Yousef Al Otaiba: 'The biggest fault line right now is how to deal with Iran'
UAE's Ambassador to the US on American engagement in the Middle East and Iran challenge
As the United States gears up for the presidential election, the rest of the world is waiting to see what the result will mean.
Diplomats, ministers and world leaders are watching in anticipation to see if Donald Trump will secure a second term in office, or if Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States.
Among them is Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, who has been the UAE’s Ambassador to the US for the past 12 years and is one of the most influential diplomats in America.
Speaking before the November 3 vote, Mr Al Otaiba told The National that “the election reflects two different views of what the US role in the world" is destined to be.
He added: “Should it be engaged and trying to make the region stable or should it just disengage?”
Being the ultimate diplomat, Mr Al Otaiba would not elaborate on which presidential candidate reflects either school of thought, instead saying: “I'm a big champion of US engagement. Whether it's a Democratic or Republican president, the one thing that has been consistent is that we have shared interests and values. The region needs to be stable.
"I think that's something they both agree on.”
That's the one area where the two sides diverge, in the tactics of dealing with Iran
However, American engagement with the world could be at risk due to other factors, such as the pandemic and the health and economic issues it has provoked in the US.
“There are so many big domestic issues that are taking up all the bandwidth here in the US that the rest of the world becomes an afterthought. So that's my worry, that the domestic focus leads to neglect of foreign policy issues.”
Some issues can’t wait, however.
While Joe Biden seems keen to go back to the nuclear deal with Tehran, the Trump administration is intent on maintaining its strategy of maximum pressure.Mr Al Otaiba said that “the biggest fault line right now is how to deal with Iran. It's not that whether Iran is a challenge or not. There is a consensus on that. There's a disagreement on how to deal with it”.
“That's the one area where the two sides diverge, in the tactics of dealing with Iran,” Mr Al Otaiba said. “We've been advocating de-escalation and stability. So whoever wins the election, our approach is going to be consistent.”
That approach includes calling for a better deal than the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
He explained that “the whole world now recognises there were certain flaws in the JCPOA agreement, whether it's the duration and the sunset clauses being too short, or whether it's the lack of an Arab voice at the table when these negotiations were taking place”.
One important element is to take into consideration “all the other issues that we suffer from in the region: the missile programme, the proxies, the interference and the kind of belligerent attitude that we witness from Iran.
"We need to have a conversation about how to strengthen the JCPOA, how to address these shortcomings and create a much more effective JCPOA 2.0”.
Asked whether the Democrats see those shortcomings, Mr Al Otaiba said confidently: “I believe so, yes.”
Mr Al Otaiba stressed that UAE-US relations would be strong, regardless of who wins the election.
He refuted reports that those relations would be adversely impacted by a new administration.
UAE will work well with whoever wins the White House
“The UAE has been consistent. Not everybody likes our positions all the time," he said, but the transitions from the Bush to the Obama administration and then to the Trump White House were all very smooth.
"If the same thing happens, I have no doubt that the UAE will be able to work with a Biden administration.”
I don't think we would have got to the same kind of conclusion if it wasn't for the Trump administration
However, he added: “I do think the US is more polarised than it used to be. But I think that's a question for Americans not for Emiratis.”
Mr Al Otaiba considers the Abraham Accord as the Trump administration’s biggest foreign policy win.
“It was important because it reflects that attitudes and mindsets are changing. Not only are we breaking taboos, others are following and making similar decisions.
"I don't think we would have got to the same kind of conclusion if it wasn't for the Trump administration.
"So to be clear, the administration was instrumental in getting us over the finish line. But more importantly, it is now being seen as a success by a wide spectrum of people."
However, that success will need to be further supported.
“To demonstrate that this is a successful experiment, you have to deliver benefits, outcomes, jobs, technologies. People have to feel that this actually made their future better.
“It was not a coincidence that some of the first MOUs were signed on AI, Covid-19 research and movie production. Entertainment, arts and technology are things that people believe will make their future better.”
On the long term impact of the Abraham Accord on the region, Mr Al Otaiba said that “what started off with one country jumping in and breaking a taboo was quickly followed by two other countries. Bahrain joined us and then Sudan, which means it's no longer an aberration. It means this is a trend and a pattern.
"The Abraham Accord has created space and given diplomacy a big win by stopping annexation. It actually preserved the two-state solution.”
Mr Al Otaiba stressed that “the two-state solution today is alive because annexation was stopped. If annexation proceeded, we would be discussing what does a one-state solution look like? What does a binational state look like? And the two-state solution would be dead.
"We've put time on the clock and created space, hopefully, for the resumption of negotiations and a conversation about the two-state solution that's ultimately up to the parties.”
On whether the US should push the Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate, he said that “it should be everyone's goal, not just the [US] administration, I think it should be the UN goal, I think it should be the Arab League goal. Everyone should be trying to bring the parties together.
"Now, having said that, we can't force the parties to come together if they don't want to pursue this path.
“That's not a failure of the GCC or the Arab League or the UN. That's a failure on the parties themselves. The decision has to be made by the two parties with the encouragement of all of us.”
Persuading the US to cease regional secession
Domestic demands mean that the US is increasingly pulling back from the region. The Trump administration has announced its intention to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by Christmas and has said it wants to reduce its presence in Iraq.
"There is a consistent demand for having a smaller footprint,” he said.
"We have to show American people that a US presence in the region actually does bring benefits.”
Another reality is that with the strategic shift to a lighter military footprint in the region, the US needs to support its allies in a number of ways.
The UAE’s request for the sophisticated F-35 military jets comes within that context. Mr Al Otaiba said “more countries are becoming more independent, taking more of the responsibility and the burden of the region.
"And whether it's F-35s or enhanced trade and increased investment with regional partners, more countries are going to carry more of the load themselves. It is important for the US to understand that we are taking our area and security very seriously”.
It is expected that the administration will send a notification to Congress on the sale of the F-35s and he believes there is ample support for it in Washington.
“We've been trying to acquire the F-35 for six years," he said, adding that they were “not part of the deal” for the Abraham Accord.
“There are other items that we've been trying to acquire since Mr Bush was in office. So these are things that we have operational requirements for, that have simply been held up, largely because of either the Qualitative Military Edge [of Israel] or other release ability issues. We've now, I think, cleared this bottleneck.
"It opens up the aperture of us trying to get more sophisticated defence equipment. I think notification to Congress should be imminent.”
The UAE envoy stressed that “not only is it in the US interests to have more strong, stable security partners, but if the US really does want to do less than the region, you're going to have to have your friends do more. And in order for your friends to do more, you're going to have to strengthen their capacities".
Updated: November 2, 2020 11:20 AM