How UAE-US ties spur stability and growth – 'Business Extra' podcast

Senior American diplomat in Abu Dhabi Sean Murphy explains how the relationship will evolve in the years to come

The relationship between the UAE and the US is perhaps one of the most important for stability in the wider region. The two nations have been allies for decades, working across defence, energy, technology and investment.

However, these ties are currently going through what the UAE's ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, called a “stress test".

When the countries eventually move into a new phase, it has the potential to be something quite exciting and promising that encompasses technology, culture, energy and defence.

That's according to Sean Murphy, Charge d'Affaires at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi.

He tells host Mustafa Alrawi that the UAE-US relationship is “built on solid foundations".

“It is built on these interpersonal connections between people, between business people, between scientists, between students, between academics. And so, we are very confident that the success of the [last] 50 years, will continue into the next 50 years of the UAE's history.”

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Episode Transcript:

Mustafa Alrawi: The US-UAE relationship has been a bulwark for stability in the region for decades. It’s fed into economic opportunity, growth and development.

Where next for the US and UAE? You’re listening to the Business Extra podcast coming from The National in Abu Dhabi. I’m Mustafa Alrawi, assistant editor-in-chief. If you like this show, please do subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your audio content.

The UAE and the United States. Their relationship is perhaps one of the most important for stability in the wider region. They’ve been allies for decades. They’ve worked across defence, energy, technology and investment. These ties are currently going through a period of what Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, suggested was a period of testing. But when we come through into a new phase, there’ll be something quite exciting and promising. With me today is Sean Murphy, the US embassy’s charge d’affaires in Abu Dhabi. Sean, welcome. Thanks for being with us in the studio in Abu Dhabi.

Sean Murphy: Good morning, Mustafa. It’s a great pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Mustafa Alrawi: But we have to have you because we’re talking about the US-UAE relationship. So your, from your point of view, your vantage point, as a senior official here for the US, in this country. And maybe we can start off by contextualising it. What is the US-UAE relationship? What do these ties mean to you, to you, at least from your point of view, of your position?

Sean Murphy: Well, thanks, Mustafa. Maybe I’ll, I’ll begin with an observation. We sometimes joke that the US-UAE relationship is so broad and so important that it can’t be confined to one planet. And that’s a bit of a jocular reference to the co-operation that the two countries have in space exploration. As you mentioned, the UAE and the US have been friends and allies for 50 years, throughout the history of this country and the relationship indeed, security, of course, is a very important component of that relationship. But the relationship extends far beyond security to – and I could certainly give you statistics and factoids – $25 billion in biannual two-way trade. The UAE is the largest investor from this part of the world in the United States, and supports tens of thousands of jobs. There are 50,000 or so American citizens living in the UAE who have found this say, found opportunity here, but really the relationship has been built over decades on a very solid foundation of people-to-people ties. Of course, tens of thousands of Emiratis have studied in the United States over the years. They understand the United States very well, they understand our strengths and they also understand our flaws. And these people-to-people ties, at the end of the day, those are the ones that matter most. You know, like all relationships, the US-UAE relationship has had its ups and its downs over the years. But it’s built on solid foundations and it’s built on these interpersonal connections between people, between businesspeople, between scientists, between students, between academics, and so we’re very confident that the success of the 50 years will continue into the next 50 years of the UAE’s history. And we’re very proud to have been, you know, obviously, the UAE celebrated its golden jubilee this year. And we’ve been very proud to be an important partner of the UAE throughout its history. And we’ve been very proud of its extraordinary accomplishments in that very short period of time. And we look very much forward to accompanying the UAE on its journey into the next 50 years.

Mustafa Alrawi: I mean, the UAE is a huge success story for the region – globally, perhaps. But you know, the fact is, is that the Middle East, the various developments that have happened in recent years where the conflict or otherwise affects the kind of wider perceptions of stability here, and so we can’t ignore what’s going on. Whether it be in Yemen or Iran or Syria or Iraq, it has an effect on things here. And if we can look at sort of the, the relationship between the US and the UAE in recent months, what’s been the big change? And I see the big change has been obviously a change of administration. We had a period of time. I mean, you’ve actually straddled both, because you came when it was the previous administration of the former president Donald Trump, and you could almost feel as if, at that point, that it was a lot smoother. Let’s say, according to perception here, while now as we’ve moved into the administration of President Joe Biden. There’s a perception at least, if you know, some people say it’s true, others might say, maybe it’s overblown, but certainly there’s a perception that things aren’t as smooth now. So I guess my question is, from your point of view, how much of this is developments in the region that will naturally cause stress from time to time? Or is this a matter of a change of people in Washington that has affected the perception of the relationship?

Sean Murphy: Well, Mustafa, it certainly is true that each administration is going to have its own priorities, particularly when we are dealing with a transition from one party to another. There’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that the UAE is in a tough neighbourhood. And it’s been a tough neighbourhood for a very long time. And there certainly have been very, very important developments over the past year. Obviously, Afghanistan was an absolutely critical one. And I know how the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover, I understand how that resonated in the UAE and other parts of the world and how it, it fed into a certain narrative about US withdrawal or US lack of commitment to the region. Of course, I always point out that Afghanistan has been a very important issue for President Biden for many, many years; his position on that has not changed from when he was a senator. And the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a unique situation that I think we can see, with the passage of time, did not presage a withdrawal from any other circumstance in the region. The United States, for example, is still very much present in Iraq. But certainly, Afghanistan was really a seminal and really traumatic event for many people, of course, no more so than for the Afghan people themselves. And I’ll take advantage of this subject to mention that we are very grateful for the UAE’s co-operation with the evacuation of tens of thousands of vulnerable people from Afghanistan. We approached the UAE to assist in this effort in August and the UAE immediately agreed to do so. I think it’s, it’s well known that there are still many thousands of Afghan evacuees in Abu Dhabi and it really is exceptional, the support and care that the UAE has provided to those people over now these very many months. And I would like to think that our collaboration with the UAE on this really urgent humanitarian need is a good example of the positive things that we can do together. And I think our job as diplomats is to really play to those strengths. That co-operation on dealing with the, the Afghanistan evacuees was really built on a foundation of, of trust and confidence between the two countries who had co-operated very closely for many years in Afghanistan. And I think the way that the UAE has been able to assist so many people is really exemplary. And I think that the whole evacuation process is a good example of really the best of the relationship between our two countries. Again, there’s no question that Afghanistan, other developments in the region, have challenged the relationship in many ways. And Ambassador Al Otaiba has spoken of the stress test in the UAE-US relationship right now. All relationships have their ups and downs. But I do come back to thinking that the foundation of the US-UAE relationship is very strong. And it’s based on 50 years of close collaboration and 50 years of deepening interpersonal ties between the two countries. I’ll mention, in that regard, I went last night to the Cultural Foundation here in Abu Dhabi to watch a very interesting show. An American dance troupe that’s very innovative and uses technology and synchronises technology into their, their dance performances. The dancers wear suits with LED lights, and there’s computer coding that synchronises the lights to the movement of the dancers. This was an American group that came here and collaborated with a dance company here in Abu Dhabi that performed with the American dancers last night. And the coding, for the performance, the coding that controlled the movement of the lights, was done by young women at a school here in Abu Dhabi who are really exceptional at coding, and it was very nice. I enjoyed getting to meet them last night. And in a microcosm, it’s a very, very small example of those really extraordinary interpersonal ties between the two countries and this foundation in culture and relationships that I think are going to carry us through this moment and get us to a better place.

Mustafa Alrawi: Now, I’ll pick up on your points about technology. But also, you mentioned a little bit earlier about, you know, this narrative of the US withdrawal, you know, the US hegemony is being challenged. I mean, you know, perhaps it’s always being challenged: when you’re the superpower, there will be other powers jostling for more influence. I mean, much of it ultimately comes down to, you know, business, in the end of the day, I mean, you know, trade, investment, creating jobs at home, creating profit for the big companies, and the US has done this very successfully in the region. So the idea was, the theory is, that if the US is not as committed to this region, whether that’s true or not, or perception, and as you rightly said, perhaps the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan played into that narrative, whether, as you said, it was something that was perhaps on a separate track to do with, with President Biden, but it had been in discussion for some time that you have to look at your other options. Now, what I find is interesting is that that technology kind of is sort of right in the middle of that, because you’ve got not only the technology that’s needed for every industry, whether it’s energy or otherwise, but also discussions where, for example, for a package of defence systems that were the state of the art, high-end technology, and Ambassador Al Otaiba, in the same event that he made those comments about the UAE-US relationship, also said that trust was built on the fact that technology has been shared for decades, without there being any incident of that technology falling into the wrong hands. So there’s a sense now, though, that perhaps there isn’t as much confidence, as we’ve changed administrations, for the sharing of that kind of technology. But from what you’re saying, at least in the grassroots level, that’s perhaps not the case, that there is a confidence of working together on technology, sharing technology, whether that’s defence or otherwise.

Sean Murphy: Mustafa, we have been sharing some of our most sophisticated technology with the UAE for many, many years, not exclusively in the defence realm, but indeed in that realm. And, frankly, the value of that technology proved itself in helping prevent missile attacks on the UAE. But we have a responsibility to make sure that when we sell our most sophisticated technology, the crown jewels of our military technology, that we have a good understanding that that technology will be well protected. And that type of dialogue that we are having with the UAE on this point is exactly the same dialogue that we have with every country that we share this type of technology with. It is important to our national security, it’s important to the UAE’s national security and it’s important to the national security of all our other partners that buy the same technology. So this is exactly the same dialogue that we have with every country under the same circumstances.

Mustafa Alrawi: So when we talk about defensive technology, you mentioned the missiles. And obviously there was the attacks on the UAE earlier this year, related to what’s going on in Yemen, but also the wider concerns. And we saw what happened in Iraq this week with regards to Iran and missile attacks there. And what’s happening in Vienna, with the effort to create a new Iran deal, has a huge impact on what could happen in the region as well. That’s something that is being worked upon with urgency. It seems, since the change of administration in Washington. If I mentioned specifically that discussions about defence packages do take a long time, so whether it’s F-35s or otherwise, when there’s no immediate urgent danger, I guess, then normal course-of-defence business will run its course. There will be the due diligence, there will be discussions. I mean, you have, to everything has to be approved and run through the proper channels. So I think I understand that. But then there’s the more immediate concern of kind of regional security and protection. And we’ve already seen moves on that part from the US military to beef up, you know, defences here to ensure that the UAE continues to be protected. But then if we move into sort of the realm of, for example, even more advanced systems like drones, and I think it’s not just the UAE’s issue, but I think globally, we kind of countries have to work together to come up with proper anti-UAV systems that work well and I can’t see that happening unless that’s co-operation. So it feels as if there are several strands here. There is sort of these kind of big defence packages – F-35s or otherwise. Then you have these sorts of more immediate concerns of missile defence because of what’s happening in the region. And then the third thing might be future tech, or tech to future-proof your defences against UAVs and other technology. And I see that there is discussions between the US and the UAE on all three. And is that a fair assessment of the situation?

Sean Murphy: Well, it’s … certainly, we certainly recognise that the UAE faces a very significant national security threat right now due to the terrorist drone and missile attacks that the Houthis have launched since January 17. And we are doing everything we can to try to be responsive to those concerns. We have, the technology that we provided to the UAE over the years has proven very successful, in particular against ballistic missiles. We’ve provided a guided missile destroyer to assist with the UAE’s defence, we have a squadron of F-22s currently in the country, and we’re collaborating with greater information and intelligence sharing. We’re doing things to enhance interdiction efforts of war materials that are, that Iran attempts to illegally introduce into Yemen, and we’re collaborating on programmes to improve integrated air defence. Ultimately, the problem is the war in Yemen needs to stop. And right now, the Houthis are the aggressor in that war. And we are working very intensely with our partners in the region, with the UAE, with Saudi Arabia and also with the United Nations to try to bring the fighting to a stop. It is a significant challenge. The Houthis and their Iranian backers seem to feel that they have something to gain by continuing the fighting. And there is going to have to be additional pressure brought to bear to force them to the negotiating table, to force them into a truce or ceasefire. Ultimately, it’s critical that the war stops. And of course, it’s the war that has created such a devastating humanitarian situation in Yemen. That’s of enormous concern to us, and enormous concern to the international community. There are a lot of efforts under way to try to bring pressure to bear on the Houthis to stop fighting. And in the meantime, we will try to be as responsive as we can be to the UAE’s legitimate security concerns. And there, certainly, is a scope for us to review the responsiveness and the agility of those efforts and to try to do as best we can to support the legitimate security concerns of a country that’s been an extremely important partner of ours for 50 years.

Mustafa Alrawi: To what extent is the difficulty of finding a political solution to the conflict in Yemen as quite rightly pointed out, and the humanitarian situation there. I mean, the ICRC was telling one of my colleagues here at The National that they’re desperate for this humanitarian crisis not to be lost, not to be forgotten from the headlines, despite obviously the tragedy that’s unfolding in Ukraine at the moment. And I think everybody wants there to be a resolution in Yemen as soon as possible. But to what extent have the Houthis been emboldened by perception, whether real or otherwise, of perhaps not, no longer being, less of a kind of closeness between the US and the UAE? They’re trying to squeeze into that gap. Because for them, what matters most are facts on the ground. And so if they feel that they can achieve their objectives on the ground, it gives them a much stronger position, delaying tactics over and over again. But I wonder if there is in the coming days or weeks, you know, more of a cohesive, at least, you know, outwardly appearing, even if there was behind the scenes, but at least outwardly appearing cohesiveness between the US, the UAE and other countries on Yemen, that might give us fresh momentum to kind of reach that solution that we all desperately want?

Sean Murphy: Well, Mustafa, I can’t speculate on their motives. Undoubtedly, they seem, obviously, to feel that they have some advantage in continuing the fighting, perhaps positioning themselves on the battlefield for a future negotiation. But again, that’s really speculation. Our concern is bringing the fighting to a stop and to addressing the humanitarian concerns of the Yemeni people. And we are, have been making extraordinary efforts in that regard, working very closely with our partners in the region and, above all, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And we’re going to continue to work hard at that – there’s simply too much at stake. I think we’ve seen a greater recognition within the international community in the past six months, indeed, over the past year, that it is the Houthis and their Iranian backers who are fuelling the war at this point. The other parties are interested in peace, and the Houthis and their Iranian backers are interested in fighting and war at this point. So there’s a lot of efforts going into trying to bring the war to a stop. And there are a lot of efforts being made to try to address the humanitarian concerns of the Yemeni people. And, as I say, I think there’s a greater recognition within the international community in the past six months, the past 12 months, as to which party to this conflict is the aggressor.

Mustafa Alrawi: I think what’s interesting in terms of this region was, you know, one of the really sort of powerful dynamics that was unfolding was kind of coming to a resolution, for a new nuclear deal for Iran that would, you know, somehow ensure stability. I mean, there, the UAE and other Gulf countries have been concerned for a while that any deal would end up being a repeat of the previous deal that was agreed under the Obama administration, that that was very much the feeling that it didn’t, you know, guarantee some of the risks, whether it was, you know, proxy militias or missile risks, and overly focused on the nuclear risk, which is important, of course. But then as we move to sort of, you know, nuclear deal part two, that had been the discussion, and obviously, we have the more interesting dynamic now, of Israel being part of that conversation directly because of the Abraham Accords, to the UAE and other Gulf countries, and Bahrain talking to Israel with regards to Iran, and they seem to be trying to find common ground, and they’re to almost create this argument that, yes, it’s important to get a nuclear deal. Yes, it’s important to bring Iran back to the fold. But if we don’t address all the risks, then we’re going to end up in the same place. Now, I’ve got a very long-winded question here. I’ll get to it, if you’ll forgive me.

Sean Murphy: Sure.

Mustafa Alrawi: But then we have now the Ukraine crisis, which is, we just kind of almost opened another channel here, which is that not just because of that conflict, but other effects from the pandemic, we now have an unfolding energy crisis globally. So the urgency of bringing, say, Iranian oil back online, or otherwise ensuring supply in that regard and elsewhere, has now become top conversation. And Ambassador Al Otaiba, for example, recently, last week, commented on the UAE being supportive of increased production. And the result was, you know, we’d seen the surge in oil prices and then, in a single day, that those comments were able to drive the price back down, sort of 13 per cent. Now, it doesn’t fix the wider structural problems we have with energy; we’re in the middle of an energy transition. And almost this is a snapshot of what would happen if we rush too fast to that green shift without ensuring supply, and that’s a whole other conversation. But again, to come back to my very long-winded question, which is: what do you think, from your point of view, is the immediate priority of the US when it comes to this region? Is it a holistic view that incorporates the Ukraine-Russia conflict and other issues? Or can they compartmentalise what’s best for the region? Like, should we now be thinking of the Middle East no longer as a standalone region almost that we have done these last few years, of ‘We need to fix X Y, Z’? And now we have to think globally about these problems?

Sean Murphy: Well, Mustafa, it’s certainly been observed in the past that various US administrations have wanted to reduce their involvement in this region, but keep getting pulled back in. This is clearly a critical region to the, to the world for a variety of reasons over many decades. And it’s going to remain so. You rightly pointed out the importance of the global energy, the fluctuations in the global energy market right now. This has a real real-world impact on everyone. And it is going to be a challenge that we’re all going to have to deal with for quite a long time. And we certainly welcomed Ambassador Al Otaiba’s comments about increasing oil production and we think that that’s very important that that be done by our traditional energy partners in Opec. This is a critical region to the United States. You mentioned the ongoing talks in Vienna, about the JCPOA. The United States is committed to re-entry into, the mutual re-entry into the JCPOA. We think – and we continue to think – that the world is better off with a non-nuclear Iran. At the same time, we recognise that Iran’s malign behaviour in the region and elsewhere absolutely must be addressed. And it’s not 2015 any more. And we’ve, we’ve recognised that publicly. And I think you will see, we continued to work with our partners in the region to address Iran’s malign behaviour, its support for militias, its missile programmes, the other ways in which it creates mischief in the region, takes advantage of the region’s problems. We are continuing to work on those issues and we will, whatever happens with the JCPOA, the US’s commitment to the defence of the region, to, to helping the region resist Iran’s malign behaviour, remains. It’s constant. And we know that whatever happens in Vienna, Iran remains a challenge. And it’s a challenge that we’re committed to continuing to work on with our partners.

Mustafa Alrawi: We’re predominately talking to a business audience here, and what we found recently is that business leaders, decision-makers, are having to incorporate sort of geopolitical risks like never before. You know, we had the risks of the pandemic. And now, you know, since, since sort of the last few months, there’s this heightened concern about geopolitics, not just here, but globally, as well. We have the pressure on supply chains as well, which is causing issues, we have inflation. And of course, you know, I mentioned climate change, but, but also sort of technological shifts. These things were with us before the pandemic as well. So it’s kind of an interesting time if you’re a chief executive, but those sitting here in the UAE and the region, listening to the show right now, will, you know, be really watching closely the US-UAE relationship because, again, it comes back to what we said at the beginning. That has been a bulwark of stability, for the UAE and the wider region for so long. And I’ve been hearing that sort of the, the mood music in Washington has been this feeling. And perhaps this and maybe only from the UAE side, or those observers, looking from the UAE side, not officially, that things haven’t been this sort of fraught since the DP World crisis that happened in 2006, when Dubai Ports company was looking to buy, but as part of a wider acquisition, US ports, and there was a political storm about it in the US. And there was all kinds of concerns about security. And I think that came as a shock at the time. I think we’re all grown and moved on that little is a shock any more, given developments in the world. But I say this to bring back the point of it all comes down to business, it all comes down to investment, it all comes down to, essentially, economic opportunity for people in this region and people in America. You probably almost feel like you live at the Expo site at the moment in Dubai, Sean. You probably had to go there so many times – the amount of delegations that come through from the US to the US pavilion – and, of course, that pavilion is there, and that presence is there, because of the US-UAE relationship, more than anything else. And so I kind of want to bring that the conversation to, to this point of, you know, what’s the message to business leaders, right? What’s the message to CEOs and decision-makers of can they feel confident about that bulwark of stability to make the decisions, the investment decisions, they need to make going forward?

Sean Murphy: Well, Mustafa, thank you for mentioning Expo. And I think it’s a very, it’s very useful. To answer your question in the context of, of Expo, one of my favourite pavilions there is, in fact, DP World. It’s exceptional, what they are doing with logistics and applying technology to port management. I think it’s fascinating. And it’s very, very important to addressing some of the world’s challenges right now. You mentioned the supply chain challenges. It’s incredibly important that things like that be addressed. And I think, in fact, that global logistics is a really exciting area for collaboration between the United States and the UAE, and I think we’ll be seeing some exciting things in that domain and in the near future. To the general point of, you know, messaging and what the message is to businesspeople and what the message is to our partners in the UAE and around the region, our pavilion has, I think, some important and interesting messages. The theme of our pavilion is life, liberty and the pursuit of the future, a bit of a play on the famous and beautiful words in our Declaration of Independence. And the pavilion highlights America’s scientific and technological leadership over the years, and we also have exhibits there that emphasise the link between political freedom and creativity and innovation. We’re very proud to display Thomas Jefferson’s Quran and it was the first time that really valuable historical document has been outside of Washington, DC. And it’s an important message about how the ability to believe whatever you wish to believe, the ability to question assumptions and the ability to dream are absolutely critical to scientific and technological progress. And it’s very important in a country like the UAE that is really very, very focused on its future. I like to observe that sitting here in 2022, we can’t even conceive of the technologies that are going to be critical to our lives in 2032. That is simply the velocity of technological innovation. But I think, with a great sense of humility, but I think also with a great sense of confidence, as Americans we can say that whatever those technologies are, we know where a great many of them will come from. They’ll come from the same places that cutting-edge technologies, technologies that make life better for all of us, technologies that change the world, and they’ll come from the same place they’ve always come from. They’ll come from American universities, from American laboratories, from American businesses. And we really think that that’s something that really positions us well to remain a critical partner for the UAE, a critical partner for a country that really is very much focused on those technologies. It’s really very focused, and appropriately so, on its future.

Mustafa Alrawi: And we always come back down to technology in this discussion. It seems to be you know, it’s sort of the lifeblood of everything at the moment. And kind of the last sort of point I’ll raise is that the areas of collaboration are only growing. There was recently, President Biden said that the US is going to look at the potential for creating a digital dollar. So, you know, we look at finance, and we look at that area and what’s been happening in terms of FinTech and banking, and, you know, the barriers are coming down. And that brings with it both opportunities and risks. So on the one hand, you know, as you quite rightly said, there will be technologies that will proliferate, probably out of Silicon Valley, because that’s where they usually come from, and we’ll be using them here. Maybe we’ll even be instigating technologies from this part of the world. Hopefully, more of them will come here that will then you know, go to the US. And we’ve seen cross-border investment, both from Silicon Valley investors coming here and investors here looking at the US as well. But also the risks, which is, you know, one of the big ones at the moment, which is even before technology came into it. But now, there are even more tools for financial criminals, for money launderers. And that is something that is cross-border. It is global. So the US and the UAE, are going to have to co-operate even more closely in those areas because of technology and the way the world is going. So, you know, people talk about the US-UAE relationship like somehow it’s a binary thing. But it may be something that will continue to evolve and grow, no matter what happens, simply because of the way society is evolving.

Sean Murphy: Indeed, Mustafa, my staff and I began by observing that each administration is going to have its own priorities. One of the most important priorities of the Biden administration was, has been restoring alliances and restoring a sense of multilateralism in US foreign policy. And that really brings a lot of new and exciting opportunities to the US-UAE relationship. For example, we are co-operating very closely with the UAE on climate change issues. Former secretary Kerry, who is now a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has been here many times collaborating with his UAE counterpart, and the two countries are doing a lot of exciting things in the area of renewable energy and mitigating the impact of climate change. And I think that’s just one example of the really exciting opportunities that there are for the two countries. Moving forward, I mentioned also the collaboration that we have engaged in, in space exploration. And it’s really exceptional, what the UAE has done in that area. And again, we’re very proud of the United States’ history of scientific and technological leadership. And we’re very confident that we will be that, we will remain a leader in that area, and that that will really position us well to be a critical partner for the UAE.

Mustafa Alrawi: Sean Murphy is charge d’affaires for the US Embassy in the UAE. Thanks so much for being with us.

Sean Murphy: Thank you, Mustafa. It’s been a pleasure

Updated: March 18, 2022, 10:29 AM