US ambassador says Abu Dhabi relationship is 'anchor' in Middle East

Martina Strong speaks to The National about diplomacy, ambitions for the region and key allies building relations with China

Martina Strong, the new US ambassador to the UAE, at the ambassador's residence in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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For the first time in two and a half years, the US has an ambassador in Abu Dhabi, and for the first time in over six years, a career diplomat is filling that role.

Last Wednesday, ambassador Martina Strong arrived in the UAE capital to take up her post at a time when America’s dedication to the region is still being questioned – and her primary message is one of American commitment to the region.

The long vacancies in ambassadorial postings – exceeding two years – in strategic capitals like Abu Dhabi and Riyadh until this summer were often touted as examples of a lack of seriousness from Washington.

Ambassador Strong was posted in Riyadh for five years and was the acting head of mission in Saudi Arabia until Michael Ratney was confirmed ambassador to Riyadh in April.

We recognise that countries around the world will have partnerships with China ... however, where we do have concerns, we will voice them and with our partners, we will work to address them
Martina Strong, US Ambassador to UAE

In her first interview since assuming her post, ambassador Strong told The National that the US is firmly committed to the region and that the UAE represents an “anchor” in that commitment.

She said: “President [Joe] Biden has been very clear: our commitment to the region is strong. We are not leaving.

“We continue to invest in and build the partnerships that we have developed here over the past decades.”

With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a much-reduced footprint in Iraq, in addition to clear statements of an American pivot to Asia, there has increasingly been a sense of disengagement in the region.

However, ambassador Strong emphasised the need to “recognise the geostrategic importance of the Middle East … from any perspective, whether it's transportation corridors, the commercial activity that happens in this region, the strength of our partnerships, the ability that these partnerships give us to face asymmetric threats”.

At the heart of such partnerships, is the one which the US enjoys with the UAE.

“Certainly the UAE is pre-eminent in terms of both the strength and the length of our partnership. And it really extends to every dimension of security, whether we're talking about protecting the global commons, freedom of navigation, to more being able to mobilise support,” she said.

Ambassador Strong explained the US “partnership with the UAE can very much serve as an anchor to President Biden's vision, which is a region that is more secure, more stable, more prosperous, more integrated”.

The American objective of a more stable and prosperous region relies in large part on “partnership with the UAE [which] has really been at the forefront. And the UAE itself has charted the direction”.

Abraham Accords, China and a new 'diplomacy high point'

Martina Strong, US ambassador to the UAE, visits Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Wam

Ambassador Strong reflected on the Abraham Accords, the third anniversary of which was marked last week, saying that “if there's one diplomatic achievement or breakthrough of the past five years, I would highlight it. A historic step that the UAE took, a step in a new direction towards greater partnership, greater security stability within the region”.

Ambassador Strong described security co-operation with the UAE as “absolutely rock solid”.

“We continue to look for ways to strengthen our co-operation and we do that of course, day to day by training together. And we have, and continue to have, a very significant security presence here in the region,” she said.

“When President Biden took office, his priority for the region was to bring down the tensions, increase stability and security, address the conflicts like Yemen, and deepen the co-operation that began through the Abraham Accords. We're really delivering on that agenda. It's important for the region, but it's also important for the United States. So again, on the security front, but beyond, we're working very closely together”.

The UAE has been expanding and growing its ties with countries all over the world, particularly China, a matter that has been raised by several Congressmen and women publicly as potentially contentious.

In response to a question about whether she sees those ties with China as posing a challenge to her country’s relationship with the UAE, ambassador Strong responded succinctly: “I do not”.

I would really counter the arguments that somehow US leadership is diminished here in the region
Martina Strong, US Ambassador to UAE

“We recognise that countries around the world will have partnerships with China, we ourselves have, obviously, a very broad relationship with China," she said. "I mean, our economic partnership with China is $700 billion in annual trade. So that tells you the scope of our ties. However, where we do have concerns, we will voice them and with our partners, we will work to address them”.

Ambassador Strong sees the world as currently witnessing a “multilateral diplomacy high point”.

She did not agree when asked if this was down to a decline in American leadership on the world stage.

“I would really counter the arguments that somehow US leadership is diminished here in the region,” she said.

“We are working with our partners to address some of the greatest challenges that humankind is facing, but also to deliver on some of the opportunities that stand before us. It's an exciting time, it's a dynamic time in our relationship.”

Cop28 is 'absolute priority'

In addition to regional dynamics, ambassador Strong said she would be focusing her efforts on climate action. With Cop28 in Dubai at the end of November, she stressed her country’s commitment to its success. She also highlighted the Biden administration’s belief in “the leadership of the UAE” on climate action.

“As I was making my way around Washington speaking with senior officials, Cop28 was coming up at every stop, and we are very thrilled that Cop28 is being hosted by the UAE,” she said.

“We deeply appreciate the UAE’s leadership in this regard and we are looking forward to working with our Emirati partners to ensure that Cop28 is a success, not just for the UAE or the United States.

“This is really a global effort … and the climate crisis has global reach so galvanising action at this Cop is an absolutely key priority for us”.

She added: “Our Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Secretary [John] Kerry has been working, really shoulder-to-shoulder, hand-in-hand, with [Cop28 President-desginate] Dr Sultan Al Jaber and their partnership is critical.”

Ambassador Strong stressed that “it's time to galvanise action, mobilise resources, focus on the areas that really require concerted action”.

That action needs to tackle several “gaps", she said. "Whether it's the global infrastructure gap, global gap in energy security, global gap in food security, all of these areas are tied in with climate and how we as a world, not just as the United States or UAE address the climate crisis."

"What makes our partnership with the UAE so dynamic and so unique is this ability to bridge these gaps and the commitment to bridge these gaps.”

Responding to questions about certain criticism that has been raised by climate activists about the UAE’s position as a champion for climate and a top oil producer, she said: “Our position has been very clearly stated by Secretary Kerry, who shares an excellent partnership with Dr Sultan Al Jaber, and with Emirati leadership.

“We appreciate Emirati leadership in this regard, because it's a leadership that is focused on making sure that action is taken not just by governments, but it reaches to industry, businesses, civil society because, at the end of the day, this has to be a unified effort. Our position in this regard has been very clear. and we look forward to supporting UAE efforts.”

As for her immediate priorities, ambassador Strong said that like any other embassy “our first responsibility is to the American citizens that we have here in the UAE”.

There are estimated to be between 40,000 and 50,000 Americans in the country whom ambassador Strong described as “a tremendously vibrant part of our partnership”.

Beyond that, she will be focused on the “rich fabric of co-operation in every domain, from our very close security ties to our co-operation and commercial space to our people-to-people ties”, adding “our partnership could not be stronger”.

Updated: September 18, 2023, 8:39 AM