Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens in March 2018 as President Donald Trump speaks at the White House. Mattis did not publicly reveal his consulting job for the UAE when he returned to the Pentagon in January 2017.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens in March 2018 as President Donald Trump speaks at the White House. Mattis did not publicly reveal his consulting job for the UAE when he returned to the Pentagon in January 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post.)

Soon after his country began bombing Yemen in 2015, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates confidentially reached out to an old friend: retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who also served as the deputy supreme commander of the Emirati military, needed help. The UAE was part of a coalition of Arab countries that had intervened in Yemen’s civil war to fight Iran-backed Houthi rebels. But the coalition’s bombing campaign was killing large numbers of civilians and doing little to deter the Houthis.

With the conflict threatening to turn into a regional quagmire, Mohamed asked Mattis, who retired from the Marines in 2013 after years of fighting wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, to work for him as a military adviser.

In keeping with federal law, Mattis applied in June 2015 for permission from the Marines and the State Department to advise Mohamed and the UAE on “the operational, tactical, informational and ethical aspects” of the war in Yemen, according to previously undisclosed documents obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.

His request was highly unusual: a legendary four-star Marine asking to work for a foreign head of state as a personal consultant about an ongoing war.

Complicating matters, the U.S. military had become entangled in the conflict. Soon after the bombing started, the Obama administration agreed to support the Arab coalition’s air forces, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with aerial refueling and intelligence. But U.S. officials were growing alarmed by the number of innocent Yemenis dying in coalition airstrikes.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials swiftly approved Mattis’ request. Then they fought to conceal his advisory role in the war in Yemen and his work for Mohamed. After The Post sued in 2021 for records of retired U.S. military personnel employed by foreign governments, federal agencies took 2½ years to release the ones about Mattis.

Mattis did not publicly reveal his consulting job for the UAE when he returned to the Pentagon in January 2017 to become secretary of defense in the Trump administration. He omitted it from his public work history and financial disclosure forms that he filed with the Office of Government Ethics. Though he reported it confidentially to the Senate Armed Services Committee, multiple senators said they were not informed. He also did not mention it in his 2019 memoir.

Throughout his career, Mattis, now 73, has praised the UAE as a valued ally to Washington. Between 2010 and 2013, when he was a Marine general in charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, he referred to the small Persian Gulf nation as “Little Sparta” because of its outsized military prowess.

But Mattis, one of the most prominent American military leaders since 9/11, has maintained a steadfast public silence about his stint as a military adviser to the Emirates. He has never disclosed the exact scope or duration of his work. He declined multiple requests from The Post for an interview or to answer written questions about his duties for Mohamed.

There are conflicting accounts about whether he was paid for his foreign service. The documents obtained by The Post state that the UAE would compensate Mattis for his advice on the war in Yemen, as well as award him a $100,000 honorarium for giving one speech after he left the Trump administration. But a spokesman for the retired general said he worked for free.

Over the past decade, it has become a common, if secretive, practice for retired U.S. military personnel to work as consultants and contractors for foreign governments. Hundreds of veterans have cashed in on their experience gained during two decades of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan by training foreign armies.

A Post investigation in 2022 found that the oil-rich UAE, despite its small size, hired more U.S. veterans than any other country in the world, often for salaries that dwarfed what they earned while wearing American uniforms. Mattis service to the UAE was cited in that investigation, which was based on the FOIA lawsuit filed by The Post.

The litigation compelled the armed forces and State Department to disclose records about retired U.S. military service members employed by foreign governments. Under an anti-corruption clause in the Constitution, retired U.S. military personnel must obtain federal approval before they can accept jobs, gifts or anything of value from foreign powers.

At the time, however, federal officials shielded many documents regarding Mattis, releasing only fragments of information about his unspecified role as a military adviser. They also redacted records regarding his compensation.

The Post continued to press its case in court, arguing that details of his work on behalf of a foreign power should be made public to shed light on whether it may have posed a conflict of interest when he returned to the U.S. government to run the Pentagon.

In response to a judge’s order, federal agencies last fall released additional records which reveal for the first time that Mattis was personally hired by Mohamed to advise him on the war in Yemen, as well as other details about his ties to the UAE.

Jim Mattis and President Donald Trump talk after a White House reception in 2018.

Jim Mattis and President Donald Trump talk after a White House reception in 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post.)

‘I will be compensated’

Though Mattis has remained silent about his consulting, he has been long ebullient in public about his regard for the UAE.

In a video testimonial to mark the UAE’s 50th birthday two years ago, Mattis fondly recalled first visiting the country as a junior Marine officer in 1979. He also reminisced about building a “trusting relationship over many years” with Mohamed and praised the country’s troops as “equal brothers in arms who knew how to fight.”

Like Mattis, the 62-year-old Mohamed is a career military man. He is also one of the most influential figures in the Arab world. He ascended to the presidency of the UAE in 2022 after the death of his eldest brother, Sheikh Khalifa.

He and Mattis bonded in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011 when Mattis was serving as head of U.S. Central Command, overseeing all U.S. forces in the Middle East. With revolutions spreading through the Arab world, the Emirati leadership became unnerved at the risk of further instability and embarked on a massive military buildup, buying billions of dollars in weaponry from the United States.

At the time, Mohamed was the crown prince of the city-state of Abu Dhabi, one of seven tribal monarchies that form the UAE, as well as deputy supreme commander of the country’s military. He and Mattis shared an antipathy toward Iran, with both men regarding its theocratic rulers as the region’s biggest security threat.

In March 2015, the UAE joined the Arab military coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, that interceded in the Yemeni civil war. But the coalition’s bombing campaign and naval blockade caused widespread humanitarian suffering and failed to subdue the Houthis, who had seized control of the capital, Sanaa.

Several weeks later, Mohamed contacted Mattis, who had since retired from the U.S. military, to ask if he would work for the UAE as a consultant. In his federal application for foreign government employment, Mattis said he would advise Mohamed regarding the war in Yemen, but he did not elaborate how much time he would devote to the job or how deeply he would become involved in the conflict.

“My duties would include reviewing the UAE’s military situation, focused initially on the Yemen campaign, with the purpose of providing military advice,” he wrote in June 2015. “The purpose of this position is to bring American military experience in warfighting and campaigning to bear in terms of strengthening UAE’s efforts.”

Mattis made clear that he would be paid.

“I will be compensated,” he wrote by hand, in block letters, on a Foreign Government Employment Questionnaire that he submitted to the Marine Corps on June 4, 2015, as part of his application to work for the UAE.

On the questionnaire, Mattis said he still needed to negotiate details of his pay package with UAE officials. “The amount is to be determined after I have been cleared by the U.S. government to respond positively” to Mohamed’s offer to hire him, he wrote.

But Robert Tyrer, co-president of the Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm where Mattis is a senior counselor, told The Post in a series of emails that the UAE did not pay Mattis for his work. He added that, other than travel expenses, Mattis had “a longstanding policy” of not accepting money from foreign officials.

“He has never requested nor received any compensation from any foreign government at any time,” Tyrer said.

Asked to explain the discrepancy with what Mattis wrote on his application, Tyrer said the retired general never actually expected to be paid, but stated on his form that he would be — only because he wanted his application to receive extra scrutiny to ensure everything was aboveboard.

“General Mattis sought the most rigorous level of review for this request,” Tyrer said. “That higher level of review was triggered by describing the role as a compensated position, though General Mattis neither requested nor received any compensation.”

According to the documents obtained by The Post, however, there is no indication that Mattis’s application was subjected to a higher or more stringent review than normal.

In fact, a Marine special security officer completed a required counterintelligence review just five days after Mattis submitted his application  — a process that typically takes weeks. “It is my opinion that Gen Mattis be approved,” the officer wrote on June 9, 2015. A Marine Corps attorney finished a mandatory legal review seven days later, also raising no objection.

Mattis’ application sailed through the remainder of the Marines’ chain of command, receiving preliminary approval on June 19 — 15 days after he submitted it. Then the Corps passed the paperwork to the State Department, where the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs gave final approval on Aug. 5.

Altogether, the national security bureaucracy took only two months to clear Mattis to work for a foreign head of state.

In comparison, the armed forces and State Department usually take several months, and sometimes years, to review veterans’ foreign-government employment applications, according to a Post analysis of hundreds of such cases since 2015.

Diplomats in the dark

A handful of federal officials who regulate foreign-government employment knew that Mattis was advising Mohamed on the war in Yemen. But other national security officials said they did not — including diplomats in charge of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Anne Patterson, a career diplomat who worked with Mattis when he was a Marine general, oversaw U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world in 2015 as the State Department’s assistant secretary for Near East Affairs. In a phone interview, she said she vaguely remembered that the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs informed her about Mattis’ application to consult for the UAE and that she gave her assent.

But Patterson, who retired from the U.S. government in 2017, added that neither she nor her leadership team was aware that Mattis wanted to advise the Emiratis on the war in Yemen, which had become a major foreign policy headache for the Obama administration.

“None of us remember General Mattis having anything to do with Yemen during that period,” she said. “The Yemen thing, we just have no recollection of his involvement with it in any respect.”

Gerald Feierstein, who was the deputy assistant secretary for Near East Affairs under Patterson, said he was also in the dark. Like Patterson, Feierstein had gotten to know Mattis personally during the general’s tenure as the commander of U.S. military forces in the Middle East between 2010 and 2013, when Feierstein served as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

“This whole thing is very curious,” said Feierstein, who retired from the State Department in May 2016. “I find it kind of hard to believe he would never have mentioned it to any of us.”

Beyond the laws regulating foreign-government employment, Feierstein said it was considered a professional courtesy for retired senior U.S. military officers to brief the State Department about their interactions with foreign leaders.

“Mattis as you know is a pretty straight shooter, so I would have thought he would have briefed somebody,” he said.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, did not respond to an email seeking comment about Mattis’s employment as a military adviser.

Trump’s pick to run the Pentagon

Eighteen months after he applied for federal permission to work for the UAE, Mattis received another job offer: to serve in the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Trump didn’t know Mattis well but was impressed by his reputation as a blunt, no-nonsense general and approved of his hard-line views toward Iran. In December 2016, he nominated Mattis to become secretary of defense.

Like other prospective senior U.S. officials, Mattis was obliged to report information about his work history and personal finances to the Office of Government Ethics.

In the first section of his financial-disclosure report, Mattis was required by law to include all jobs and positions — including uncompensated ones — held outside the U.S. government during the previous two calendar years.

On his form, he listed 11 affiliations, including his jobs as a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution (salary: $419,359) and his memberships on the corporate boards of General Dynamics ($242,000 in director’s fees, plus stock options) and Theranos Inc., ($150,000 in director’s fees, plus 416,667 shares of common stock).

He also listed his unpaid board seats with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and the Tri-Cities Food Bank in Kennewick, Wash.

But he did not include his consulting job with Mohamed. Nor did he list it on a separate letter, dated Jan. 5, 2017, to the Pentagon’s top ethics official. In that document, he described all the steps he would take “to avoid any actual or apparent conflicts of interest” as defense secretary by resigning all his outside affiliations and refraining from any matter, for at least one year, involving any of the organizations that employed him.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., walks back to his office after a vote in December.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., walks back to his office after a vote in December. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Mattis’ UAE service was also not made public by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had to approve his nomination before he could take charge at the Pentagon. His advisory work for Mohamed is not included in his answers to a nine-page biographical questionnaire that the committee posted on its website. Nor did he raise it or anyone ask about it during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 12, 2017.

In a statement, Cole Stevens, a committee spokesperson who works for Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the panel chairman, said Mattis disclosed his consulting for the UAE on “the confidential portion of his questionnaire,” which the committee “considers private.” He also said that Mattis stated he was not compensated for his work.

The committee tightly restricts access to the confidential portions of the questionnaires for presidential nominees. Stevens said the information “is available” to all members of the committee. But senators typically must request private briefings to receive it, according to a current and a former Senate staff member familiar with the panel’s work.

The Post contacted the offices of 25 senators who served on the Armed Services Committee in January 2017 to ask if they were aware at the time of Mattis’ work for the UAE. Only Reed and two other senators responded. A spokesperson for Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he “was not aware of this and was surprised to hear it.”

In a statement, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., likewise said he “was not informed during the confirmation process that Secretary Mattis had served as a military advisor to the UAE” and that “I have long had reservations” about retired senior U.S. officers “serving as military advisors for foreign states.”

Last year, Congress approved legislation that will require the Pentagon and State Department for the first time to publicly release an annual report listing retired military personnel who work for foreign governments, including their compensation and a description of their duties. President Biden signed the measure into law in December. A friend in Abu Dhabi

As he took charge in the Pentagon, Mattis maintained his close relationship with the United Arab Emirates.

On Feb. 18, 2017, one month after the Senate voted 98-1 to confirm him as defense secretary, Mattis flew to Abu Dhabi as part of an official trip to the Middle East. Upon his arrival, he was warmly received by Mohamed.

According to a public statement issued by the Defense Department about the meeting, the two leaders discussed security challenges on the Arabian Peninsula, “including the ongoing instability in Yemen.”

There was no mention in the statement that Mattis had been working as a private consultant for Mohamed on that very problem.

Within a tight circle of retired four-star generals in Washington, however, word spread about Mattis’s employment by Mohamed. In June 2017, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, a former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan who had served with Mattis, received inquiries to work as a national-security consultant for the government of Qatar, another wealthy Persian Gulf country.

At the time, Allen already had a full-time job as the president of the Brookings Institution, a prominent Washington think tank. But he was intrigued by the possibility of moonlighting for the Qataris. He knew Mattis had done something similar with the UAE and wanted to compare notes, according to documents disclosed in federal court last year as part of a Justice Department investigation into foreign influence peddling in Washington.

On June 9, 2017, Allen contacted a senior adviser on Mattis’s staff at the Pentagon. He asked to learn more about Mattis’s consulting for Mohamed, who is widely known in Washington by his initials, MBZ.

“I think I’m being offered a consulting contract akin to the one Jim had with MBZ and wanted your advice on how it was structured,” Allen emailed Mattis’ adviser, whose name was redacted in the court documents. “Your sense on how Jim created and maintained his relationship with MBZ would be helpful.” They agreed to meet the next afternoon for a cup of tea at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City.

Allen declined to comment for this story through a spokesman. The email exchange was included as an exhibit in a court filing last year in the federal prosecution of Richard G. Olson Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to the UAE. Olson pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors related to his post-retirement consulting work in the Middle East, including a charge that he illegally lobbied U.S. officials on behalf of the government of Qatar.

The FBI scrutinized Allen for his contacts with Qatari officials as part of the same investigation, but the Justice Department closed the case without charging him. Allen’s attorney has said he did not end up consulting for Qatar, did nothing improper and received no fees from the Qatari government.

That case is one of several criminal investigations that the Justice Department has opened in recent years into prominent U.S. national security figures for allegedly falling under the influence of foreign governments.

A pending federal indictment against Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., accuses the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of taking bribes and acting as an illegal foreign agent on behalf of Egypt and Qatar. Menendez has pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing.

In December, a retired U.S. ambassador, Manuel Rocha, was charged with acting for decades as a “clandestine agent” on behalf of Cuban intelligence, among other crimes. He has pleaded not guilty.

In 2020, shortly before leaving the White House, President Donald Trump pardoned his former national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, for his conviction of lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

In 2022, U.S. intelligence officials authored a classified report cataloguing attempts by the UAE to manipulate U.S. foreign policy and politics in Washington to the benefit of the Gulf nation. The classified report from the National Intelligence Council detailed the UAE’s use of lobbying firms and campaign contributions, as well as illegal influence operations, in an effort to distort the American democratic system. ‘$100K plus Airfare & Lodging’

The war in Yemen continued to deteriorate during Mattis’ tenure as defense secretary.

In June 2017, human rights groups accused the UAE armed forces of operating a secret network of prisons inside Yemen where local men were beaten, flogged and sexually assaulted. The Associated Press reported that some prisoners were shackled to a “grill” and roasted alive over open flames. (The UAE government denied the allegations).

Two months later, CNN published an article online reporting that Mattis had once served as an adviser to the UAE — the first public reference to his foreign employment. The CNN report was based on a single line in a spreadsheet that the Marine Corps had released to a nonprofit watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

POGO had filed a public-records request for a list of retired Marine generals authorized to work for foreign governments. Mattis was one of seven retired generals on the list. The heavily redacted spreadsheet revealed that he had applied to work as a military adviser to the UAE in 2015 but gave no other information.

A Pentagon spokesman told CNN that Mattis advised the UAE on “rebuilding its military” and that he worked for free, with reimbursement only for travel expenses.

By August 2018, United Nations human rights officials reported that nearly 17,000 civilians had been killed or wounded, most of them in airstrikes launched by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other members of the Arab coalition.

That same month, Mattis warned that the United States might withhold its support to the coalition, including weapons sales and shared intelligence, if it didn’t do a better job of protecting noncombatants.

In December 2018, Mattis resigned as defense secretary after clashing with Trump over the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Three months later, upon returning to the private sector, Mattis once again applied for federal approval to accept employment from the Emirati government, this time as a featured speaker at a conference on U.S.-UAE relations hosted by Mohamed in Abu Dhabi.

In his application, Mattis said the UAE would pay him an “honorarium” and cover his travel expenses, according to documents obtained by The Post as part of its FOIA lawsuit.

At first, the Marine Corps redacted details of the financial arrangements, saying that disclosure would violate Mattis’s privacy. After The Post argued that the information should be made public, a federal judge ordered the Corps to disclose it. The Marines eventually complied — three years after The Post first requested the records.

In response to a question about whether he would be paid for his speech in Abu Dhabi, Mattis’s unredacted application shows that he wrote: “Yes, standard honorarium for all presenters of this lecture series is $100K plus Airfare & Lodging Reimbursement.”

Tyrer, the spokesman for Mattis, said he was not compensated for the speech in the end. He said Mattis only “listed the standard honoraria figure that is commonly offered to participants” so his application would receive a “rigorous” review.

The conference was held in May 2019 at Al Bateen Palace, a royal residence in Abu Dhabi. In his remarks, Mattis said he turned down “99 percent” of his invitations for speaking engagements but made an exception for the UAE and Mohamed because of their close relationship with the United States.

“It is broad enough, it is deep enough and it’s strong enough to withstand any temporary challenges of any sort, because the underpinnings are just that strong,” Mattis said, according to a videotaped portion of his speech posted online by the UAE Embassy in Washington.

Meanwhile, the war in Yemen is still raging. The UAE, the United States and its allies have been unable to defeat the Houthi rebels, who are stronger than ever, thanks to support from Iran.

On Jan. 3, the United States and 11 other nations issued a public ultimatum, warning the Houthis to stop firing missiles at merchant ships off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea, or else the rebels would have to bear “the consequences.”

Since then, the attacks from the Houthis have only escalated, prompting the United States and Britain to hit back with military strikes from warships and aircraft in the region.

John Hudson contributed to this report.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now