An early, thorough intervention based on science laid solid foundations for the UAE to fight the coronavirus outbreak and has allowed it to be in a “much more confident” position, Dr Anwar Gargash said on Wednesday.
The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said the UAE benefited from avoiding a “total shutdown”, doing as much as it could to protect lives without completely closing down the economy.
Dr Gargash said wide-ranging action was taken as soon as it became clear how dangerous Covid-19 was becoming.
That left the country with enough personal protective equipment for domestic needs, while allowing it to supply other countries as well.
Dr Gargash was speaking at an online seminar hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington.
The seminar looked at the UAE’s relations with the US and its foreign policy outlook, and included remarks on the Qatar boycott, the Iran nuclear deal and more.
Dr Gargash said the UAE was “managing very well”, as he pointed to the three million coronavirus tests carried out.
“Early preparation for this, I think, has helped us a lot," he said.
"As soon as we saw developments and news coming out from the Far East, China, Korea and others, we realised that this is a pandemic.
“We did not, naturally, know what the dimensions would be but we got ready very early on and we put together, in my opinion, a very active response.
"It was a response that depended on science and depended very early on on testing and tracing, and at the same time trying not to completely shut down society and the economy.
"We felt that a certain balance is required because a public health issue such as this will have repercussions in many other areas.
“We are much more confident today. When Covid-19 started it was quite a novel challenge. You had to learn basically as you go and many of the steps that we took were the correct ones.
"Not every step was the right step but overall I think we did very well."
Dr Gargash said the preparation was shown in the amount of personal protection equipment, such as masks, and testing kits available.
The UAE has recorded 43,364 cases since the outbreak, 29,537 recoveries and 295 deaths.
Dr Gargash said that early on, authorities were keen to ensure that people from all parts of the UAE understood that the state would take care of them and provide necessary treatment.
“I’m very, very proud of how my country – I’m talking here as a citizen – is handling this with, I think, the right balance of professionalism and rationalism, and at the same time a humanitarian urge,” he said.
He spoke at length about the UAE’s relationship with major powers including the EU, Russia, India and China.
Dr Gargash praised ties with India that have become stronger during the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the economic partnership with China and the increasing influence of Russia in the Middle East.
But he singled out the US for particularly commendation.
“The United States is our single most important strategic partnership," Dr Gargash said.
"Sometimes people, when they think of our relationship with the US, they just look at the political/military angle. But this relationship is really much, much wider.
“IT, in business, investment, in soft power, in the presence of institutions such as NYU Abu Dhabi, in people like me who spent some of the best years of their lives in America.
“We recognise that there has been for a while now an internal debate and dialogue about US policy overseas and in the Middle East, and we follow that keenly.
"And all I want to say is we want America to remain engaged in the region. I think that is an important part.”
Under President Donald Trump, the US and UAE outlook on Iran appears more similar than that under the previous administration of Barack Obama.
Mr Trump has been highly critical of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and withdrew the US from it in 2018.
Tehran has begun enriching uranium above the limits of the 2015 deal after Mr Trump renewed sanctions and diplomatic efforts have failed find a way to ease the dispute.
Pressure is particularly high in the Arabian Gulf, where Iran seized foreign-registered oil tankers last year.
Dr Gargash said it was unrealistic to go back to the nuclear deal but added that it was in the interests of everyone to reduce the tension.
“We have to be clear and say that the we have a major issue of global significance, and this is not going to go away unless we create a process to resolve this issue,” he said.
“Having said that, I think clearly the countries of the region, the Arab countries of the region, don’t believe that the 2015 [deal] was an effective formula.
"We’re not part of the process, we were never involved.”
Dr Gargash said he felt that exclusion “hurt the process rather than supporting it”.
“I think that Iran understood the 2015 agreement as a carte blanche for it to play the role of a regional power,” he said.
Dr Gargash said countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia needed to be involved in future discussions but Iran’s regional policy also had to be addressed.
“What I know very clearly is that this time around, countries like ours, countries like Saudi Arabia, should be part of this process," he said.
"If we’re really talking about resolving this issue of iran’s relationship with the region and the relationship with the US and with the world, I think that we need to have something that is more thorough. There has to be our input.”
Regional powers have clashed with Iran over its support for Lebanese group Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, is also in a dispute with Qatar over its support for extremism.
Dr Gargash said he backed the approach of the Saudis, who have taken the lead in solving the crisis.
But he said it depended on whether Doha wanted to change its behaviour.
“You know I’ve said publicly that we don’t really want to spend too much time on it," Dr Gargash said.
"I think when the Qataris are ready and are willing to do some sort of self-analysis of where they went wrong with their policy, I think the doors will be open to their reintegration.
“That is one thing, but you cannot also resolve an issue on the surface and have another crisis in six months’ time, four years time.”
Dr Gargash also said that Turkey remained a major trading partner with the UAE, but Ankara’s policies in the Arab region were “not sustainable".