x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 November 2017

A cyber-attack on our ambassador is an assault on all of us

We will not abide those who promote the destabilisation of our state, writes Mohammed Fairouz.

Yousef Al Otaiba , the UAE Ambassador to the United States. Courtesy UAE Embassy
Yousef Al Otaiba , the UAE Ambassador to the United States. Courtesy UAE Embassy

I have watched Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, defend our national interests for many years. I have seen him spare no effort in deploying his razor-sharp intellect and deep sense of moral integrity in service of the Emirati people and the advancement of our foreign policy. He has done so without compromise. And so, following the hacking of his email account and the illegal theft of his correspondence earlier this month, I will not compromise in my defence of him. 

But we must all be crystal clear about the issue at hand here. The content of the emails is irrelevant and I will not comment on them except to say that they, unsurprisingly, reflect the interests of the UAE and our allies. Mr Al Otaiba conducts his diplomatic service in such a way that helps to ensure that 1.5m Emiratis are able to sleep at night with the security of a peaceful, developed and stable environment around them. 

Mr Al Otaiba is at the centre of the effort to ensure peace and prosperity. He reflects our interests and our values with distinction. And this is exactly why we must be clear-eyed in our response. Anything else constitutes a grave threat to our national security. So, let me state clearly: an attack on our ambassador must count as an attack on all Emiratis. An attack on our ambassador is an aggression against our national sovereignty. We will not tolerate the perpetrators of this cyber-terrorism. We will not abide those who promote the destabilisation of our state.  

When Mr Al Otaiba arrived in Washington to serve his nation, he was selected with the blessings of the Emirati people. The youthful representative of a young nation was barely 35 years old in 2008. The UAE itself was not much older. Our small and tight-knit national family exercised our participatory social norm of discussing and advising one another. The appointment to Washington, our closest ally, is the most consequential diplomatic station in the foreign service. Everyone discussed it seriously, including my parents, who served in the diplomatic corps for decades. 

Mr Al Otaiba would need to serve in a significantly less stable world. He’d need to take on unprecedented challenges on behalf of a nation that was not yet four decades old. The stakes were high. We remembered the words of Sheikh Zayed, our founding father: "Future generations will be living in a world that is very different from that to which we are accustomed. It is essential that we prepare ourselves and our children for that new world."

In majlis after majlis, Mr Al Otaiba was referenced as the brightest rising star of the Emirati diplomatic pack. The challenges of the future that our late founder had called on the nation to prepare for had arrived. We were confident that Mr Al Otaiba was ready to rise to the tests ahead. And now, we will not betray our duty to repel any attack on him. We will take those who seek to harm him and, by extension, our national interests to task. 

To be clear, my defence of Mr Al Otaiba is not exclusively motivated by patriotic loyalty to our nation. It is also born out of loyalty to the truth.

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Over the years, I have written for a range of publications around the world. 

Whenever I publish an article, whether a piece of reporting or an analysis that seeks to connect the dots of a geopolitical puzzle, I have always checked and double-checked my sources. Every piece of work involves an extensive and sometimes exhaustive exchange with editors. It takes a lot to make an argument watertight. A piece of writing doesn't see the light of day until it gets past those gatekeepers. I wouldn't have it any other way.

In preparing this article, I contacted a source at an online publication called The Intercept who broke the original story of Mr Al Otaiba’s emails being hacked. The source stated that that there was no way of knowing where the hacked emails had come from or who had supplied them. And yet they formed the basis of the reporting of the “facts”. 

 There are three news outlets who peddled this information: The Intercept, Huffington Post and Al Jazeera. What do these three sources have in common? Al Jazeera launched in 1996 on a $137 million endowment from the government of Qatar. In 2015, Wadha Khanfar, the former CEO of Al Jazeera Media Network cut a major deal to form HuffPost Arabic in partnership with the Huffington Post. The Intercept, which fashions itself as a home for “adversarial journalism”, has gone even further. Articles that have been pulled from Al Jazeera over the last several years have been recovered by The Intercept for republication. 

I’ve written for Huffington Post for years and that is why I recently wrote an email to the new editor, Lydia Polgreen, expressing my concern at the repeated publication of articles over the last week citing documents that were stolen from Mr Al Otaiba. I explained to her that this was a violation of my own national sovereignty and expressed my regret that, despite my studious work for the publication she now stewards, this was a violation of my will as a citizen of a sovereign nation. I also pointed out the process that I go through every time I write an essay for the Huffington Post or any other publication. I cited the use of stolen material as journalistically unsound.

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We the people of the UAE are following the practices of all other developed nations in the world. We entrust our intelligence community, defence establishment and diplomatic corps to handle our most sensitive state secrets with care and professionalism. We are not blind or lacking in self-determination. Like many other societies, we understand the compromise of giving our establishment trust. It must be due to the nature of intelligence. We sometimes give them “blind” trust because they are qualified to deal with the information at hand. The DIY approach is dangerous. 

 I am an Emirati citizen who has no government affiliations and receives no pay cheque from the state. I will be direct to those who are pedalling the ambassador’s stolen emails: you attack my sovereignty, violate a representative of state, steal my nation’s secrets and then release information that may well jeopardise my way of life and put others at risk. That, in itself, proves that you have no concern for my well-being or liberty, let along the journalistic integrity that is the prerequisite to transparency. We don't have to choose between security and liberty. We understand that, far from being mutually exclusive, one is not possible without the other. 

In 2011, The New York Times received a request from the Obama administration asking the editorial team to withhold information on the American contractor Raymond A Davis. In the interests of national security, the paper, as well as the Washington Post and AP who received similar requests consented to the administration’s wishes. After the fact, it was stated explicitly: 

“The New York Times had agreed to temporarily withhold information about Mr. Davis’s ties to the agency at the request of the Obama administration, which argued that disclosure of his specific job would put his life at risk. Several foreign news organisations have disclosed some aspects of Mr. Davis’s work with the CIA.”

This is not authoritarianism, it is responsible journalism. Because there’s nothing respectful in disregarding the social contracts of a nation and it’s government just because you think that you know better. 

In the UAE, we will continue counteracting the destabilising forces of terrorism, whether on the digital or physical battlefield. And we embrace a national outlook that seeks to combat incendiary forces before they reach the point of causing devastation. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, once summed it up in saying that: "For many countries the definition of terror is that you have to carry a weapon and terrorise people. For us it’s far beyond that. We cannot tolerate even the smallest and tiniest amount of terrorism." Accordingly, the UAE will continue to isolate and target the roots of terrorist and extremist ideology and work to prevent its destructive force from smashing the open, tolerant and embracing ways of our country.

When extremist rhetoric takes hold, it doesn't just inspire violence. It prevents people from needing to learn how to communicate respectfully. And more importantly, it prevents people from being able to disagree respectfully. And when that happens people stop being able to talk to one another. And without two or more sides in a society being able to talk and listen to one another, all liberty and all social cohesion is lost.

There’s nothing free about people inside or outside the country deciding unilaterally that they know better than everyone else and then proceeding to either steal and disseminate information that the public has entrusted to the state. This jeopardises the lives and well-being of civilians and soldiers alike. It is entirely within our purview to look at our national security and not be told that we are giving up freedom by those who steal from us and the entities that support them.

In October 2011, then Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel Al Jubeir, survived an assassination attempt in Washington. In the years that have passed, many of the tactics and weapons of non-state actors who are enabled by state sponsors of terrorism have moved into the digital battlefield. 

In the UAE, we have a way of life to defend and we will defend it. In doing so, we are defending our security as well as our liberty. Our zero tolerance for terrorism doesn't just apply to ISIL. It also applies to the massively troubling cyber-terrorism that seeks to destabilise global order and national interests. The architecture of so called "whistle blowers" is engineering towards one intent: anarchy.

Last year, I wrote about the dangers of “knowing better”:

 “This is the epoch of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, who, by making unilateral decisions that they ‘knew what was best’ for society and the world, released classified documents and information that have imperilled untold numbers of people across the globe. For their efforts, their likenesses stood in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz sculpted in bronze by an artist who depicted them as a trinity of courage and truth.

“And the self-congratulatory creation of a narrative where we lionise them continues despite the fact that their actions endangered many real heroes: people who work behind the scenes of the diplomatic and military establishments of nations across the world not as tools of an imaginary “evil establishment” but in the genuine and pragmatic service on behalf of the good of their people. But the trinity knew better. The system was broken as far as they were concerned. They had to circumvent it.”

I ended with this plea:

“The hazards of arrogance, of knowing better, are real. The price we pay for indulging in a culture of narcissism is too great for us and for the generations that will follow us. Instead, we must engender a culture of nurturing and hope. That takes more perseverance, intelligence, temperance, and certainly patience than acting on the impulse to burn down this house. It takes the optimism of a culture where each and every one of us believes in something larger than ourselves.”

The journalists at The Intercept have presented a singular vision of the UAE as a fundamentally unfree society. We are not. And we are happy to speak to you and explain that we believe in power sharing and we exercise it as we have done for centuries among the tribes of the Gulf. We are not disenchanted with our systems of court and state and we will defend our way of life against all forms of extremism, including the cyberattacks of anarchists and those who promote them.

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After a particularly difficult day in June 2016, I went to speak with Yousef Al Otaiba. I went to him as I would go to an older brother and not as one approaches the formality of an ambassador in the West. I had been receiving attacks from people in the US who lived on the extremes of the political left and the right. Their messages to me following the Orlando attacks were nasty, particularly considering that I lost someone connected to me in the attacks. 

Mr Al Otaiba put it all into perspective. They are, he said, “the same all around the world. They are very good at announcing what they're against, never about what they are for.” That reveals so much to me about the way that The Intercept describes their enterprise: “adversarial journalism”. 

Power sharing, on the other hand, is listening to the concerns of other people, caring for them when they're ill and guaranteeing that they have no deterrent to seeking education. The UAE guarantees this to all of us because we the people and we the government are one and the same. We are a national family and this familial approach is rooted in a tribal culture that grew out of this arid quarter of the world. Survival was contingent on taking care of one another and listening to the concerns of our brothers and sisters. It was also contingent on being able to tell the difference between a mirage and reality. 

But in the accelerating barrage of the digital world, how are governments to give their public with the information to decipher the endless forms of manipulation, digital doctoring, partial presentation that cyber-terrorists utilise as standard techniques to misinform, deceive and eventually destabilise?

I asked Prince Turki Al Faisal, an elder of Saudi Intelligence, this very question: "Any leaked document, by definition, is tampered with by the leaker,” he replied by email. “It's purpose is to serve the agenda of the leaker" 

 And then he added, aware that he was addressing in me one of his artists of the Gulf, a couplet wrote by an ancient poet that I remember memorising in school: " ... as for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, I freely translate a verse of Al Mutanabbi, one of our greatest Arab poets: If I am maligned by a scoundrel, That is proof of my worthiness.”

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Despite my experience in international relations and journalism, I am and will always be an artist. It is my career and my passion. A few days ago I finished a new song cycle with gratitude in my heart for all who have helped me reach success in musical composition. I was liberated to pursue my passions by a nation whose constitution guarantees education and health care as rights to everyone in our national family. A nation that has listened and, significantly for a composer, taught me to listen better. 

Free expression is my job as an artist and writer. I will defend it against every affront including the machinations of those who hijack the cause of liberality for the sake of being adversarial. There’s more to it than that. 

I know how hard it is to compose a symphony or build a society. I know how hard it is to lay out the blueprints for a building and raise it to pierce the sky or to write a book. But I am also aware how easy it is to burn a book, kill a human being, blow up a building or make ashes out of a musical manuscript.

One of the great inspirations of my life has been witnessing the growth of my nation. When I began my life, the UAE was a teenager. We have worked together to make the country into a world player in the 45 years since its birth. As an artist, I know how hard it is to use all the forces of my expression to build something; and I have seen how much fortitude, creativity and work it takes to build a nation. Unfortunately, in my short life, I have also been able to see examples of how easy it is to destroy a country and burn a nation-state to the ground. 

We will continue to work, government and citizens together as a national family, to build the best home we can build. But make no mistake that we reserve every right, as a free and determined people, to defend our home and the fruits of our labour from incendiary forces whatever their source.

Mohammed Fairouz is an Emirati­ composer