhat surprisingly, to praise its involvement in the struggle against money laundering. Yet the Tax Justice Network has ranked the Emirates world’s tenth worst tax haven and financial privacy accomplice and in March 2022 they were added to the grey list established by the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF). “That happened just as my book was coming out,” the senator argued. “But that passage will be updated”, she assured us.
As for the absence of any allusion to the Emirates’ financing of terrorism – like the historic use of the banking system by the 9/11 terrorists – the Senator first claimed she did not know about that, and then pointed out that her book does not go back that far. “There is no attempt to hide anything,” she assured us. “I do not play favourites. And I have no institutional ties or link of interest with the United Arab Emirates.”
The Senator presented her book in London in June 2022 on a trip paid for by Cornerstone Global9, a think tank which published in 2017, i.e., shortly after the beginning of the Qatar blockade, a report criticising the conduct of the Football World Cup in that country. Two years later, the New York Times published a long investigation exposing the ties which this think tank and its chairman, Ghanem Nuseibeh, have with the Emirates. “I travelled to London on several occasions with [Cornerstone]. I have worked for years with [Ghanem Nuseibeh] on terrorism issues”, Nathalie Goulet explained.
“Nathalie and her late husband are long-time friends of mine, and we work closely on these issues of mutual concern, in particular the struggle against extremism,” the head of the think tank explained to us. What about his contractual or institutional ties with the UAE? “Cornerstone has no communicational contract with the UAE”, Ghanem Nuseibeh answered, keen to defend the impartiality of his work. “Moreover, you must know that the Times article to which you refer has been challenged in the courts.” And he added, for the benefit of Orient XXI: “And please be advised that I will not hesitate to take any appropriate legal measures to protect my reputation.”
MPs, those choice influencers
In addition to the think tanks and the bookshops, this deliberate confusion between Qatar, Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism is also making its merry way down the aisles of Parliament. Through the parliamentary friendship groups.“Their objective is to develop ties between parliaments, in other words, to do parliamentary diplomacy” Senator Joëlle Garriaud-Maylam explained. She is a member of the right-wing party “Les Républicains” and vice-chairman in charge of the UAE in the group France-Pays du Golfe. “If the country is not a democracy, then the friendship group provides an opportunity to advocate it,” she went on.
But while the French MPs are talking about democracy to the Emiratis in private, Emirati officials are also getting their messages across in France. In December 2021, the parliamentary group met with an Emirati delegation to discuss the fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorism, and the minutes of the meeting are careful to recall that the Muslim Brotherhood is on the list of terrorist organisations published by the UAE alongside al-Qaida and the Islamic State Orgaisation (ISIS).
A short time later, early in 2022, three Senators of both sexes journeyed to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. “A meeting [which] made it possible to stress the importance of Franco-Emirati cooperation regarding the fight against terrorism and political Islam” to quote the official account of this visit.
Has this war of representations waged by France and the UAE had any actual consequences? Indeed, it has, if we refer to an interview that Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire gave to Le Figaro on 22 October 2020 and in which he repeated the same refrain. “The goal of political Islam is simple enough: destroy the French nation, destroy its values, besmirch our national memory, and undercut our history. (…) I remember the last conversation I had with one of our most reliable allies in the Gulf, crown prince Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates. He told me it was time that we opened our eyes to what was happening in France. For political Islam, the Great Satan was no longer the United States, it was Europe and France.”
Less than a year later, the law bolstering the principles of the Republic was voted to counter Islamist “separatism” – a combat including Wahabism, Salafism and the Muslim Brotherood.10 The fight against “separatism” has since been used to shut down or attempt to shut down a certain number of structures and venues – some connected with the Brotherhood – and for the decision taken to deport the preacher, Hassan Iquioussen, accused of anti-Semitic and misogynistic remarks.
A rhetoric which stokes hostility
This reinforcement of the French repressive arsenal, aimed especially at the Brotherhood, worries the association Droit au droit. “Approving this narrative [which associates the Muslim Brotherhood with terrorism] can have harmful effects, for it is likely to contribute to a growing hostility towards the Muslim communities of Europe. It may also contribute in the long run to the destabilisation of European societies” says its report on the Emirati influence in Brussels.11
Can the widespread repetition of a simplistic message have had an influence in France, with the risk of sparking controversies or even social tensions? From the media to parliamentary friendship groups by way of the registrar of interest representatives, the lobbying methods of our partner countries deserve to be a little more transparent.
Our investigation’s “making-of”…
I am an independent journalist; in recent years I have covered the war in Yemen for Mediapart and Mediacités. One of the belligerents drew my attention because, although practically unknown, its relations with France were growing by leaps and bounds: the UAE. So, I wrote articles on the country for Le Monde diplomatique and for Orient XXI, and the latter’s editor suggested I write about the Emirati influence in France. The subject fascinated me: indeed, Abu Dhabi’s human rights violations slip generally under the radar, while its aversion for the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be gaining ground.
To understand the techniques involved, I decided to monitor some of the visits Mohamed Bin Zayed paid during his stay in France last July. I got in touch with French people living or having lived in the UAE, association members, journalists, academics, and MPs. Some agreed to reply, some replied off the record and others refused to reply.
I looked for the communication offices working for Abu Dhabi in France, and I came upon Project Associates which had landed a contract with the EAU. But its chairman, Jean Le Grix de la Salle did not wish to answer my questions.
Finally, because of her considerable visibility in the media I took an interest in Senator Nathalie Goulet. I read her latest book, L’Abécédaire du financement du terrorisme, after which she agreed to a phone conversation. As for Ghanem Nuseibeh, the head of Cornerstone that financed Nathalie Goulet’s trip to London where she presented her book, he answered my request for an interview with a very aggressive e-mail. “And please be advised that I will not hesitate to take any appropriate legal measures to protect my reputation from any libellous content, false declarations, or malevolent lies in your article, considering your biased and calculated programme” was the threatening conclusion of his e-mail.
1Very enthusiastic copy about Dubai can still be found on the Euronews website such as this June 2020 advertorial about the “beach clubs and pool lounges”.
2Antoine Izambart, “Publicis, Havas, Image 7… Those communicators which Saudi Aradia pays a golden price,” Challenges, 7 November 2018 (in French).
3In January 2021 in the pages of Marianne, Dominique Trinquand thinks that the UAE and Morocco will become privileged allies of France in the fight against Islamism. The following month, in an op-ed published in l’Opinion, he rejoices in the good relations, especially military ones, that Paris maintains with Abu Dhabi.
4In the pages of Jeune Afrique, 30 July 2021.
5A member of the SCL group, SCL Social is a sister company of Cambridge Analytica. The group was dissolved in May 2018 following the scandals in which Cambridge Analytica was implicated, i.e., the abusive use of Facebook data to influence the US 2016 presidential election as well as a vast campaign in favour of Brexit. The US journalist Wendy Siegelman charted the companies that emerged from Analytica.
6This information is public and was first revealed by the NGO Corporate Europe Onservator in a report published in December 2020.
7In its 17 December 2020 report: "United Arab Emirates’ growing legion of lobbyists support its ’soft superpower’s ambitions in Brussels.
9According to the list of Senators’ trips paid for by outside organisms.
10Lou Syrah, “Fight against ’separatism’: a year of witch-hunting,” Mediapart, 28 October 2021 (in French).
11Almost unknown, the association “Droit au droit” (DAD) is based in Brussels and concerns itself generally with issues of penal and penitentiary law and particularly the status of vulnerable inmates. Contacted in the name of Orient XXI, Nicola Giovannini, its founder and director, explained that “most of the financing of DAD comes from the European Commission.” As for the study Undo Influence on the Emirate’s influence in Brussels, a subject far removed from the association’s habitual concerns “It was undertaken with the DAD’s own resources”.