A Conversation with His Excellency Yousef al Otaiba of UAE

{Written after hanging my blazer in my tiny SMU dorm closet}

With the presidential election only a week away, it’s easy to get caught up in the politics debated by friends in the comments section of our Facebook newsfeeds. It takes a moment for us to realize that a similar – and hopefully more fact based – conversation is happening worldwide as the leaders of other countries watch and wait just as curiously and anxiously for the results of the United States’ election, in order to assess its potential ramifications on diplomatic ties.

Last Thursday I had the honor of attending the Tower Center for Political Studies’ event, “A Conversation with His Excellency, Yousef Al Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates,” co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Dallas-Forth Worth and the Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations. Attending this event was especially close to my heart as I was born in Dubai and my parents have recently decided to move back to the UAE after many years of expatriate life. It was a pleasure being part of a dialogue between two countries that mean so much to my family and me.

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Ambassador Al Otaiba of UAE with Former-Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Jordan (PC: SMU Tower Center for Political Studies)

We listened closely, surrounded by the beautiful paintings of the Jones Great Hall at the Meadows Museum, as Ambassador Al Otaiba detailed the top three issues he hopes the next presidential administration will keep in mind for their diplomacy with the Middle East.

Ambassador Al Otaiba pressed that Iran should be held accountable for their nuclear weapons and regional aggression, since Iranian leaders are actively strengthening their ballistic missile program. The Ambassador urged that the United States must step in as “we cannot ignore Hezbollah just because ISIS” has temporarily stolen the spotlight. Al Otaiba calls for intensifying sanctions against Iran in the collective interest of US-UAE trade.

His second key point was that the UAE and US should redouble their joint efforts to deal with extremists. He repeatedly stressed that Washington D.C’s policymakers must realize that the United Arab Emirates is far from free-riding America’s efforts to stabilize the situation: rather, “we are the front-line.” The Ambassador praised that “military cooperation between the US and UAE has never been stronger” and referred to their militaries’ successful joint exercises and airstrikes in Syria and Yemen. He noted that ISIS has lost a third of the territories the Islamic State had captured at its height in 2014, and also stated that ISIS’ recruiting activity on Twitter has plummeted in the past two years.

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Mid speech (PC: SMU Tower Center for Political Studies)

Finally, and arguably most importantly, Ambassador Al Otaiba stated that trust was the single most important factor to the UAE in their diplomatic relationship with the United States. Fortifying relationships with traditional allies in the Middle East will be advantageous to the US as it works with allies to defeat ISIS, restore stability to the region, and maintain profitable economic deals as the “UAE is the economic engine of the Middle East” and oftentimes serves as the region’s “connection to Europe, America, and Asia.” Indeed the UAE has been voted as the #1 place young people want their countries’ to emulate in terms of tolerance, social life, and opportunities for youth.

His Excellency’s talk ended with a message that “hope and inspiration is the key counter to terrorism and extremism,” to resounding applause before transitioning into an interesting Q&A session of pre-selected questions moderated by the former U.S Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now the SMU Tower Center’s Diplomat-in-Residence, Robert Jordan.

Questions ranged from Al Otaiba’s opinion of the JASTA Bill, Syrian situation and refugees, Iranian aggression, OPEC’s waning power, and peacemaking with Israel. The Ambassador’s frank answers made this one of the most interesting parts to what was already a delightful evening – did I mention there was a delicious array of wines and cheeses?

In an effort to let you jump to what interests you most I’m going to break down my narrative to a Q&A style:

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Yours Truly with His Excellency, Yousef al Otaiba of UAE (PC: Matthew Reitz)

What was your reaction to the JASTA Bill?

“JASTA violates the international law of Sovereign Immunity, which has been established since the Treaty of Westphalia” in 1648. If anything it exposes the United States to more harm than any other country for things like drone strikes, covert operations in countries that U.S has not declared war in…and other things like that. But, you have to understand that the people on Capitol Hill could not vote against the JASTA Bill in an election year due to emotions.” However, clouding politics with emotions and putting bills like JASTA into effect renders the opposite message of the trust that was the theme of my speech. What sort of message do you send to your friends by doing things like this? It makes us not want to invest in America.

What is your reaction to President Obama’s statement that the Middle East should “share the neighborhood” with Iran?

I strongly disagree. It’s hard to see how traditional US allies can be expected to so do with Iran, a nation that has been repeatedly aggressive against peace in the region and on the American terror list.

What role do you see museums playing in the US-UAE ties?

I can give a 100 speeches and it won’t have the impact of an American audience attending an opera at Carnegie Hall written by an Emirati. Think of the museums of the world: the Louvre, the Met…nothing comes to mind in the Middle East. To illustrate this point, the Ambassador narrated an anecdote that some years ago His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan of UAE said, “I don’t want a Formula 1 Race: I want the world to see that we can put on a Formula 1 Race.” We want the next big museum to be in the UAE. We want the United Arab Emirates to be seen as a financial and cultural center of the world.

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PC: SMU Tower Center for Political Studies

OPEC?

Oil from the UAE goes eastwards to Japan, China, Korea, and India…not the United States. OPEC was at the top of its game in the 1980s, we’re seeing its influence waning today as other energy sources have risen in other countries. There’s nothing anyone can do about private American shale oil producers; it’s not nationalized the way it is in many countries and so all we can do is wait till that market balances itself out.

Regarding the Syrian Crisis & Refugees?

“We waited too long on Syria.” Pretending it was going to get okay by itself was the worst decision we made and ignoring the problem only made it more expensive to fix. The UAE has taken in 140,000 refugees, but we have a policy that expresses that we cannot call them refugees. Instead we’ve included them in the workforce and so call them “workers” as such. The UAE has already committed to taking in 15,000 more Syrian refugees, so I’d say we’re doing our part. In regards to the question of what more could we do for the refugees, I’d say to bear in mind the fact that UAE nationals only make up 10% of the current population of the UAE. “If U.S demographics looked like that, what do you think the American policy on taking in refugees would be?”

How can the United States project strength without arrogance?

It’s about taking a leap, calling out the play, and telling everyone his or her role. We live in a world that still looks up to the United States when a crisis happens or when two nations cannot come to terms with each other. All we ask is that you don’t impose your will. A diplomatic partnership is a relationship just like any another: respect the other person’s wishes as well.

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Extra warm fuzzies if you can spot me in the audience (PC: Tower Center of Political Studies)

Embraced between the flags of the United States and the United Arab Emirates, His Excellency Yousef al Otaiba closed the event with a return to his primary point of trust: “the next president of the United States, and the next one and after that, for that matter, need to understand one thing about dealing with the Middle East: our regimes in the Middle East are going to be around for a long time – much longer than any presidential term – and what matters to them is trust and loyalty. We can’t work with you when you want us to work on things that are important to you when you don’t want to take what we want into consideration. We want to work together with the United States in a reciprocal relationship.”

The audience rose to its feet in resounding applause for the ambassador, commenting in post-talk mingling on his open responses on some challenging questions and approachable demeanor as some of us went to shake hands or – if you’re a shutterbug like me – to take a photograph with the obliging diplomat. As the staff cleared away the champagne glasses and diplomatic entourages were escorted to their cars outside the Meadows Museum of Arts, I walked into the warm October Dallas night air past the illuminated metal skull sculpture wondering what interesting political conversations this artwork might have listened to over the years and changing conflicts.

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Meadows Museum (PC: Meadows Museum of Art)

Author: Nikita Taimni

A Dubai-based blogger, I write about travel, theatre and lifestyle in the cities I explore around the world. Follow me on Instagram @nikitalyfe and follow via email if you enjoy reading my posts!

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