Transcript: A Conversation with H.E. Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs

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H.E. Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs

Introduced by:

Stephen J. Hadley, Former U.S. National Security Advisor; Executive Vice Chair, Atlantic Council; Principal, RiceHadleyGates LLC

Moderated by:

Kirsten Fontenrose, Director, Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, Atlantic Council

Also Participating:

General (Ret.) James L. Jones, Jr., Executive Chairman Emeritus, Atlantic Council; Former National Security Advisor to the President of the United States; Founder, Jones Group International

STEPHEN J. HADLEY: Good morning and thank you for joining us for this fifteenth edition of the Atlantic Council Front Page–the Council’s premier live ideas platform for global leaders. During this extended period of global uncertainty in the era of COVID-19, Atlantic Council Front Page has enabled the Atlantic Council community to grow closer and larger as we advance the global conversation about the most significant challenges facing our world today. 

Over the last few months, we’ve been hearing from a diverse array of extraordinary leaders before impressive global audiences on this platform – including Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other global leaders. Next week we hope you will join us for a conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Secretary Pompeo will be just back from Central and Eastern Europe and will reflect on his trip and how European nations are awakening to the challenges China poses for them.

Today we feature His Excellency Dr. Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs of the United Arab Emirates, in conversation with the Atlantic Council’s own Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

One week ago today, the UAE released a joint statement along with the United States and Israel announcing that the UAE would become the first Persian Gulf state to normalized relations with and recognize the state of Israel. This deal is historic for many reasons, not least because of the incredible amount of opportunity for business, scientific, and human exchange and cooperation between the UAE and Israel. But it will also be felt across the Middle East.

In my view, this initiative is to be applauded and celebrated. It is probably the most strategic development in the Middle East in recent memory and has the potential to unlock peace, prosperity, and security for the whole region. It is truly historic.

And there are few people better positioned to talk about these issues than Dr. Anwar Gargash, who has served as minister of state for foreign affairs for the UAE since 2008. While the UAE is a small country geographically, it plays an outsized role on the regional and international stage, truly punching above its weight. And this is in no small measure due to the skill and vision of our guest today.

Kirsten will talk to Dr. Gargash about the UAE’s hopes and expectations for this new chapter in the country’s foreign policy and at this important moment – for his country, for Israel, and for the United States.

So thank you all for joining us for this important discussion with Dr. Gargash. I encourage all of you to join the discussion by either using the Q&A function on Zoom or by tweeting your questions by using the hashtag #ACFrontPage.

And now I would like to introduce Kirsten Fontenrose as moderator of today’s program. Kirsten is an experienced Middle East hand in public service, having come to the Atlantic Council last year after spending twenty years working national security in the Middle East and Africa from positions within the US Department of State, Department of Defense, the White House, private industry, and the non-profit sector.

Most recently she served as senior director for Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council. She is currently director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, which she leads along with Will Wechsler as part of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

So Kirsten, over to you.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Thank you so much, Steve, and Dr. Gargash, it is wonderful to see you, as always. Welcome to the virtual Front Page.

Let’s dive right into the recent announcement of the Abraham Accord, still grabbing the headlines. And as we begin, let me remind those of you pulling up seats for this intimate conversation that you can join the discussion, as Steve mentioned, by either using the Q&A function on Zoom or by sending your questions to Twitter at #ACFrontPage.

So Dr. Gargash, the deal between the UAE and Israel, as Steve mentioned, is historic. It will impact Arab-Israeli relations at large. It will contribute to shaping US engagement in the region. It will alter Iran’s outlook on its neighbors, and it could potentially lead to advances in technical sectors like health, agriculture, technology, entrepreneurship.

So let’s start with this scene setter. The development of the accord was kept very close hold in each of the three capitals involved in the planning, but now that it has been announced, can you share with us how this deal evolved? Did the idea originate in the UAE, in Israel, or in the US? How did it happen, and why did it happen now in this particular moment?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, Kirsten, it’s great to be here, see you all – Steve and Fred and everybody.

I think the – you know, I mean, I can speak about UAE part here, and I would say that, you know, we have seen, I would say, two parallel developments, and underpinning them a belief, really, that the region does need a strategic breakthrough. The two parallel developments were – the first, of course, is the development of the relationship with Israel. So the development of the relationship with Israel has been informal, and started, you know, the days where you would have then a public relations issue because a certain tennis player has been denied a visa, et cetera, and sort of developed. And then you started seeing a firm UAE policy emerge. And that firm UAE policy was that if something is in the interest of the UAE, we will pursue it. And under that firm policy, you know, we started – and it was a more nonpolitical policy, really. So we started basically by, you know, going for big conventions, and without basically saying no Israelis are allowed to do this and that.

And then, of course, we went into the big test of hosting IRENA, which is the sustainable energy organization. And, you know, we had to compete with Germany, and Denmark. And it was clear that in order for us to have a fighting chance, we should accept that Israel will actually be – will be able to have a delegation, and a presence, and so on and so forth. And we continue to do that. And then you have the export decision of inviting Israel to buy export.

So as these things develop, I would say that it was only natural that we would look into normalizing relationship. And it was going to happen. It was going to happen this year. It was going to happen next year or the year after. It was a matter of time. And I think the UAE’s not the only country. There’s several countries that are on the scale in different stages. Now, in parallel, why did it happen this year? I think in parallel to that there has been serious concerns with the issue of annexation. And the UAE went overboard, really, as part of the Arab League. Other than the usual statements, UAE was one of the early Gulf states, really, to come with a firm rejection of the issue of annexation and concern about it.

And then, you know, Youssef had this remarkable op-ed in the Israeli press and these things sort of developed. And I think part of the thinking in all three capitals were, can we actually connect the two? Can we actually connect the two? And I was speaking to European ambassador just an hour ago. And I said, you know, can we actually connect the two, and give and take? Take something, which is annexation, and give normalization? And rightly he said: Well, the way we look at it it’s really give and give, because for us normalization is also a positive thing, not the same way we look at it through an Arab context. So I would say that these things sort of developed. And many people played an important role here. From our part Youssef Al Otaiba certainly, and then of course a team here in Abu Dhabi, with Sheikh Abdullah as its head, played an important part.

Now, underpinning all that – it’s really important – underpinning all that is the strategic – the strategic view. I mean, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed has a strategic view. You can’t – you know, you could do things normally, every day, but you don’t get the big opportunities unless – unless you take a big risk. And here he felt that this was worth it, that we will have issues, but it is the right thing to do because it will open up the geostrategic space and it will open up also the opportunity space. Especially, as you know, the UAE is – you know, wants to reaffirm its global position – global position in terms of business, in terms of finance, in terms of logistics. And you can’t do this while maintaining a very sort of exclusivist view of the world. 

It was bound to happen. And, as I said, you know, it would have happened in 2021 or 2022. But we felt that tying this with the suspension of annexation will actually give us a good – you know, a good deal in many ways. Even in the Arab context, it will give us a good deal.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Let me dig in a bit to that strategic view on the part of the UAE that you mentioned. So historians point out that neither Egypt nor Jordan have suffered negative consequences as a result of their normalization agreements with Israel, but likewise neither has reaped overwhelming benefits, you know, outside the largess they receive in terms of U.S. security assistance and development, which is not really a factor for UAE. So when you and your colleagues in Abu Dhabi weighed the pros and cons of the agreement and thought about that strategic view, and that strategic vision, and the opportunities you were referring to, what were the most pressing needs in the UAE that this agreement is intended to address, or the most decisive benefits to the Emirates’ long-term strategic goals that it’s hoped this agreement will yield in the long term? You know, was this a pathway to purchase the American F-35 or a pathway to collaborate with Israel on your own F-35 competitor, for example? You know, what was really at the root of that thinking?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, again, you will have something that is important, but you sort of – it’s tangible, and then you have something that is important in terms of what – how things will open up.

I think the tangible thing was certainly the suspension of annexation. That’s the tangible thing. It’s a firm commitment by the Israeli government which gives you space for a two-state solution. And if you look, really, at the Arab peace initiative, the Arab peace initiative is really about a two-state solution. You know, peace for normalization, that’s also important. So from this, taking into account also that in the 18 years since the Arab peace initiatives the biggest threat to a two-state solution has been annexation. So I would say that’s the tangible.

Now, if you look beyond the tangible, definitely this will open opportunities. I mean, our economy is larger than the Israeli economy, so Israel has a lot of opportunities here. But on the other hand, Israel also has a critical advantage in certain areas that we feel we can benefit. And we’ve actually recently seen that very clearly in the fight against COVID, where the UAE has been very, very active in creating a very effective national response. So I would say that we will benefit from the sort of technological prowess of the Israelis in certain areas, and they will benefit also from the dynamic nature of the UAE’s economy.

Now, having said that, in my assessment this is going to be a warm peace because we really – unlike Jordan and unlike Egypt, we have not fought a war with Israel. So that is not really a factor here. It’s not part of the, let’s say, national psyche.

And on the other hand, with regards to the weapons system, et cetera, there’s been a lot of reports on the F-35s, et cetera. I mean, the F-35, the UAE is already – has indicated that it wants the F-35. I think the first time was six years ago, so this is something on the table. You know, we have legitimate requests that are there. We ought to get them. We ought to get them. And I think this is not – you know, this is – in my opinion, we ought to get them. And now the whole idea of, you know, a state of belligerency or war with Israel will no longer exist. So I think it should be, actually, more easier. But the F-35, as I said, is a request that we made six years ago. Many of our requests in terms of defense, et cetera, are requests that precede this deal. They are not connected to this deal.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: So you mentioned that, you know, Israel and the UAE have never fought a war, and that this request has been pending for six years. So what do you think the Israeli concern or fear is associated with the sale?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, I really don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know. I don’t know how much of it is domestic Israeli politics. It’s very difficult to follow domestic – (laughs) – Israeli politics. But what I know very clearly is the UAE has been, you know, very happy with its F-16s, and it’s time to upgrade them, and the F-35 has always been a target for the UAE’s defense requirements. And I think the whole idea of a belligerent state of affairs will no longer be there. But that, as I said, is really part of the consideration. It’s part of the vistas that the deal will open, but I see other vistas. I mean, I see areas in people-to-people movement. I see areas in tourism. I see areas where we will benefit from agricultural breakthroughs. But Israel also will tap into one of the Arab world’s most dynamic economies, really, and one of the most global economies in the Arab world. So it’s really a two-way street.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: And that makes perfect sense. Let me ask you to switch really quickly, and then we’ll circle back to the question of annexation. But briefly, you know, if there’s anything more confusing than Israeli politics, it’s American politics, and a quick question on that. The White House supports the sale, but realistically the technology-security review that we’ve talked about associated with a sale like this can take months, as you know. How would you convince a Biden administration or a Democratically-controlled Congress in the U.S. to support this transfer of cutting U.S. military technology?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, I think, first of all, let me say that we’re very encouraged with the – with the big bipartisan support for this deal. Now, you know, following Vice President Biden’s statement supporting the deal, really, it has not become an administration policy; it’s become an American policy. And I think that’s very positive, in my opinion.

And again, I think, you know, this is something we will have to work the system. We’ve worked the system before. We’ve been successful many times, less successful other times, but I think we understand how the system works.

But I think what is essential is to say that the UAE expects that its requirements will be – will be accepted. And we feel that with the signing of this peace treaty in the coming weeks or months – whatever it is, this discussion on timing – that any hurdle towards this should no longer be there. And I think this is our main argument.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: And, yeah, I think clarification of the accord will help with unblocking, you know, the obstacles to its implementation. And along those lines, the joint statement that you released with Israel and with the U.S. says that Israel will suspend annexation of the West Bank, though there’s debate now about whether or not this is a temporary or an enduring promise. What does the UAE understand this deal to mean with regard to annexation? How do you think the deal has changed the calculus for the Israeli government on this – on the issue of annexation?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Let me come back to the Trump administration’s proposal on this. You know, the Palestinians felt that it was very one-sided, and they had their reasons. And you know, we were – you know, our main message, along with various other countries with the Palestinians, is, was, and remains: negotiate/engage; don’t leave the negotiating table. Because clearly, the history of the conflict tells you several things.

Number one is effective change on the ground affects the political deal. What was available to the Arabs in 1948 became impossible in ’67. What was available in ’67 became impossible later on. So annexation was a real threat on the ground, and I think this was an essential, essential part.

You know, we don’t negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. The ones who will decide the final shape or whatever emerges – and we hope it’s a(n) independent Palestinian state – whatever emerges I think will be decided only by the Palestinians and the Israelis. The UAE saw an opportunity. It saw an opportunity because we’ve always been urged as Arab states by the Arab League, by the Palestinians, by everybody: Help us in stopping annexation. And then I remember, you know, night after night coming from Cairo back to the UAE with certain statement on the Palestinian issue and people asking me, as we going to see anything more than statements? And I think here the UAE clearly is delivering more than a statement. So it is actually delivering a clear promise of suspension of annexation.

We come to the issue of is this permanent or how long will it take. Now, if you ask me, you know, there is no timeframe in the wording that was chosen. We understand that this is a commitment that will give us time. But on the other hand, you need to urge and we all need to urge the Palestinians to engage. It is necessary for them to engage. But I don’t see this as in perpetuity, but I don’t see this also that it’s tactical and one that the Israeli government will renege on in a few months. I don’t really see that. So I think we have a good space here, a good period of time to avoid annexation. And as I said, this was critical in our thinking. The decision to mobilize relations with Israel was coming sooner or later. It was going to happen next year or the year after. But I think by seizing that opportunity, by linking it to the suspension of annexation, we came out with a good deal. And American administration played a major role in this.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Minister, you’re framing this as a win on the ground for the Palestinian cause, whereas the Palestinian leadership has condemned the agreement – saying they weren’t central to the planning for it, you know, that their interests weren’t really taken to heart. Why do you think the UAE is expected to take Palestinian interests into account when agreeing to something like this with another – with another country, for reasons outside of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or situation? You know, why should the UAE not just focus on the interests of the UAE in pursuing normalization? What has your conversation been with Palestinian leadership post this agreement?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, again, I think the first thing – it is, as you frame it, a sovereign UAE decision. You know, it’s a sovereign UAE decision. We could have just come and said: You know, what? We’re going to normalize our relationship with Israel. And we’re doing it for these reasons, and not take into account the issue of annexation. But I think also, throughout the years we’ve been committed to a two-state solution. We’ve been committed to the Palestinian, you know, urge, and Palestinian aspiration for an independent state – an independent, viable state. So we’ve been committed to this.

And I think as such, this is an opportunity that we saw. And I think if we had opened – you know, we did not discuss this deal, prior to the announcement, with any of our friends – none of them. No Arab country, nobody. Because we clearly thought that this will actually jeopardize the deal. And I think – imagine if we had opened up this conversation with the Palestinians? But I think on the other hand, we’ve also been urged by many capitals – many, many Arab and European capitals were looking – European capitals, mainly were looking really at some of the things we did. So they took into account the op-ed of Youssef in the Israeli press, and they were urging us – not urging us; I think everybody was urging everybody – what can you do? Is there anything we can do?

You know, we are basically in an issue where it will be very difficult to climb down after. So I think it was an opportunity that we took. It was a calculated risk. We did it for the right reasons. And I think, you know, overall I would say every important capital is basically – you know, is basically supportive. We do have some issues within the very polarized region with Iran, and Turkey, and some of the – you know, the Arab factions. But this polarization is reflective of a polarization before the announcement. There’s nothing new there. The lines are the same. There are no new lines that have been redrawn as a result of the UAE announcing that it will normalize relationships with Israel. The lines are the same, but there’s new ammunition, so to speak, to use in these – (laughs) – in these same arguments.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: In these conversations you mention with other capitals about why the UAE chose to do this right now and what the compelling reasons might be for, you know, other Gulf nations to follow suit. Do you think it would make sense – should these – should these other nations also ask – you know, make asks of Israel that advance the Palestinian case a bit in exchange for normalization? Or do you think that was just something the UAE was uniquely positioned to do? And we’ve seen that Saudi Arabia has sort of rejected normalization before a settlement with the Palestinians. What does this mean to the UAE, if anything?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, every country, I think, has its own sort of history, et cetera. I mean, we like to think of ourselves as a dynamic and, you know, Arab country that actually wants to break a lot of barriers, because we feel that an exclusivist view of the world through a purely Arab prism will not allow you to play, you know, up to your potential. So from that perspective, there are many – in my opinion, there are many, many barriers to be broken. You know, nobody ever thought that a Catholic pope will visit the Arabian Peninsula. And at the time, that decision of inviting the pope was seen as something that was very risky, that will be injurious to conservative Muslim views, et cetera. And, you know, we pulled one of the most spectacular visits of a Catholic pope.

And we feel we did the right thing. We took a risk, and we were criticized by the same group of – grouping, more or less, or countries that are critical of the what the UAE does and is doing. But that is also clear. We want to really come and see where can we actually have our stretch targets? Where can we actually open up the region and make the region more global? Now, this is a different decision, but inviting also the pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps from a Western perspective will not be the same. But from a regional perspective, this was considered a taboo. This is something you don’t do. So from that perspective I think the UAE is managing a successful development model here in the region. But we do feel that we cannot be also prisoners of rhetoric – very high rhetoric, and at the same time stagnation and inaction on the Palestinian issue.

And if we keep ourselves really in that little valley, prisoner between what we hear from some of the regional seats who are actually manipulating the sort of emotional side of the Palestinian issue, and also look at the inaction of decision making vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue, you know, we can’t be prisoner forever of that. We found an opportunity, we grabbed it, we feel that opportunity saves the two-state solution. And at the same time, we are going to carry on with the issue of normalization of the relationship with Israel.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Thank you. Touching on your point about stretch targets and opening the region, you know, part of Iran’s leverage in the region has been due to the fact that its adversaries were not united. Now that the picture is changing, do you think Iran’s calculus is changing? And then after you have a chance to address that, now that you’ve reached out to Israel might a new stretch target be Iran? Might it be time to do outreach to Iran?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, Kristen, I have three remarks here. I think the Iranian rhetoric and aggressive regional position over the years has made deals like this possible. I think that is important, by changing the sort of – sort of sentiment in the region. Because the Iranians, rather than reaching out to the region throughout all the years, have, you know, sort of not talked with the region, talked across the region, you know, with their own sort of view of themselves as the sort of regional center in many ways. But on the other hand, this deal is not about Iran. I’ve said this. I’ve, you know, put a Twitter there – out there. This is really about UAE. And it’s about the UAE and its prospects. It’s about supporting the two-state solution. And it’s about supporting the more moderate view vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli issue. It’s not about Iran.

But having said that, I’m very encouraged, for example, by statements by President Trump and Vice President Biden. Both of them see that in the coming period and post-election, whatever the result is, that dialogue with Iran is necessary. And we subscribe to that. We subscribe to it. We come and say we do have our serious issues with Iran, but at the same time we subscribe to de-escalation and dialogue. And we’re very, very, I would say, supportive from both the statements of the president and the vice president. So this is the way we are looking at it. This is not about creating some sort of front against Iran. But we want to see that also Iran’s sort of rhetoric – bellicose rhetoric, and its aggressive policies has not really allowed many of the countries around it to have confidence in Tehran’s views to the region, its aims, et cetera. But this is not about Iran.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Let’s turn now to a question for you from General Jim Jones, the Atlantic Council’s executive chairman emeritus. General Jones, can I turn the microphone to you for a moment?

GENERAL JAMES L. JONES, JR.: Thank you very much. Minister, it’s great to see you. I look forward to seeing you in person again as soon as possible. But congratulations on this historic achievement, and everyone is very excited about it with regard to its potential.

This is probably a question that is ahead of its time, but I would imagine that a strategic plan for the implementation of the accord is being drafted or perhaps has been drafted. But I was wondering if you could give us a little bit more insight into the sectors of both societies that would be closest to implementing the potential of this accord. You touched on tourism and things like that, but is there a priority that you have in mind where the dividends of this accord can come into reality much quicker than certain others?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, as you said, I mean, there’s a lot to do because this is – you know, you announce that you will begin a relationship, but we have nothing on the ground. We have no agreements. We have no best practices. We have no consular acceptance of one’s attestations, you know. A simple thing like a marriage certificate – we wouldn’t know what to do it if an Israeli couple come here. And so, you know, you have to do a lot of these what I would call mundane issues that are important to every relationship.

But I would say that I’m sure that the Israelis have their priorities. I’m talking here about the practical priorities in their relationship with us. But in my opinion, you know, the fields that we are looking at as priority – and I’m sure you know the private sector will look at its own priorities – but I would say we are very much interested in agribusiness, agriculture, food security – that’s an area that we’re very much interested. We’re very much interested in medical, especially certain areas that Israel has done very well with, and even things like telemedicine can start very early, even as you build, you know, the necessary, you know, arrangements and so on and forth.

And we’re also – I would say also we’re very interested in whatever to do with technology in many areas. These are some of the short list of areas but, you know, you need also to build what is practical in a relationship between countries, which is, for example, banking facilities; for example, logistical facilities for you to ship back and forth. And beyond that, of course, is the travel of individuals going and coming. 

So there are a lot of areas and, as you said, we are actually looking at a lot of the groundwork, and it’s quite a process because there’s a lot to do.

GENERAL JAMES L. JONES, JR.: Thank you, Minister, and I look forward to seeing you.


KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Thank you so much, General Jones.

And Dr. Gargash, we’re getting questions now from our audience, and I’d like to pose a few of these to you if you will indulge us.

One is coming – it’s a question, again, on the F-35 issue, and it’s coming in from several media representatives who are joining us today. And they are asking whether or not the F-35 deal was actually part of the discussion and part of the plan with Israel, or whether this was just part of the UAE’s discussion with the United States, or whether it was simply kind of an implied expectation. And then they are also wondering whether a formal case has been opened in terms of – the FMS case has been opened with the State Department and Defense Department yet or whether that is still pending.

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, again, I don’t have all the details on this because I cover more of the political side. But I know that all our requirements are well-known to, you know, the – to the Americans. All our requirements are not new requirements – our defense requirements, including the F-35, which has been there for six years now since we first approached the administration on the F-35.

Again, I’m speaking more on the political side, and I – you know, I say that we expect that these requirements will go through. We feel that, you know, the last – you know, if the issue of a state of belligerency or a state of war with Israel is there, it’s no longer there as we move forward, other than of course our very close relationship with the United States.

I think from another also political perspective here, you know, we expect that – because of this three-way agreement and peace treaty with Israel, we expect also that our strategic relationship with the United States, which is our most important relationship, will actually – you know, will actually develop much further, will open up more. And not only on the military side, but I think that the idea that you have another Arab country, a dynamic economy with normal relations with Israel, will, I think, change also the view of many American companies that their dealing with us is not only transactional, but more strategic, and so on and so forth.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Speaking of the strategic piece you mentioned there, we have questions coming in about whether or not the UAE is going to take a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian discussion now that you’ve exhibited on the ground that you can sort of impact and shape that discussion. We saw other countries like Jordan and Egypt and Morocco in the past try to move the needle without so much success. You know, do you – do you feel like this is a precursor to a much more active role? Do you intend for the UAE to be more involved in that conversation or in the search for peace?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, yes and no. I mean, if we see opportunities such as this one, I think we will take those – if we see opportunities such as this one. But I think in many ways you have to see that this is – you know, this is something where our main contribution is to urge the Palestinians to engage. They are the ones who really can come and give a yes or a no to a solution and to move this forward. But if the UAE identifies, you know, basically a potential gain, an advantage as we saw this time, and we – we will take the risk and we will take the heat in those cases.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Great. We’ve got two big geopolitical issue questions coming in. One is from Ambassador Doug Silliman, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait and president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. And he’s asking, how will the UAE manage and balance its relationship between Israel and Iran?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, again, I mean, hopefully – hopefully, you know – hopefully, Iran – you know, again, Iran is a neighbor, and it is important for us to say two things in parallel: that we do have serious issues with Iran, but also on the other hand we want to resolve these issues through negotiations and de-escalation and a win-win situation.

Now, to do that, that is our main strategic approach. Is it going to happen tomorrow? It’s not going to happen tomorrow. But I think it is in the interest – in our interest, first of all, to say that this deal is not targeted against Iran. It’s not because of Iran. Iran perhaps contributed to the general climate in the Arab world that made a deal with Israel more and more possible because of its own regional policy, but I think that this is the first part. Our long-term objective is to actually have a much better relationship with Iran, but in that case of course Iran has to also acknowledge that many of the regional policies of the past 15, 20 years has really created this friction not only with the UAE, but with many other countries in the Gulf, in the Arab world, and beyond. So I would say that this is very important.

I think one of the main – one of the answers to what the ambassador asked is to make sure – to make sure that the development of our relationship with Israel is not targeted against Iran. I think assuring that, making sure, and that it is an – it is an important strategic issue in and of itself, I think. That is what we are trying to see and do.

We will go through some turbulence on this issue, but I think, you know, I’m very encouraged, as I said before, by statements by President Trump and by Vice President Biden that there is a clear view that the coming period needs to see more negotiations with Iran and in order for us also to try and build a better understanding. Is this going to happen tomorrow? No. But again, if everybody understands that this is better for them, this is a better geopolitical space than the one that we are in, I think we’re all winners.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: I think Sultan Qaboos would be so happy to see this moment. (Laughs.)

We have a question from Bob Harward, you know, who’s the head of the largest U.S. defense company’s office there in the UAE and also a senior – retired senior military officer himself. So he asks, with the UAE being, you know, friend to all, enemy of none, but as the U.S. has articulated we’re involved in great-power competition – Russia, China – does this deal indicate in any way – does this signal that the UAE has made a clear decision to look west? What should China read in this, if anything?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Again, I mean, – I mean, we’ve always said that our main strategic partner is the United States. And you know, we’ve always felt that – you know, that that there will be some difficult times ahead because there is huge competition between our main strategic partner and our main commercial partner. And I think this is not unique to the UAE, but I think this is something that many other countries around the world are bracing themselves, to be honest.

But from that perspective, I think, you know, this announcement and deal does really signify a new gear in the UAE relationship with the United States. And we would like, also, to think so, and we would like to develop more and more I would say along strategic lines of technology and others.


We’ve got one final question that I’m going to focus on from the audience. We’re going to dive back into the weeds a bit and then we’ll come back out and close up because I know we’re encroaching on your time here. But Dov Zakheim, who’s on the Atlantic Council board – as undersecretary of defense, Dov Zakheim tried to get armed UAVs to the UAE, which was a close partner then as now, but was blocked from doing so, as I’m sure you’re aware. And we know – I mean, I worked on it in the White House and CTR regulations, trying to have those amended so that we could advance those sales based on kind of new understandings of thresholds of technology. And you’ve talked about the prospects for the F-35. Can you talk a bit about the status of where your conversations are about acquiring armed UAVs?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, again, I don’t have the specifics, unfortunately. But I’m saying that we are – we have several requests. All these request are not new. You know, the UAE’s assessment of its needs to modernize and upgrade its capabilities is an ongoing on. There’s no new requests on the UAE table. Every request that is there has been there for a while, including I would assume some of the drone requests. But I don’t have the details because I don’t really deal with that part.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE:: We are hearing from Israeli friends that they are putting money away for vacations in Dubai already. So you know, I think the final question is here – that’s left to ask is, where will the Emirati embassy be? Is it going to be in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: We are committed, you know, as part of the international consensus on the two-state solution, any embassy will be in Tel Aviv. So that is quite clear. I think that the whole idea of suspending annexation, giving space and opportunity for negotiations and a two-state solution, you know, is evident where our embassy will be.


Dr. Gargash, thank you so much for spending the time with me, with Steve Hadley, with the Atlantic Council, and with our illustrious audience of experts and leaders. We look forward to watching the Abraham Accord, one model for advancing both peace and innovation across the Middle East. So thank you so much for your time.


KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: If you have any final remarks for our audience or for us, any words of warning, any words of hope, we leave the floor to you as we close.

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, again, we’re – this is a bold step, a courageous step that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed considered. And he was basically – he understands this strategic landscape. He understands that there are risks entailed. But, again, this is one of those bold strategic decisions that have to be made. And they are the sort of decision that will open up the region further, will create its own cascade of opportunities – not only for the UAE but for the region. We’re very, very, you know, touched by the almost universal support for the decision from all these capitals. And, you know, we will continue on this path because the region actually deserves to get out of the current political stagnation that is really hindering its progress. And we hope that this will also help, from that perspective.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: So, should we expect to see a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and President Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands at any point?

MINISTER ANWAR GARGASH: Well, I know that there are some plans, but I think they are still being – you know, being considered. And I don’t know if it will be in the Rose Garden, or which garden. (Laughs.) But there will definitely, or hopefully, be a signing ceremony.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Dr. Gargash.


KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: And to the audience, please join us on Monday, August 24th at 9:00 a.m. for the next AC Front Page, following on this esteemed guest with Dr. Gargash, when we will be joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. You can visit the Atlantic Council’s website to register for the event. 

Many thanks and have a wonderful weekend. We’ll see you on Monday.


Image: UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash is seen during preparatory meeting for the GCC, Arab and Islamic summits in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Waleed Ali