WASHINGTON // The UAE will welcome Barack Obama's changes to US foreign policy, Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said at a conference. Dr Gargash urged the president-elect to involve the UAE if he were to resume diplomatic relations with Iran. He said the UAE's opinion needed to be sought before incentives were offered to Tehran.
He was speaking at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute, a Washington DC-based foreign policy foundation, on Thursday. Dr Gargash was there to accept an award for his work against human trafficking, but he spoke for about 30 minutes on a variety of foreign policy challenges awaiting Mr Obama, including brokering peace in Israel - which he said should be at the top of the new president's agenda - and withdrawing troops from Iraq.
His visit came four days after Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, met the outgoing president, George W Bush, at Camp David. Dr Gargash said it was "exhilarating to be here in Washington at this particular moment. It's a new season, new beginning, and they are always exciting in many ways. "I think we all are looking and trying to grasp subtle shifts in policy, and many other shifts that are less subtle, and to understand what the next four years are going to look like for the Middle East."
While Dr Gargash said he expected Mr Obama's government to bring a different "style" and "substance" to Middle East diplomacy, he also encouraged him to pursue a policy of "early engagement" in the region's growing number of hot spots: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Israel. "We live in a tough neighbourhood and the last few years have not been an easy period," he said. "I usually call the area a two- or three-conflict region but, by our own tough standard, currently it is a five- or six-conflict region."
Much of Dr Gargash's speech centred on Iran, with which Mr Obama has said he plans to reopen diplomatic lines. Dr Gargash said the UAE should have an important role in future talks. "We are neighbours, we share a waterway. Communication has been easy," he said, while acknowledging "some serious issues of divergence" between the UAE and Iran. Those include the land dispute over the islands of Abu Musa and the Lesser and Greater Tunbs, the UAE's disapproval of Iran's meddling in other countries, and concern over its nuclear programme.
"There is a fear that future incentives will be offered without taking our opinion into account and I think this is not the way forward," Dr Gargash said. Wendy Chamberlin, the Middle East Institute's president and former US ambassador to Pakistan, was present for the speech. She is a foreign policy adviser to Mr Obama. In his speech, Dr Gargash also advocated a collective Arab approach to ensure the sovereignty and stability of Iraq, and he urged other Arab nations to arrange top-level diplomatic visits there.
The UAE, he said, has opened an embassy in Baghdad and cancelled US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) of debt. Dr Gargash acknowledged the importance of US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and said the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should be a priority: "We feel success will bring substantial rewards to the region and early American commitment is essential to reach this goal." firstname.lastname@example.org