ABU DHABI // Battling ISIL, restoring security in the region and tackling concerns related to Iran and Syria are some of the key elements the US vice president said he would work on with the UAE.
In an exclusive interview with The National during his first visit to the UAE, Joe Biden sent a message of reassurance to his Gulf allies that the US is unequivocally committed to strengthening and stabilising the region.
Mr Biden arrived just after midnight on Sunday and was greeted at Al Bateen Airport by Reem Al Hashemi, Minister of State for International Cooperation, Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to the United States and Barbara Leaf, US ambassador to the UAE.
He called the relationship between the UAE and the US “one of the most significant in the region”, as the country’s diplomatic mission doubled in the past 10 years.
The UAE plays a vital role in advancing the region’s security and stability, Mr Biden said – an issue he would discuss with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.
“Together, we’re taking the fight to ISIL and Al Qaeda wherever they seek safe haven – whether that’s on the battlefield or online,” Mr Biden said.
“Through the Gulf Cooperation Council, we’re enhancing our efforts to coordinate a united, regional approach to address the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
“We’re improving our ability to work together on a broad range of issues, from cyber and maritime security to ballistic missile defence and counter-terrorism.
“And I can assure you that the United States will continue to live up to our commitments in the region. We are clear-eyed about the difficulties [it] is facing.”
He said detecting and disrupting terrorist plots, pushing back against corrosive ideologies, defending against evolving cyber threats and ensuring regional stability were long-term issues that required long-term, sustainable solutions.
“They need partnerships that deliver meaningful results,” he said. “That’s why we’re so invested in this relationship, and why the US-UAE partnership will remain a priority for the Obama-Biden administration.”
Iran was also on the agenda, after Mr Al Otaiba last month said the country continued to spread instability in the region following the nuclear deal.
“We understand clearly the challenges its actions pose in the region,” Mr Biden said. “That’s why we worked so hard to achieve a nuclear agreement with Iran – because as dangerous as Iran’s actions are, they would be exponentially greater if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon. Now that we are implementing the deal, we have effectively closed off every path that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon and the region is safer as a result.”
Steps were being taken, he said, to bolster the security of the UAE and GCC to be able to “deal with Iran diplomatically from a position of strength”.
Last month, Arab League secretary general Dr Nabil El Araby said wiping out terrorist groups was -vital to ensuring the region’s future. But with eight armed conflicts raging in the region, Mr Biden called for dialogue as the best way to address them.
“In addition to conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, we’re dealing with the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War,” he said. “Terrorist threats are real and ongoing. There are complex relationships, sectarian tensions and long-standing political differences. But these challenges are too big for any one nation to meet alone and without dialogue, we won’t make progress toward resolving the conflicts in Syria or Yemen or toward reducing the sectarian tensions that are tearing the region apart.”
The US secretary of defence has been publicly calling on more involvement from Gulf countries in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, which Mr Biden called “one the most complex and tragic crises of our time”.
And although Gulf countries indicated they would be willing to contribute ground forces in Syria, in coordination with the US, Mr Biden ruled out any military solution to the conflict.
“That should be clear to everyone,” he said. “So as hard as it is, we have to keep trying to reach a political settlement. We’re now working to get the Assad regime and the opposition back to the negotiating table. Because ultimately, the end goal hasn’t changed.
“A political solution between the parties is the only way to end the violence and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve to rebuild their country. To create a credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian system – a new constitution and free and fair elections.”
He said the US would continue to work with countries, including the UAE, to care for the millions of displaced Syrians who need humanitarian assistance.
“I think we now have an opportunity to make progress,” he said. “The broad cessation of hostilities that went into effect late last month – after intensive talks with Russia and other parties in Munich – seems to be holding. It is not perfect. It’s fragile. And we continue to raise areas of concern. But levels of violence have dropped significantly across the country. That has opened up space for humanitarian relief to reach people in need inside Syria and it may open space for us to get the process of political transition back on track – if all the parties continue to live up to their commitments.”