‘We can’t just keep firefighting in the region,' says UAE's UN ambassador Lana Nusseibeh

Exclusive: UAE Permanent Representative says this year’s UN General Assembly meetings chance to work through pressing issues

Lana Nusseibeh, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the United Nations, at a meeting of the UN Security Council at the UN headquarters in March. AFP
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Today marks the beginning of the high-level debate of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly with issues such as the energy crisis, climate change, the Ukraine war and Iran’s nuclear file dominating discussions.

The timing of the Education Summit convened by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres coincided with the anniversary of a Taliban ban on girls entering high school and university education, further highlighting the troubles in Afghanistan.

All these issues are up for discussion among the leaders of the 193 members of the UN, but are of particular significance for the 15 members of the UN Security Council, which this year includes the UAE.

Speaking exclusively to The National on the eve of the high-level debates, ambassador Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said the world was meeting at a “particularly difficult geopolitical time on the international scene”.

“We took our seat on January 1, with a very ambitious agenda for what we hoped to achieve for international peace and security,” she said.

However, part of that agenda was impacted by the fact “we’re two and a half years on, still recovering from a Covid pandemic that demonstrated some of the institutional weaknesses in the international system, from supply chains, from resilience of certain states, from our health supply, but also [showed] how interdependent on each other we are”.

“We went into a period of increasing polarisation and fracture, on top of that big recovery period that we needed out of Covid-19,” she said.

Early in its term on the council, the UAE faced a terrorist attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. “We, of course, were defined in many ways in our membership [of the council] by the Houthi attacks on the UAE on January 17,” she said.

“That shaped the subsequent course of our membership for a number of months because, clearly, this was a huge national security threat to not just the UAE, but to the region.”

She said the drones and “missile supplies to the Houthis and other proxy groups in the region were able to target civilian infrastructure and population … we geared very quickly to a hard security perspective from January, based out of that attack”.

This led to a UN resolution in February “where the Houthis were listed as a sanctionable entity and a terrorist entity as a result of that”.

That was followed by the Ukraine war and then by the UAE assuming the presidency of the council on March 1. Ms Nusseibeh described the first three months of the UAE’s term as a baptism of fire.

Longer-term solutions needed

However, the UAE has also “come to the council understanding that we can’t just keep firefighting as a country in the region, we need to look at longer-term sustainable solutions for not just our region, but globally”, she said.

This has meant the UAE has been working to link issues of peace and security, not only as “hard military”, but to include issues such as women’s empowerment, the youth agenda and climate, the latter being vital as the UAE prepares to host Cop28 next year.

“Our commitment to the climate portfolio globally, we believe, is a core issue for peace and security,” Ms Nusseibeh said.

She said the UAE was “laser-­focused on Cop27”, which Egypt will host in November. “We want to take the baton and keep running … there’s going to be no slow down”.

She said the UAE “thinks that is one of the global issues of our time”.

While Ms Nusseibeh stressed the magnitude of challenges facing the UN, “our intention was to keep diplomats talking, that is our core business here in New York”.

“You’re not here just to talk to your friends, you’re here to talk to people you disagree with and try and find a way through some of these pressing challenges,” she said.

That was a guiding principle for the UAE as it led the council in March and as it prepares to do so again next June.

Despite the Ukraine war and tensions between the West and Russia, the UAE seeks to “keep the other 90 per cent of the council agenda moving forward at a time of really difficult global fracture but specifically fracture amongst the superpowers”.

She said: “The 60 per cent of the council agenda that looks at Africa remains important, regardless of European security discussions today, which we understand are polarised and very difficult with the war in Ukraine.

“We need to continue looking at Middle Eastern files [such as] Libya, Syria, the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal], which is being negotiated. Iraq, Palestine, these are all incredibly important council agenda items that take up at least 30 per cent of the council’s agenda.”

UAE's 'bridge-building role'

The UN-brokered grain deal between Russia and Ukraine is an example of getting council members to agree on an issue.

Without the deal, there was a risk of 47 million people going into famine. Ms Nusseibeh sees the UAE “playing that middle power, diplomatically entrepreneurial role … that bridge-building role” at a time of heightened polarisation.

The UAE will play that role during the high-level debates this week, with several key ministers in attendance, led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation.

Among the ministers attending will be Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation, Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, and Sheikh Shakhbout Nahyan, Minister of State.

Regionally, there are a number of issues of significance during the week.

“Our approach over the past year or two has been very much focused on de-escalation in the region, reaching out to countries, building economic bridges, as a basis for finding geostrategic common ground,” Ms Nusseibeh said.

“That has been our focus with Iran, with Turkey. It’s been in our outreach to Israel and a number of countries in the region and beyond.

“We can have different views on certain files, but we understand the importance of connectivity of our peoples, of our trade flows, of our economies, to creating a more prosperous agenda for the region.

“That’s the vision and we’re really clear-eyed but also laser-­focused on that vision.

“We don’t want that vision to be derailed by international shocks to the system set against a time of heightened geopolitical tension, where the traditional players’ bandwidth has been a little bit shortened.”

Given the international situation, “it does mean the region needs to step up, carry more of the burden of its direction and its future relationships”.

Ms Nusseibeh said that since the UAE was not party to JCPOA negotiations with Iran, “we’re not following them particularly closely”.

However, she said: “We think they’re an important linchpin of regional peace and security and can be built on eventually. And they’re an important part of something even more critical and that is the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, which we very much subscribe to, and which has been damaged in the last few years.”

Asked whether there would be a deal or not, Ms Nusseibeh said: “We think it would be a good thing if it was signed. And then we need to move on.”

She emphasised that there were “other issues that we’re much more focused on in our region that we find destabilising, such as proxies in various contexts, such as the use and the supply of missiles and UAVs to those proxies”.

She said there was “the need for our international system to become much more agile at being able to handle these kinds of global transnational threats that are not the typical ones that the UN system was designed to handle. The UN system still cannot define the word terrorism”.

This is an issue the UAE and Kenya have been working on in the Security Council.

“Countries like ourselves that actually are on the front line of this regionally, countries like Kenya that are on the front line of this with Al Shabab, think [the lack of a definition of terrorism] is ridiculous.

“There must be a baseline to which we can all agree that the use of violence with arms against civilians or infrastructure must be a terrorist act, before we even look at the whole issue of incitement to extremist ideology, and what are the root causes of terrorism, which I think is a broader debate.”

On the other side is the issue of how people can live together. Ms Nusseibeh referenced the Abrahamic Family House, the Abraham Accords and the people from 200 countries who live in the UAE.

She said the Abraham Accords, which established relations between the UAE and other Arab nations and Israel, were not “intended as a panacea to address Middle East peace, and particularly the negotiation that needs to happen between the Palestinians and the Israelis”.

However, she said: “It has had the impact of at least generating some new thinking about what people-to-people ties, what trade ties, what language ties, what economies and partnerships can do to better the situation on the ground for the people living through the impacts of this ongoing conflict.

“In terms of our membership of the council, we also very much recognise that we are the Arab seat in the council. And that’s why our co-ordination with Arab countries is the closest in terms of consultation, taking perspectives and so on.”

The Palestinians are keen to look to a political process and are discussing the issue with the US.

“In terms of the UAE position, it’s the same position that we have had since the founding of our foreign policy, the parameters exist for the just resolution of this conflict,” Ms Nusseibeh said.

“It’s a two-state solution that should be negotiated between the two sides, with whichever partners they wish to bring to the table to help support that.

“In the meantime, we have to all make sure that UNRWA continues to be able to educate in the schools, that the hospitals are operational and there’s been a contribution to the East Jerusalem hospital network, that we keep our channels open with everyone.”

On Yemen, Ms Nusseibeh said: “There’s actually a lot of concern that the truce is not holding and that it is going to be very difficult for the special envoy to extend it and turn it into that more durable, sustainable peace.”

In closed meetings of the Security Council, members have expressed concern that the truce will not be extended owing to Houthi breaches, as has been seen during the summer with the Taez attacks and failure to adhere to agreements on opening key roads.

Ms Nusseibeh said there was concern that “some in the Houthi leadership [think] going back to some kind of military conflict is the best way to enhance their negotiating position or violate the truce.”

She said not enough attention was being given to Yemen. “The lights are flashing red, the council’s attention is not as focused on this as it needs to be.”

She said there needed to be direct engagement from Mr Guterres, as well as stronger statements to hold to account those who breach the truce.

A Houthi military parade last month was of serious concern, she said. “I pointed out to council members we only got attacked in January … so when we’re not focusing on this type of threat, it’s concerning, not just to us, but it’s concerning to all of you who have civilians living in the UAE and travelling through it.”

A number of other regional files such as Syria and Libya are also competing for the attention of the council.

“Our main message is don’t just try and contain the conflict, let’s give [resolution efforts] some momentum, the same momentum we’re giving to all these other issues where we’re meeting so many times on Ukraine in a week,” she said. “But to us, also hugely important are regional files, hugely important are these African files.”

Among those important files is Afghanistan. The UAE was active in the negotiations to renew the UN’s mandate there.

Ms Nusseibeh said: “Afghanistan is a country we have been committed to for over two decades, both in terms of humanitarian aid, but also in terms of our support on the ground. We see Afghanistan as part of our wider region.

“We see girls’ education as a priority globally. At the same time, I think we see that we need to quickly work together with you and operations on the ground to stabilise Afghanistan to ensure its economy is not dependent, long term, on humanitarian aid.”

For this week, Ms Nusseibeh said she hoped to see “a renewal and re-energisation of diplomatic exchange, which has suffered in an intangible way as a result of the pandemic and hasn’t really resumed”.

She said Sheikh Abdullah would have more than 70 bilateral meetings to build on existing partnerships and build new ones.

Updated: September 20, 2022, 2:39 PM