BARNARD: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Anwar Mohammed Gargash. I’m Anne Barnard. I’m the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations this year and I’ll be presiding over the discussion today.
Mr. Gargash is a longtime fixture of governance in the Emirates, and he is currently a Cabinet member—minister of state for foreign affairs—and he serves in many other roles in addition to the ministerial positions: chairman of the National Elections Committee, and many other roles. And we’re really lucky to have him here today.
GARGASH: Thank you much.
BARNARD: Welcome. I thought maybe we’ll start with the very big picture. Right now, of course, is a time fraught with risks and possibilities for the region and particularly for the Emirates. In the rubble of the Arab revolts, we see the Gulf monarchies left standing.
We see maybe what had been a rival for the role of small country batting above its weight in the region, Qatar having been sidelined. We have a newly assertive Saudi leadership, for which the Emirates is more than a consigliere—perhaps the indispensable ally.
Of course, on the other hand, this means that the Emirates can end up owning many things in the region that are controversial, especially the Yemen war, and I think, more broadly, across the region we’re seeing authoritarianism, illiberalism, military solutions becoming the primary attempt to bring back stability after the revolt.
So how does this picture square with the Emirates’ longstanding strategy of being a beacon of—attempting to be a beacon of modernity in the region?
GARGASH: Well, again, I thank you very much. It’s an opportunity to be here and to speak here in New York. You know, when I was thinking of—you know, sort of organizing my thoughts, I thought that I’ll start by taking stock of the major issues. But I also want to address also an issue which is on everybody’s minds, which is Yemen, head on as well as the Iranian issue and some other pressing subjects here.
I think, overall, the region, in our assessment, is going to be—to continue to be very difficult in the coming year or two—in a sense, things that we’ve learned about, you know, the last decade. One of them is the area is much more capable of doing evolution than doing revolution. I think that’s the first thing that we say.
The breakdown of ancient countries—and we’ve seen that in Iraq and we’ve seen that in Syria, and we’ve seen it also in countries that always had a problem being a nation-state such as Libya, of trying to form some sort of government, et cetera.
So from that perspective, it’s going to be a very difficult period and, on the other hand, from our perspective, stability and evolution is an important thing. It doesn’t mean it’s a return, basically, to pre-Arab Spring days where there’s no forward movement, but it means that we have to rethink many of the societies in our region.
Countries are either new entities or the polity is quite green, so to speak—it’s not formed—and, at the same time, we do have a problem also, which is, basically, that many Middle Eastern countries are a mosaic of ethnicities and sects and cultures, et cetera, and to sort of, you know, shatter that with a revolution, with a sort of political Islamist narrative, is something that will actually lead to grave, grave repercussions, as we have seen with the Christians in Iraq and as we are seeing with other minorities, et cetera.
So going back—very difficult period—and, at the same time, which will continue—and at the same time—at the same time also a need to emphasize stability. That’s our view, and sometimes we are perhaps being described as arch conservatives. But that’s how we see the situation in the region.
Now, having said that, we also realize that this is a very different world. To expect that we will actually get the sort of commitment that George Bush the first exercised and, you know, he cobbled together an alliance to liberate Kuwait, that was something from the past. There was a different international system. This current international system is very different. Alliances are important, but you’ve got to also do a lot of the burden sharing yourself.
And I think this leads me to Yemen, and Yemen has also been, I have to admit, a very, very difficult task for us. But let us look at Yemen—and I read Kristof’s op-ed today on Yemen—but let us look at the situation here.
I think, first of all, we were faced with a challenge that would have created a new geostrategic reality in Yemen. We would have had, within the next ten years, a southern Hezbollah being built up by Iran with thirty-, forty-, fifty-thousand capable militia supported by Iran, and this is not something that we would consider lightly.
As a result, we also understood that the old rules of getting the United States or others engaged in confronting Iran in Yemen have changed. The world is changing. The American role is still important, but it is still—it’s a different world, and from that perspective, it was very important that we intervene in Yemen to defeat the Houthi militia supported by Iran.
Having said that, the intervention was not haphazard. It wasn’t trigger happy. It took us six months of trying to get the Houthis to a negotiating table at various intervals. But, clearly, they were intent on changing the status quo and they were—from day one, really, they started putting all sorts of, you know, missiles on the Saudi border, showing very clearly what their intention was.
I think that is the first part of the dimension. Since we were in Yemen, we also thought that this is also a time to break the backbone of one of the most dangerous terrorist organization the world knows, which is AQAP. We were there. We understood that. Before the rise of ISIS, AQAP was the big, big threat here.
So we are, really, confronting two different enemies there. One enemy is an enemy that we are worried will become Hezbollah II, and the other enemy is an enemy that is AQAP in the south, which has been, you know, a scrooge for, you know, international, you know, peace and stability for a long time.
That’s the first component. The second component in Yemen is political. We realize that whatever we are doing in Yemen today will not endure, wherein, will not be a military victory or a military operation. But we have to change some of the landscape to ensure that the Yemeni parties come to the table.
And I think it is, you know, an example where the U.N. has worked for six months to set up a beginning of Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations after a two-year break and, you know, right—twenty-four hours before the meeting the Houthis decide not to show up. So six months of effort and work goes down the drain and, at the same time, the crisis continues.
Now, of course, the humanitarian angle—first of all, unfortunately, with every war there are mistakes that are made. There is suffering that is part and parcel of a military conflict. We see that—we saw that in Afghanistan. We saw that in Iraq. We are seeing that on a horrendous scale in Syria, and Yemen also has its own humanitarian perspective here, and this is where we are really getting hit with regards to reputational damage, et cetera.
But let us really be quite, you know, neutral in this, if one can actually be neutral on issues of humanitarian concern. We are leading a military campaign but, in parallel, we are actually—us and the Saudis and others—have put about fourteen (billion dollars), $15 billion only on humanitarian effort in the last few years.
We are now on—in our current operation on Hudaydah we’ve taken certain pledges. We said we will keep the port open, and now three months with the operations taking place, the port is actually open. Ships are coming. They are unloading humanitarian goods. I’m not going to say it’s a perfect situation. But we have kept our promise there. We have kept our promise of not going into the city with street-to-street fighting because that’s what the Houthis want. They want sort of CNN, you know, live coverage of coalition forces fighting house to house.
We, of course, make mistakes in the world, and there have been mistakes. We have put together a deconfliction system that the U.N. itself admits is working well. The U.N., of course, on the humanitarian side wants to play a part—wants things to be perfect, and in a war it’s very difficult to have things perfect.
The only—you know, while we continue to Band-Aid, you know, the humanitarian situation and try to resolve issues here and there, the core way to get out in Yemen is really a political solution and what we need to achieve a political solution is to get the Houthis on the table. This political solution is U.N.-led. We are very supportive of it, and I think this is the only way out.
So the faster that we actually get, you know, the Yemeni parties and we get the Houthis to be serious about these discussions, the faster we will get out of the current tragedy that we are seeing. We deserve some of the criticism but we don’t deserve all of the criticism, and I think, in many ways, there—what we are seeing it is always easier to blame governments rather than nongovernment entities.
So the Houthis get thirty percent of the blame, if at all, and we get about seventy percent of the blame. And the article today, I think, that I saw in the New York Times in the opinion there’s one sentence about the Houthis which says, you know, all parties have done their, you know, share of mistakes, et cetera—to that effect.
So, clearly, Yemen is our big test. But Yemen also is borne out of a new international system, an international system where countries in the region have to face up to the challenges. We can’t also not—you know, we can’t not take responsibility and allow what happened in 1985 to happen in Yemen. ’85, you know, Hezbollah started as a very, you know, rudimentary force, and because nobody took action, Hezbollah today is a formidable, formidable challenge to stability in the region. It’s an Iranian proxy that Iran can use in Lebanese context vis-à-vis Israel, in Syria, and, increasingly, we are also seeing Hezbollah operatives coming to Yemen, training, you know, Houthi militias on the use of drones, on the use of Iranian missiles, and so on and so forth.
So the humanitarian part, of course, is something that we have to be sympathetic with, and we admit me made mistakes and we continue to make mistakes. We—but we also try and put systems in place to address these mistakes. And, for us, you have to remember this is the first major regional war without a major superpower presence, in many ways.
So, in reality, you know, for us this is a formidable, formidable challenge where we understand that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and I think this is an important component.
BARNARD: This is a dramatic increase, of course, in the UAE’s regional footprint—taking part in such an operation—and while it’s true that there is a great focus on the actions of Emirati and Saudi governments, there’s a reason for that. Governments bear a greater responsibility than nonstate actors, especially when they’re acting outside of their own territory, to explain what they’re doing and to take responsibility.
So just the things that the Emirates definitely do own, for instance, can you talk a little bit more about the allegations about torture and prisons run by Emirati-allied troops in south Yemen, the complaints from some of the Hadi government that UAE’s footprint has become a bit heavy there, some likening it to an occupation? Just can you speak a little more specifically about things that are under Emirati control?
GARGASH: Definitely. Definitely. I think it is—in many ways, we’ve had, you know, our agreements and disagreements with the Hadi government. One of our major disagreements is that the burn—the brunt of the fighting is actually done by the Emiratis and by many other, you know, militias that we have trained to—who are mostly southern militias. So—
BARNARD: Are there other countries that are contributing ground forces other than the Emiratis?
GARGASH: No. No. No. No. I mean, as part of the coalition you have other countries. But on the Hudaydah—
BARNARD: On the ground?
GARGASH: —on the Hudaydah scene, it’s mostly Yemeni, some coalition forces, et cetera. So, clearly, you know, the—you know, we’ve had sort of a challenging relationship with the Yemeni government in many ways. We’ve had periods of cooperation and periods also where we feel they need to do more. They need to be more effective in managing areas that have been liberated, for example.
It’s not our job to run the sewage system. It’s not our job to run the school system, et cetera, and I think part of our frustration is that our major partner here has not been effective in running many of the things that a military can’t run. So I think this is one of the frustrations. And the whole issue also of the—of the—of the prison accusations, again, I think this is something that we are, again, examining in detail because many of these allegations are hearsay, really.
Many of them are connected with early days of liberating the south and incarcerating some al-Qaida elements, for example. Many of them are because Yemen is a very complicated place where innuendo is a major, major weapon between parties and tribes and others.
So, clearly, it hasn’t been easy, and I’m saying that because, again, for Arab countries, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or the UAE, we find ourself in a different situation—a situation where we see a major regional challenge but we see an international order that says leave it to the region—let the region deal with it. And, clearly, you know, the—despite all the challenges, the other alternative is very bleak.
Do we turn our, you know, heads away from what’s going on and then expect, you know, a reincarnation of Hassan Nasrullah and his group in Yemen on our borders and then do we actually—you have to remember, I mean, when the Houthis took over Sana’a, the first decision that came out—there were two major, major, you know, decisions.
The first one was to ensure that there is a daily flight from Tehran to Sana’a. I mean, there’s hardly any traffic there. You know, you can’t sell so many Persian carpets, for example, to Sana’a. And I think the second thing that was really worrying is also statements in Tehran that there is a major strategic shift in the region. We now control four Arab capitals, these being Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana’a.
This is something that we are seeing in our region. If we don’t take action to confront Iran’s nefarious activity and geostrategic challenge, nobody else will do it. So we are, as I said, between a rock and a hard place—between trying to ensure a region that is Arab, a region that is independent of Iranian influence, and between also having to deal with the—you know, the difficulties and tribulations of a major war as we are seeing in Yemen.
BARNARD: How do you square the need to or the goal of isolating Qatar with the goal of isolating Iran, speaking of Iran?
GARGASH: Well, Qatar—
BARNARD: Are you getting pressure from the United States, maybe, to move on from the Qatar—
GARGASH: No. No. I think everybody has moved on from the issue of Qatar. I think, you know, my advice to the Qataris is save your money—don’t pay any PR firms or lawyers, because there is no interest, to be honest. I think enough has been said. It’s like—it’s like a bad divorce where both parties have said what they have to say, and we have to move on.
I mean, Qatar has chosen to remain a supporter of radical groups and to use its massive gas wealth to support this. Good for it. Let it move ahead, and, you know, we have other concerns, et cetera. Qatar knows that if it wants to reconcile in the Gulf it has to address its support for jihadist Islamist groups. It has to address its support for what I would call instability in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and my own country.
They know what to do and I don’t think we are really spending a lot of time on this. I think if you see the strategy that they have embarked on since their crisis, it’s basically coming into a cul-de-sac—lots of high-paid lawyers and PR firms, and so on and so forth, but very little interest in the issue itself.
I think, you know, both parties have made their—you know, their minds about what to do and our minds are very set that this is a subject where we try to convince Qatar to address our concerns. If Qatar is not willing to address our concerns, then adios. You know, you go your way and we go our way.
BARNARD: We have just maybe one more question from me before we go to our members here and in the teleconference. So let’s return to one of the original things I mentioned. What is the way forward for people in the region, after the Arab revolts, to seek ways to have real benefit of citizenship, real dignity, real influence on their own government’s responsiveness, and accountability from their governments? If you’re saying it’s time to go slow—it’s time to evolve—not have revolutions, what is that public space in which people can—
BARNARD: —take action and get response? How do you mean, concretely, in a region where—
GARGASH: Evolution. Let me—let me—let me—let me—
BARNARD: —there are crackdowns on free speech in the country?
GARGASH: Let me—let me—let me—let me comment and outline what I think.
First of all, several Arab countries today have what looks like a democratic system, whether you see it in Iraq, whether you see it in Lebanon, or whether you see it in Tunisia. But in many ways, it really camouflages deep problematic issues within societies themselves. I don’t think—
BARNARD: And lack of institutions.
GARGASH: Yeah, and I don’t think—I don’t think any Arab comes today and says—you know, Arab who’s twenty-five, graduated, and says, I want to be another Iraq, you know, or I want to be another Lebanon. So I think the idea that we have to be a, you know, copy and paste of, let’s say, Denmark or Norway is ridiculous, I would say.
But I think there are many things that we need to do. I think we—if you look at my own country, for example, I’m not going to come and say we’re democratic because that’s not part of our legacy and it’s not part of our history. But there is a very high level of governance. There is big trust in our legal institutions. There is, you know, a huge role for women and I consider our biggest success in a conservative country such as the UAE the enablement of women is really our unsung success, really. That is our big success.
So we have to, actually—in evolution, evolution doesn’t mean you have to stand still. It’s not like the Bourbons when Louis XVIII came back and they said he learned nothing and forgot nothing. No, it’s not like that. It really is about not stilted republics, as we saw in various Arab countries. It’s about moving forward.
Now, moving forward, clearly, doesn’t mean, you know, parroting a Western system in terms of elections and parties, et cetera, and ending up really with what we are seeing in Iraq today, which is each party camouflaging, you know, a sect or parts of a sect or whatever. I think the way forward for many Arab societies is not to move slow, and the way forward is not also to stand still.
The way forward is a combination of open markets, of governance, of a legal system that everybody understands that they can trust and can actually secure them. Many Arab countries today are basically looking for a day-to-day job—many Arab young people. And look at them. I mean, for the last seven, eight years there’s a poll that’s been done—I think it’s an Ipsos poll—and this poll, every year for the last seven years, asks Arab youth from all over the Arab world, where would you like to live and work, and every year the UAE is number one and the United States is number three. So, clearly, you have many of these Arabs saying, I want to be normal—this is normal to me.
But I think sometimes there is a messianic view in many Western capitals which they want us to look exactly like a Western example. I mean, there are things that fit us and there are things that don’t fit us. But, definitely, our call is not for standing still and not for moving slow, and I think the UAE shows clearly that we are not moving slow.
You can argue against us on whether we—why we don’t have political parties and elections and so on and so forth, and we are organizing various elections for our national—federal national council and trying to sort of bolster also its role.
But we’re also very, very wary that everywhere where, you know, the—you know, that sort of parliamentary system has been applied lock, stock, and barrel it has really camouflaged a very tribal or sectarian or regional schisms within society. So, clearly, there are things that we will do that you will like and there are things that we will do that you won’t like.
BARNARD: Thank you very much.
We’re going to move on to asking all of you to—
GARGASH: Can I say something about Iran—
BARNARD: Oh, of course. Why not?
GARGASH: —I think that’s important? OK. I think—
BARNARD: Go on.
GARGASH: On Iran, I think that—you know, the natural thing with Iran is to actually have a normal relationship with Iran where, you know, I can just get, you know, a ticket online, go to Isfahan and see some of the—you know, the beauty of the—and culture of Isfahan, and then have, like, a huge plate of fries with kabob on it and buy a Persian carpet and some of the—
BARNARD: Sounds good.
GARGASH: —Iranian pomegranate and fly back, you know. That’s the natural state of things. But, unfortunately, what we have seen in the last four decades is an Iran that is not at peace with itself and not at peace with its region and definitely not at peace with the world. And I think Iran is emblematic of when you try a religion to run a country, because a religion really, you know, can’t run a country and I think, clearly, this is what we’ve seen in Iran.
So the other part, of course, is Iran has been a huge failure in terms of diversifying the economy. I mean, I look at Iran the size of Turkey. I look at it as the size of Egypt. But Iran has not been able to diversify. You know, it’s a shame when you have a country like the UAE, which is small compared to Iran, and has a larger economy than Iran and more diversified than Iran and, clearly, there is a failure in managing the internal, social, and economic conditions in Iran.
I mean, you look at Iranians abroad and they are, you know, some of the most gifted people who integrate very easily, and they are doctors you know and they are academics that you know, and they are actors and businessmen, et cetera, and I think it’s a shame when you try and bring sort of, I don’t know, fourteenth-century or twelfth-century system, and tries and superimpose it on a modern culture—a modern society with a rich culture.
Now, having said that, the way out for many of the mullahs is to try and show some success outside of their country. So they have been—they have been very successful in building Hezbollah. They have been very successful in influencing events in Iraq, and we can see the Iranian influence in the sort of trade bazaar that is taking place in Baldat (ph) today. And we can see that also in them attempting to do the same in Yemen and other parties.
It is interesting because they have very little to show internally. So what are they really pretending? But I think things have come now to the point where Iranians have demonstrated, and these demonstrations are not political. These demonstrations because people are fed up with their standard of living, and they’re saying no more Russia, no more Syria; concentrate on Iran.
So people are saying, stop spending the five (billion dollars), $6 billion that you are spending every year in Syria and spend that money on Iran itself, on our economy, on our, you know, very young population—on a population that wants to be normal. And you see in many Iranian clips during these demonstrations, you know—middle-aged women, you know, say it very bluntly. They say, you know, we’re an oil country—all we want is to have a standard of living as the Arabs have in the southern part of the Gulf. This is what they keep saying. So, clearly, there is a major problem here.
Now, from our perspective, we wish them well internally. Any day that they decide to concentrate more on their economy and society is a good day for us because it means there is less money going to Hamas and Hezbollah, and for the war in Syria, et cetera.
But we are also looking at where we’re going right now. We are supportive of the current policy of containment and sanctions because we feel that the Europeans are concerned about Iran but they’re not willing to do anything. So these concerns are quiet concerns where we’re all—they’re all saying yes, yes, we agree with these concerns—we agree with—that Iran’s ballistic missile program is a problem—we agree that Iran’s, you know, aggressive policies in the region are a problem, but we disagree with the method of addressing this. That’s what they say.
But, in reality, they did need this sort of wake-up bell. And, in reality, since the signing of the JCPOA in the last three years we have seen a more emboldened Iran. We have seen an Iran that is more involved in Syria, with thousands of men fighting in Syria. We are seeing an Iran that is counseling President Assad not to negotiate because there is a chance of you winning this war.
We are seeing an Iran that is closely creating a border with Israel and trying to create a corridor with Hezbollah, and we’re seeing Iran that is more apt at sending their missiles to Hezbollah and to Houthis in Yemen and still claiming, you know, fully that this is a defensive program.
So the way I see it is the pressure is needed right now. But beyond the pressure, Iran, I think, is counting on a couple of things. I think the first thing that the Iranians are counting on is to drive a wedge between the European position and the American position, and I feel that this is not going to work because Europe and the United States have a much more important relationship than Iran and Europe.
But I think beyond that, I’m seeing some positive, you know, signs. I heard it from the French foreign minister, Le Drian, recently—we heard the—some comments from Brian Hook—that, really, after, you know, sort of turning the—you know, the screws on Iran has to come to a negotiation and this negotiation has to address three issues of concern.
Number-one issue of concern is extra guarantees on Iran’s nuclear program, because, again, we don’t trust the beast. It’s not the technology. We just don’t trust the Iranians here with that technology—what will they do ten years down the road, or whatever.
I think the second thing is to address its missile program because, clearly, a hundred missiles were shot by the Houthis at Saudi cities and towns and infrastructure—civilian infrastructure—and all these are Iranian.
And the third is Iran’s internal—aggressive policies in our region. This discussion has to take place and this discussion—Iran is reluctant to come to the table for it. But we do need a format that is international and Arab from the region because, again, I think one of the failures of the JCPOA is it had no regional voice. We were not there. We were not there, and I think this was a failure of the JCPOA.
So, clearly, we have to learn from that. We hope—we hope that Iran will act more like a state and less as an ideological sectarian revolution, and I think this is what we are doing. So I expect that it’ll be a difficult year. But this is something that should have been said and should have been done for us to try and attempt at getting more security and stability for the long term.
BARNARD: I’d love to have you address what role you think Russia has to play with regard to Iran and tempering its ambitions in the region.
But let’s go to the members. We actually don’t have that many questions from the teleconference. I think there may be something else on TV in Washington that is distracting people. So let’s ask our members here in the room.
Q: Sir, the Trump—Michael Gordon, Wall Street Journal.
Sir, the Trump administration and even the Obama administration before it has sort of formed a burden sharing with the Gulf States for Syria, both for the cost and sometimes even for the stabilization mission itself. Now, the UAE has pledged $50 million, but President Trump was seeking billions from the Gulf States, literally, and at times they even wondered if some of the Gulf States could contribute forces for stabilization, not to fight ISIS.
Given your involvement in Yemen, is this the limit of what the United States can expect from the UAE and the Gulf partners in Syria in terms of stabilization? What more might you be able to do?
GARGASH: Definitely. Definitely. We are—you know, we’re a big believer in burden sharing and we don’t say that as words. I mean, we came to a conclusion a long time ago that a relationship as important with the United States is a two-way street—it’s not a one-way street—and we’ve done that since Afghanistan. So we were involved in Afghanistan. We were there for eleven years. Our forces were in Bagram and Kandahar.
They saw active fighting and our presence was important because we were the first Muslim country in Afghanistan, and that was important because, symbolically, it defeated al-Qaida assertions that this is a crusade against Islam. So when you add the Muslim force fighting in Afghanistan, we have—we don’t have a huge military but twenty thousand of our boys served in Afghanistan—twenty thousand—and these people served over eleven years.
So burden sharing, let me take that a step further. We were there in Kosovo, also not fighting but peacekeeping there. We worked on Somalia. We were part of the alliance in Libya. So we’ve come to that conclusion long time ago that if you expect your big ally to help you, you’ve got also to contribute and be also—be able to put your kids where you expect your allies are putting their kids, and this has been the UAE’s, you know, basically, guiding lights with burden sharing.
Again, when there was talk about a force against ISIS in Syria, we said that we are willing to put boots on the ground, but it has to be America-led. That was the thing that we were saying there. It has to be anti-terrorist. We did not want to get into the whole Syrian quagmire here. It has to be anti-terrorist and it has to be America-led.
But we also indicated we are coming back now to support the effort of the international community and the United States and Afghanistan. We had our pilots being one of the largest contingent against ISIS in the beginning of the war against ISIS. So burden sharing, we are there. We contribute. We were asked for this sort of money to support in—against ISIS in stabilization of eastern Syria. We put that money there.
This is a fundamental part of our policy. The fundamental part is the—you know, sort of checkbook diplomacy of allies doesn’t work anymore. You have to put your military—you have to put your boys in the line of fire if need be because you expect that from your other allies, and I think for that, on a military level, we have a lot of respect that we have gained over our ability to do this.
So we understand the world is changing and we understand also and we have equipped our military over the years—over the last seventeen, eighteen years to understand that. So everybody—every commander today who is a commander on the ground in our military today is usually in his early forties and has seen combat somewhere.
So we have a military that is not only there for parades but a military that has played a role in burden sharing with allies in counterterrorism activity in Somalia, in Yemen, in other places, and we will continue to consider that a guiding light for us because that’s the only way to maintain an alliance and to maintain the importance of that alliance in a very changing world.
Q: Sir, just to finish, are you willing to send more forces—to send some forces and more money to eastern Syria?
GARGASH: Again, I think this is—as I said, I mean, we have never said no to a request by our allies because we also depend on them for our security. So we have to show that we are there for them when they need that support for where they need that burden sharing. And the other thing that we’re working very hard on is we also understand our limitation as a medium-sized country in the region.
So, clearly, for us, working on what I call a moderate Arab camp—that includes Egypt, that includes Jordan and Saudi Arabia and others—is very essential. And from this point of view, we’re very positive about the latest plans, you know, that are—(inaudible)—et cetera.
BARNARD: Anyone else in the room? Yes, in the back. Sorry. Let me just remind everyone that this session is on the record, and when you speak please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it and introduce yourself. Thanks.
Q: Thank you for your time. Joel Mentor, City College.
I’d like you to talk about the challenges and opportunities that you’re facing as you seek to deepen your ties with China, especially taking into account certain contextual factors like the U.S.-China trade tensions and also potentially competing drive to deepen investment ties and political ties with Japan.
GARGASH: OK. Yeah. I think in today’s world, this is not a unipolar world. So we have to recognize that. We have traditional friends and allies, foremost the United States and Western Europe. But, at the same time, we have—we sell all our oil, for example, to the Far East. All our oil goes there, and China is one of our biggest trading partners. We’re actually one of China’s biggest trading partner(s) in the region.
So I would say that it is natural that we cultivate our relationship with China. It is mostly what I would call an economic and trading relationship. But, again, I think over the next ten years China will be more and more political in our region. I don’t see it yet very political in our region. I see China very political from Pakistan eastward and less political from Pakistan westward.
But that’s not going to continue as the Chinese are able to develop that, and you see signals of that in terms of their activity in the Red Sea, their presence in Djibouti, their, you know, One Belt, One Road policy. So I expect that China’s political role will grow here. We’re also very cognizant, currently, of course, of tension in U.S.-China relations and, like many other countries, we’re trying to sort of find our ways because we have—you know, our cardinal and most important relationship remains in Washington.
So, clearly, part of our also approach is to make sure that our region, the Middle East, is relevant to Washington, because we always look at Washington’s role as positive and important for the stability of the region, and for the region’s also what I would call—which is very much in the UAE’s DNA—for the region’s also economic approach, which is competitive, and open market, and this and that.
Having said that, we also have an important relationship with South Korea—trading—and South Korea also has the strategic relationship with us through our peaceful nuclear program that we’re building, which the South Koreans are building, and we have also a trading relationship with a Japan that is usually reluctant in playing a political role.
A major part of that is trying to have refineries in the Far East because that’s where we sell our oil. A major part of it is our role as a logistic hub for the region. So we do a lot of the Korean and Chinese business with Africa through our ports, through our free zones, through our airlines. Part and parcel of the UAE’s success as an, you know, an economic, let’s say, dynamo in the region is that logistic hub that we have created over forty years of airlines, ports, free zones, warehousing, and so on and so forth.
So, clearly, that is also attractive from their perspective. You have to see that this is not only us looking at China being important and attractive but China and Japan and others looking at the region and saying, where is the hub that I can do more of my business and more of my expansion towards Africa and Central Asia, and usually the stable country with the financial system, with the logistic hub, is the UAE and it’s easy to do business, and I think this is what’s happening right now.
BARNARD: Marcia Biggs.
Q: Hi. Marcia Biggs, PBS NewsHour.
I understand—I just want to follow up one of the questions about the UAE’s footprint in Yemen. I understand that there were talks that developed after an interview with the interior minister in which he described a situation akin to occupation where he has no control over the ports, no control over the prisons, and I’m just wondering what is the status of those talks and what is the plan—what is the end game for handing over back some of that sovereignty, especially to the secret prisons.
GARGASH: Well, if the interior minister of Yemen today was at the Kavanaugh hearing, I think people will not find him a reliable witness because he’s actually said—he’s said—he’s had four statements and two statements say one thing and the other two say another thing. So he has said things where we don’t have control over what the UAE is doing in Yemen and then he has statements where he’s said, of course we do, but this was taken out of context. Then he said the thing, again—we don’t have control—and then he came back and said the same thing.
But I think the important question is what is the way out in Yemen, really, and I had—I had a meeting with Martin Griffith a few days ago in our mission and, really, the meeting is Martin, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, is trying to pick up the pieces, really. I mean, after the Houthis, basically, did not show up and sort of undermined six months of his work, he’s coming back and talking to everybody because I think without a political plan we have a problem in Yemen because what will happen is the conflict will continue.
Yemenis will still squabble about what they want to see in their future. The humanitarian challenge is going to continue. So we need to actually agree on a political plan and put it somewhere there, and the political plan is, first of all, to get them together on the table. The Yemeni government showed up and waited. The Houthis didn’t show up. So this time, the U.N. envoy wants to make sure that the militia will actually attend this process. We need a way out. The way out is a political plan that the Yemenis have to hammer.
As far as we are concerned, we are not really the determinants of what shape Yemen should take. We are concerned that any future Yemeni state does not have, you know, the sort of Iranian influence that is exercised in other areas. We’re concerned about ballistic missiles and we’re concerned about al-Qaida. If we get these guarantees that a future state will address these issues, the Yemenis will actually determine what sort of future they want, what sort of, you know, historical—what sort of route they want to take.
Now, the UAE didn’t just wake up and discover Yemen. We’ve been one of the biggest supporters of Yemen since 1971 and our, you know, historical data in terms of investment and help and support, Yemen tops the chart. So that will continue. That will continue, but they will have to decide.
Right now, I think our biggest challenge is to pick up the pieces after the debacle in Geneva, and after picking up these pieces, move on and ensure that the Yemeni parties are there. Once you have these talks taking place, then everybody realizes that guns, et cetera, have to be silenced because the talks are taking place.
So right now, you can clearly see that the rebels are still not in talking mode. They are still worried about entering a political process and they just didn’t show up. So that’s how I see it.
Q: I’m talking about areas of the south that were taken back from the Houthis in 2015.
Q: What’s your plan for—
Q: —for sharing sovereignty or giving back sovereignty to the Yemeni government?
GARGASH: No. I think—I think, again, these are being run by the Yemeni government. We are supporting there. No, we are supporting there. But we also see a high level of inefficacy in running things. I mean, we don’t really want our troops to run schools. We can’t. We can’t run municipalities. We can’t do these things.
But, again, I think central—central to the issue, again, like any conflict and—you know, any conflict, whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, others, has so many complications, and dealing with these complications can’t be piecemeal. It has to go through the main political process. If that political plan is there for peace, stability also will come with it and we need to support that.
But, you know, it doesn’t really help to come and say, will the UAE really come and cede control over Mukalla because Mukalla is now being run, you know, by their—by local entities and it should go to the Yemeni government. I mean, this is quite, you know, as I said, a very unstable situation right now and addressing these details doesn’t really solve the problem. We have to concentrate on the major political solution, which is U.N.-led, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
BARNARD: There’s a related question from Washington, D.C., from Eric J. Pelofsky from Shell Oil Company, which is focusing on President Hadi, who you’re—whose government you’re working with. What is their willingness to negotiate a nonmilitary solution and, particularly, a national unity government that would include the Houthis?
GARGASH: Well, the—
BARNARD: Is that something that the Houthis can realistically come to the table expecting as a—as a goal and do you see the political future of southern Yemen fitting into that overall political solution?
GARGASH: Well, the Yemeni government showed up in Geneva. The foreign minister of Yemen was there. He waited for the other party to come, and I think this shows willingness, you know. I mean, again, they have to negotiate. There are milestones in the Yemeni crisis—U.N. resolutions, Yemeni dialogue that has reached certain conclusions. All these can be, you know, thrown under a bus and said, you know, they don’t make a difference. I would say that the government of Yemen has shown good faith at every single instance and I think that we shouldn’t really doubt their sincerity. We should really doubt the people who didn’t show up.
BARNARD: Let’s go to Mr. Odeh, and then we have a couple more from the remote meetings.
BARNARD: Go ahead.
Q: Welcome to New York.
GARGASH: Thank you.
Q: We haven’t talked about—
BARNARD: Can you introduce yourself, please?
Q: Yeah. Odeh Aburdene, Capital Trust Group.
I want to talk about the Horn of Africa.
BARNARD: I don’t think the mic’s working.
Q: Can you hear me?
Q: I’d like to hear from you your strategy in the Horn of Africa. The UAE has been active in reconciling Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti.
BARNARD: He’s asking about the UAE’s strategy in the Horn of Africa.
GARGASH: The Horn of Africa. I think, to start with—to start with—our interest in Somalia was twofold. Number one is we felt that somebody had to do something with al-Shabaab. You know, again, you know, if you look at our military, our military always says, you know, we fought these guys in Afghanistan and we’re seeing the same guys in Somalia, for example, or in Syria, and we can’t come and cooperate with them in Syria or Somalia and we fought with them in Afghanistan—it’s the same al-Qaida.
So, clearly, our strategy was driven by two elements and this is why we were involved. And we were involved in the darkest hours of Somali disintegration, really. So our strategy was to build capability of the Somali government against the Shabaab and we were really the only Arab country for two decades engaged in Somalia and supporting that capability.
Again, that comes from a sort of ideological view that we have that Islam, our religion, is being hijacked by a small militant radical minority and we should not accept this, and if we don’t stand up to it, this will be an accepted mainstream narrative and this is not—should never be the case.
So, clearly, our involvement was that and our involvement also partly due strategically from an understanding that what happens in the Horn of Africa impacts our region. Through that and through many years, we established a relationship with Ethiopia and others. In our operation in Yemen, we did not have amphibious capabilities in the start of the operation and especially in liberating Aden.
So we established a footprint with the agreement of the Eritrean government in Assab. That also led to perhaps a rapport with Ethiopia and with Eritrea, et cetera. We noticed at some stage that there was genuine desire in Eritrea and with the previous prime minister of Ethiopia, Desalegn, and later with Abiy Ahmed, to sort of resolve the issue between them and Ethiopia.
So we were one of the good officers, but the intention of both parties was there. You know, the Eritrean government wanted to really resolve that. The Ethiopian government understood that being landlocked, with about a hundred million population, that relationship is important in many way(s) and you have to open Ethiopia to many ports, et cetera, to service a landlocked country.
We played a role there. I don’t want to exaggerate that role. That role was the role of somebody bringing two friends closer and closer to the table, but the intention of the friends was already there. So I think that is our intention. So, clearly, that is really, you know, a very, you know, I would say, short and perhaps incomplete summary of what we have done.
BARNARD: We just have two more minutes. So we’ll take a very quick question from Washington again. This is from Missy Ryan—The Washington Post. Can you give us details of the renewed Emirati military mission in Afghanistan? How many troops will be there, what will they be doing, and will they be taking part in battlefield operations in support of the Afghans, who we know are—
GARGASH: Again, I don’t really have the details. I know that we are supporting the effort. We are sending some troops there. I know that a large part of our mission as proscribed will be training and so on and so forth. But I don’t really have the details on that. But we’ll be happy to provide it through our embassy in Washington to the lady who asked the question.
BARNARD: Great. Can we take another quick one from the room? One last one? Here we go. Let’s keep it tight.
Q: Thank you. Akshaya Kumar with Human Rights Watch.
And I just wanted to follow up on an issue that you said you were examining closely, which is the allegations of torture and mistreatment of individuals who are held in secret prisons in the Emirates. You said these allegations are mostly hearsay, but at Human Rights Watch we have had—
GARGASH: In Yemen, you mean. In Yemen.
Q: In Yemen, yes. We have documented them. Would you be willing to take that information? And could you also comment on the sentencing of Ahmed Mansoor for a decade in prison for tweeting his opinion and exercising his right to freedom of expression?
GARGASH: Well, again, thank you for Human Rights for—Human Rights Watch for raising these things. I think the first thing, we feel that a lot of the reporting and the documentation on secret prisons in Yemen is incomplete and we are really looking at it because we understand the reputational damage that it has, and we are going to address it. And if you see also the report of the experts on Yemen which actually brought this about, there was hardly any evidence. There was a lot of hearsay there. But we will address that because that is, I think, important for us.
With regards to various cases in the UAE about arrests—and there are several cases here—some of them have to do with our anti-terrorism law. But in the case of Ahmed Mansoor, it is something to do with our publishing laws, and this is the law of the land. These are the things that we have. You know, he had a lawyer. We had the court. We had—we have a law on publishing and this was the sentence there. We have to respect our national laws on that.
BARNARD: I think we’ve come to the end of our time. But thank you very much for everyone for coming and see you again soon.
GARGASH: Thank you. (Applause.)
BARNARD: Thank you, Dr. Gargash.
GARGASH: Thank you. (Applause.)