The United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) does not spy on the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a new Reuters news agency’s investigation has revealed, in what some critics have called a blind spot in Washington’s global monitoring.
The report, published on Monday, said the CIA does not gather “human intelligence” – the most valuable and difficult-to-obtain information – from UAE informants on its autocratic government, according to three former CIA officials familiar with the matter, who spoke to Reuters.
The CIA’s failure to adapt to the UAE’s growing military and political ambitions amounts to a “dereliction of duty,” fourth former CIA official told the news agency.
However, the US intelligence community doesn’t completely ignore the UAE.
Another branch, the National Security Agency (NSA), conducts electronic surveillance – a lower-risk, lower-reward kind of intelligence-gathering – inside the UAE, two sources with knowledge of NSA 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.
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 US has significant interests, including some key allies, according to four former CIA officials.
The CIA, the NSA and the White House declined to comment on US espionage practices in the UAE.
The UAE’s foreign ministry and its US embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
The UAE has played a role in several major regional and international issues, including the blockade of Qatar, as well as the conflicts in Libya and Yemen.
The UAE finances the renegade military commander, Khalifa Haftar, who is trying to topple a United Nations-recognised government in Libya.
It also hired former NSA staffers as elite hackers to spy in a programme that included Americans as well as perceived political opponents as surveillance targets, a Reuters investigation found this year.
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.
US 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 US 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.
Former CIA officer Glenn Carle said he would be be surprised if the US is no longer paying attention to the UAE.
“The CIA is one of the few intelligence services with global capability and interests and since the UAE is a critical player in the Middle East and beyond, I wouldn’t really believe that the US is ignoring the UAE,” he told Al Jazeera from Boston.
“The CIA and the US government will very consciously weigh what are the potential costs and the potential benefits from any operation, human ones especially … and the decision could quite consciously be made at the costs of trying to develop human sources outweighing the benefits,” he said.
Some national security experts, however, continue to see enough alignment between US and UAE interests to explain the continued lack of spying.
“Their enemies are our enemies,” said Norman Roule, a retired CIA official, referring to Iran and al-Qaeda. “Abu Dhabi’s actions have contributed to the ‘war on terror’, particularly against al-Qaeda in Yemen.”