Current key issues on the UAE foreign policy agenda. Interview with dr. Anwar Gargash

Current key issues on the UAE foreign policy agenda. Interview with dr. Anwar Gargash
Dr Anwar Gargash

In an  interview in Grand Millennium Hotel Al Wahda in Abu Dhabi, during a press conference  occasioned by the 41th anniversary of the UAE National Day, Dr Anwar Gargash, minister of state with the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presented the current main issues on the foreign policy agenda of the UAE.

Made available as exclusivity for www.  by courtesy of Marcela Ganea ,  local representative  of the Emirati press agency in Bucharest.

Dr Gargash began his presentation of the UAE foreign policy by emphasizing the subtle changes in the mentality of the UAE which influence as well the UAE foreign policy. Among all GCC countries , the UAE and its incredible development during the last years reflect the realistic and pragmatic approach of the UAE  leaders who take decisions by thinking always of the consequences of their deeds and make efforts to ensure the sustainability of their  progress.

I think the world may see sometimes only the façade of our country” said Dr Gargash,  “ and many think of the UAE as being the country with the tallest towers, the largest mall and so on but  they are omitting the fundamental changes undergone by the country.  Among which, the 95% literacy and over 75 years old life expectancy as a result of the diet and health care, and very comprehensive programs of education. Regarding women empowerment, the UAE has a number of women that surpass the number of males in the federal government while the number of female graduates exceeds three times the number of male graduates. Generally, we are trying a progressive, modern look at our society. “The UAE does not claim to be democratic in the tradition of liberal democracy because this is not our historical or cultural experience but we do have a progressive outlook, we realise that we have to modernisses and to expand institutions, the rule of law. To face the future, we need more than an economic program and growth , but we need an overall approach”, stressed Dr Gargash.

Dr Gargash mentioned that the UAE foreign policy agenda includes issues that are major for the UAE but also for today’s world as the UAE is highly connected to the world.

About the Arab Spring, Dr Gargash said that “ It is not easy to read the Arab Spring straight away. You need many years to understand the depth of these events in order to draw conclusions. In modern Arab history, what we are witnessing currently is unprecedented. But it is too early to say how it will affect society or if it is positive or negative and we cannot simplify”.

Dr Gargash  thinks that “The Arab Spring can be seen in 3 stages: first, the idealistic phase where young people seeking freedom, using social media, realising that they are living in a stagnant regime that is unable to ensure them with greater participation and opportunities. But when the test of free politics came, the idealist phase ended and the political parties took over and started to control these countries. And in many cases, these parties did not necessarily had the same values as the youth  and there were no real prospects for real change because unfortunately many parties had strong social views but no economic views. This is the big challenge. It is what we are currently seeing in Egypt, a country with strong traditional, social values. Phase 3 will follow and this will mean looking into the future. Political parties will come and rule and they will be judged. The democratic process is young in this region. Unfortunately, we do not see consensus, and political parties are just ideological , and they don’t do great things, they just stay in power and they create a façade of democracy but no necessarily the progress”.

 “To understand the Arab world”, explained Dr Gargash, , “we must realise that we have the same language and the same culture. Of course, with different development as nation states and with certain localism. However, we read the same columnists, the same writers, and we all watch Al Jazeera”.

 Dr Gargash said that  the UAE is operating in an interesting  international environment and has to prioritize the issues in the foreign policy agenda.

One of the major issue is Iran’s nuclear file”, said Dr Gargash, “because this is a global issue, not local. We are concerned about this because the decisions are not our national decisions but taken in Washington, Tehran, perhaps in Tel Aviv and the repercussions will affect us. The worst case scenario will be an Israeli attack and this will be a disaster and it would affect us aversively.  On the other hand, we must say that over the last 30 years, Iran has been very interventionist in foreign policy. We are facing a difficult period and we are in a conundrum. If Iran succeeds in having a military program, it will affect us aversively. Iran acts sometimes like a state and other times like a revolution. Acting like a state, it means  respect for the laws of international relations.  But acting like a revolution, it means trying to create centres of influence in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq…etc and this is a big issue. When Iran is a state, it is easy to deal with, when it is a revolution, it is difficult to deal with.  But we are not the only country that has difficulties with Iran and these difficulties are not with Iran as a state because with Iran as a state, we a good relation: well delimited borders, a shared oil platform, etc”.  Dr Gargash emphasized that “each country has its right to acquire peaceful, nuclear capability but in Iran’s case, if the IAEA, the watchdog, is not convinced, I am worried”.  The UAE itself started its peaceful nuclear program about 2 years ago in its attempt to depend less and less on oil and to turn to other forms of energy.

About the issue of the three islands, Dr Gargash said that “the first speech of the UAE about these islands was on 9th of December 1971 when the UAE was admitted in the United Nations and the UAE stated what has been stated ever since: we want to solve this issue peacefully, through international laws, and if this is not possible, let us go to international arbitration. As a small state, we rely on international law because this ensures our security. During the Iran – Iraq war which lasted for 8 years, we did not interfere and we asked all the time to solve the problem through negotiation. I can tell you that we tried to solve it peacefully: about an year and a half ago, Iran proposed us to discuss the issue and we agreed and we prepared ourselves for one year, we designated the leaders of the negotiation teams, both from the UAE and from Iran, and we informed the Arab League and the GCC. Suddenly, the Iranian president decided to go and visit the islands and declared that these were Iranian islands and no force on earth was going to change it. The Iranian negotiation team told us that they learned about the president’s visit from their own press and they had not been aware of that intention. So, we gave up the negotiations because we thought they were not serious”.

To clarify, Dr Gargash said that “the relation can be described as a  mature relation, which means: We agree on some issues and disagree on other issues. Iran is part of our geography, history and strategic space. For many years, there have been migrations and counter-migrations between the Arabs in the Gulf and Iran. There are hundreds of flights every month between the UAE and Iran. Iran is a big trading partner. So, we seek no confrontation with Iran”.

Another big issue for the UAE foreign policy is Al Qaeda and Jihadism”, said Dr Gargash,  “because we have seen our religion hijacked over the last 10-15 years by fundamentalists and we have seen the results: instability in Pakistan, which is a close neighbour, in Iraq after the fall of Sadam Hussein, the deviation of the revolution in Syria, in many ways, and the attempt to create zones of instability in Yemen or Somalia.  We have seen our children brainwashed. That is why the UAE focuses on education and we try to counter these destabilizing attempts; for instance, the UAE are part of the ISAF in Somalia since 2003, we are present in Yemen .. because we know that in these countries the Jihadists are trying to build safe havens for training”.

Another key issue for the UAE agenda”, explained Dr Gargash, “is the peace and two-state solution between the Arabs and Israel. Interestingly, 6 months ago you could have said that the Israelis were happy to have their country secured and that the Palestinians were divided and could not agree , that Hamas was on one track and the Palestinian Authority on another, and suddenly we can see this new option in Gaza. However, the two-state solution is difficult to find because, on the ground, when you try to enforce it, you notice that the landscape has changed completely, with huge Israeli settlements built on the border. However, we cannot expect the current government to do that because it is too ideological. The Israelis recognized the realities but they don’t want to give up the land and by doing that, they increase the problem.  Palestinians, through Hamas and Jihadists, shoot 300 dollars missiles that are intercepted by Israeli 15,000 dollars missiles. So, this issue must be addressed through the two-state solution. The world agrees on this, so there are only some minor details left but it requires the political will. The Israelis reproach the Palestinians that they shoot with missiles, and the Palestinians reply they have no choice because the Israeli closed their area. Israel should realize that the landscape is changing. Two years ago, Hamas would have had no friends. But today, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey sent their ministers to Gaza….so Israel is realizing that they have to settle this issue. If they choose the one-state solution, one day somebody may come and challenge the Jewishness of this state”.

Dr Gargash  explained that the UAE foreign policy does not cover only the Arab countries but the world and the UAE are interested in their economy and politics. He mentioned the interest of the UAE in countries located mainly to the East:  “India is a big partner for us and we work very hard in engaging India. And as you may know, it is extremely difficult to engage India. Sometimes, India has a better approach to the greater powers in many ways but we are making efforts to engage it, starting with economy, from company to company.  India is consumed also by its internal politics. Pakistan is also a great friend, and regardless of who runs Pakistan, it will remain a great friend of the UAE. We also have a developing relationship with Russia. We don’t see eye to eye with Russia on the current issue of Syria but Russia is an extremely important country. Diplomacy means to explain what your view is even if you don’t agree on an issue.

Our approach is to look East and especially Far East, historically – China, Korea, Japan, but other countries that are rising: Malaysia, Indonesia. We all agree that developing relationships with these countries is important but the question is How. We are in the position to do that because, as a result of the economic policies we have invested in over the last 40 years, we have become a hub for the Far East. We have 30,000-40,000 Chinese living in the UAE because they see us as a hub in the Middle East and the region.

 Australia is also a relationship we invested in very heavily. It is 14 hour flight from here but we think it is a relationship that is mutually beneficial. We have the 5th largest Australian community in the world. Trade is increasing with Australia and we have 1,300 UAE students  in Australia”.

 Dr Gargash  emphasized that “If you look at geography in developing relationships, you’ll never develop!” and  “Due to modern communication, geography is not  a detriment!

The foreign policy agenda of the UAE includes all continents.  “We reached East Africa and we have an excellent relationship”, said Dr Gargash  . “Also with South America – we have 2 daily flights  to Brazil. Last year, we had 30,000 Brazilian tourists coming to the UAE”.

Dr Gargash mentioned that two major principles in the UAE approach are stability and trustworthiness:  “This is what we are trying to do: to create stability, to have a progressive outlook, and to open. We always believe that we should not restrict the money going out of the UAE because it comes back. We also believe that integrity is a major value for a nation in order to capitalize during your life so that people could trust you”.

 Regarding the criticism that the UAE usually faces, Dr Gargash explained that there are usually 3 main fields where the UAE receive criticism: human rights, gender equality and issues that are related to the Muslim nature of the country, such as the death penalty.

I think the UAE has positive experiences in human rights because the UAE is a young country.  Labour receives criticism usually but I think it will receive for the following 30 years because labour is a field that needs improving all the time, if you improve now, in a few years it will look outdated. I can tell you a funny story: 2 years ago, the UAE presented its Labour Report in Geneva. The countries that are blue collar labour exporters to the UAE, such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, told us: Thank you very much, UAE, for what you have done, but you still have to do more progress in that or that. The countries that criticized us actually were not aware of the actual situation, for instance Chile, which has no labour force here, and they were very critical of us.

Another issue is the gender equality. But I honestly think that those who criticize us do it out of ignorance and they do not really understand the progress that happened here in the UAE and in Arab countries because a major shift took place , without a fuss and without questioning if , for instance, women should be allowed to drive or to be engineers. Mentality has changed, from the 1970s’fathers who were concerned about their daughters working to today’s fathers who ask that their daughters be posted abroad in embassies and consulates.

The third criticism we receive is because of aspects that pertain to our Muslim society, like the death penalty and the political rights.

About the death penalty I can tell you that we are using it very rarely and after close analysis of the case, for instance, last time it was 10 years ago, so I can assure you we have good guarantees. As Muslim societies develop and we integrate more and more human rights, there will be however still standards that cannot be taken over and implemented here because you cannot change a Muslin society according to other societies.

About political rights, I can tell you that we are not a multi-party liberal democracy. We have seen in many Arab countries that they created several political parties and the result was that they are now broken down and they fight. Egypt may be an exception because it is an old civilization and we may not see this division, like we see in Iraq. Our intention is to improve our governance, to create greater political participation, we have a free media and we can definitely say that we have acceptable rules. You have to judge us within the region we are located in, because we have difficult neighbours, we are living in a changing environment and we sometimes deal with chaos and instability around us”.

Dr Gargash also expressed opinions about other regions across the world.

Regarding the unstable situation in Pakistan, Dr Gargash stated that “we are not sure what sort of Pakistan will emerge after 2014. The solution depends on issues related to security, to the economic development and to the political approach to the problem. We are working with our allies to support the transition. It is very important for Pakistan to emerge from struggle after 2014. Any improvement in Pakistan will be positive in that region”.

Regarding the difficult situation in Afghanistan, Dr Gargash said that “the UAE has been involved in Afghanistan, with other Muslim countries like Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain, although we are a small country, but unfortunately this has not brought peace and stability. There have been some achievements but at very high costs. In order to move forward, Afghanistan should involve its neighbors, and especially Pakistan. A political reconciliation should take place”.

Another problem for the international stage is Libya and Dr Gargash draws attention upon that “one major problem is the amount of weapons, unaccounted for, going into Libya, that can create other regional problems. We have seen this in Mali already”. However, this is not a top priority on the UAE agenda and Dr Gargash thinks that “other countries can play a better role in this problem, like Algeria and other countries in the region, but the UAE are of course supportive of the efforts”.

The wisdom and the strategic visions of the UAE  foreign policy seems to have a positive outcome indeed. The UAE is number one in facilitating trade in the Middle East and North Africa region, and number five in the world in the “Trading Across Borders” category, according to the latest World Bank Doing Business Report 2013.

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