UAE foreign policy: Anwar Gargash discusses Emirati approach to regional change
Amid rising Iran tensions, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs talks of developments
The Mena region is undergoing a profound shift. While the rapidly rising tension between Iran and the US has taken the spotlight, the situation has been rapidly changing from Algeria to Sudan.
On Wednesday evening, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, briefed journalists on the approach taken by the UAE to recent events.
He touched on the long-anticipated US peace plan for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, developments in Yemen, the transition taking place in Sudan after the removal of Omar Al Bashir and the grinding offensive on the outskirts of the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
“We are also in this difficult regional situation to a large extent because of Iranian behaviour,” Dr Gargash said.
“Iranian behaviour is at the centre of various regional issues and definitely it is this behaviour that has led to the difficult conditions and situations that we are seeing.”
He said that after years of malevolent Iranian behaviour, the region needs a responsible and reasonable Iran.
While Dr Gargash said that the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Iran and world powers had been an attempt to address one of the main concerns about Tehran, but that it had not worked.
While it may have addressed one issue – an attempt to build a nuclear bomb – it did not address the country’s ballistic missile programme or regional policies and support for proxy forces.
But Dr Gargash said that Tehran had been taken aback by the effects of the US sanctions since it withdrew from the nuclear accord just over a year.
He described the “biting sanctions” as hitting Iran in “a very effective way”. This was at the root of the tension.
Asked what diplomatic channel Iran has to ease the situation, Dr Gargash said, somewhat jokingly, that Tehran has US President Donald Trump’s phone number.
But he said he did not believe there would be serious discussion with Iran until it took responsibility for its regional actions and stated publicly that it was willing to change course.
He said the UAE and Saudi Arabia had contacted Iran to offer assistance after the recent devastating floods as a “symbolic gesture of what can be done if Iran acts as a normal state".
But he said that countries such as the UAE have stood by as members of the Iranian government tried to sell the image of a moderate state.
Dr Gargash said that the latest attempt at this by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was hollow.
He said Iran needed to take serious, public steps to curb its support of proxy forces, interference in other countries and its ballistic missile programme before there could be a serious conversation about its place in the region.
The region, Dr Gargash said, needed a responsible and reasonable Iran.
Israel has a right to security and dialogue with Tel Aviv is positive, Dr Gargash said.
He said that any discussions with the Israelis did not mean the UAE agreed politically with the leaders there.
The UAE fully supports an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
On the long-awaited plan by the US, which President Donald Trump called “the deal of the century”, Dr Gargash said that given the situation, it could seem very difficult to hope for a breakthrough.
But he said that the UAE had been supportive of every effort by the US over the years to find a solution.
Dr Gargash praised efforts by former US secretary of state John Kerry, who he said understood the nuts and bolts of the issue but unfortunately was unable to find a solution.
He said that the UAE was also still supportive of US engagement with the issue.
In recent days, Houthi rebels have publicly pulled forces from the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, but questions linger about how genuine the move was, with suspicion over the coastguard forces who have stepped in to replace them.
Dr Gargash called on the UN to fully monitor the Houthi withdrawal and ensure that the coastguard is a civilian force and not just rebels in different shirts.
“The Stockholm agreement remains our best hope today," he said. "It is a window. It might not be wide enough but it is the window we have to work with.
"I think this is fundamentally the coalition’s view but it is fundamentally the UAE’s view, as a part of the coalition."
Dr Gargash said the agreement had been “held hostage for five months by the Houthis". The withdrawal was meant to begin in December.
But he said that he still supported the view of the UN that it must be fully completed before talks on other areas of the conflict can resume.
Dr Gargash hopes that it could pave the way for “Yemeni to Yemeni” dialogue, but he said the rebels had clearly shown they are not interested in seriously engaging in talks.
Hours after the pullout from Hodeidah, Houthi drones attacked oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.
Dr Gargash said the reservoir of confidence for the Houthis was empty and their latest moves had done little to refill it.
Yemen is, he said, another example of how Tehran’s actions do not match its words.
Iran often says its ballistic missile programme is purely defensive, but Dr Gargash said a significant evidence of Iranian contribution to the Houthi missile programme showed this not to be the case.
The rebels, he said, did not have the technology two or three years ago to hit Saudi towns and cities, but now regularly launched attacks that damaged homes and killed civilians.
Dr Gargash said that the country’s policy on Sudan had been largely misconstrued.
Far from backing a military council that replaced longtime leader Omar Al Bashir when he was removed from office in April, he said the UAE simply wanted to see a stable Arab state emerge, and today “we can be very, very hopeful”.
Dr Gargash said Sudan was a country in need of support “after 30 years of military, Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship".
He said the UAE would like to help this important Arab state through a peaceful transition, but the pace of change and how it would look was a purely Sudanese affair.
The recent announcement of a $3 billion (Dh11.01bn) assistance package for Khartoum from the UAE and Saudi Arabia was a response to a direct need.
Dr Gargash said he hoped that within the three-year transition agreed to between the military and protesters, the country would be standing on its own two feet.
“We cannot be happy because we are the only house not arsoned or burgled,” he said. “It is part of our duty to support stability in the region.”
There is no military solution in Libya, Dr Gargash said.
He said that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar did not notify the UAE of his offensive to capture Tripoli before launching the push.
Dr Gargash urged all sides to stop fighting and return to the negotiating table.
He said several meetings over past months, including one in Abu Dhabi, had led to a road map for talks and he urged the authorities in Tripoli and Benghazi to return to the plan.
“We’ve got a road map but people need to sit together and speak together,” he said.
But Dr Gargash added: “To depict the situation as if Gen Haftar is the only problem is I think a simplification.
He said the commander was largely responsible for effectively battling extremist groups in Libya and “takes a lot of the credit that today in Libya we don’t have a major terrorist threat".
Dr Gargash said there needed to be a spotlight on the armed groups backing the Tripoli government, many of whom “scare us”.
The rule of militias, he said, had to end.
Dr Gargash lamented that once again, regional matters had prevented him talking more about the positives taking place in the UAE and the region.
He said the visit of Pope Francis to the UAE this year had been a historic moment that many would not have believed possible.
“A large part of why the UAE is successful is because of its tolerance," Dr Gargash said. "This path sends the right messages in a difficult region.”
He said the Special Olympics had also been a testament to what could be achieved.
The results of this year’s Arab Youth Survey, which again found the UAE was the most desirable country for the region's young people, showed people did not want “a crazy theocracy”.
Dr Gargash said that instead, they were embracing two key ideas of the UAE – tolerance and aspiration for a better future.
Updated: May 17, 2019 01:01 AM