From international financial turmoil to domestic challenges, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed's address to the UN General Assembly covered extensive ground.
Forging a path with peaceful solutions
UNITED NATIONS // In a comprehensive address to the UN General Assembly, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, covered issues ranging from the measures needed internationally to deal with the crisis in world financial markets to efforts by the UAE to protect the environment and improve the lives of women and migrant workers. The "central importance" of Iran's occupation of three Gulf islands, the sovereignty of which is claimed by the UAE with strong regional support, also featured in the minister's New York speech.
In an equally wide-ranging interview with The National after his address, Sheikh Abdullah suggested that the lessons of history should encourage modern Iran, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to recognise the legitimacy of the UAE's case. The dispute over Abu Musa and two nearby islands, the Greater and Lesser Tunb, dates from 1971 when Britain's withdrawal from the region led to the three territories being occupied by then Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, later to be overthrown in the 1979 revolution that saw the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Reflecting on the Shah's role, Sheikh Abdullah said: "Even before the revolution took place in Iran, these islands were occupied by the previous regime, and the Iranian previous regime was seen by the Iranians as an unjust regime which did occupy our islands. "If that's the case, they [Mr Ahmadinejad's government] know better than anyone that the Shah did occupy these islands and caused, as they always say, tremendous damage to the image of Iran, both in Iran and abroad."
Iran, he said, should therefore "return what unjustly the Shah did in the region in occupying our islands". His remarks on the dispute were made in response to statements by Mr Ahmadinejad during a press conference at the UN last week. The Iranian leader said then that "exterior forces" - taken to be a reference to the United States - would not undermine "friendly ties" with nations across the Gulf.
"I think he was just making a joke," Sheikh Abdullah said in the interview, conducted by telephone following his address to the UN's 192-member assembly. "He knows as much as we do that that is not the case. The Iranians have not accepted our offer of a straight and frank discussion about the future of the three UAE islands and they have refused to go to the International Court of Justice to resolve this, which we at the moment believe is the best venue to settle this matter once and for all."
As explained by the minister in his UN speech, the Emirates' position is that any action, "military or administrative, undertaken by Iran with regards to these three islands since their occupation are void, illegitimate, in breach of the UN Charter and the provisions of international law and the principles of good neighbourliness". A diplomatic furore was triggered last month by Iran's decision to establish two marine offices on Abu Musa. A host of Arab nations have expressed support for the UAE in the dispute, which was aggravated by comments attributed to Iran's deputy foreign minister, Manouchehr Mohammadi, describing GCC monarchies as weak, instable and suffering a "crisis of legitimacy".
Acknowledging the danger of tensions escalating across the Gulf, Sheikh Abdullah said it was strategically unviable to influence Tehran by interfering with trade or immigration between the UAE and Iran. "The UAE will only use peaceful means in raising its desire in resolving this matter, but never use any other way in provoking the Iranians to do one thing or the other," he said. "We think that, sooner or later, the Iranians will understand the importance of resolving this issue ?. I do really have hope in the Iranian people, and I really do have hope that one day we will have this conflict behind us."
Sheikh Abdullah was speaking towards the end of a weeklong visit to New York during which he had talks with the Arab League and several statesmen including the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair. In the interview, the minister addressed a number of key foreign policy issues, from Darfur and the Israeli settlements to controversy over UAE aid figures. He gave a cautious welcome to moves on Israel following the success of his Saudi Arabian counterpart, Prince Saud Al Faisal, in bringing the issue of settlements on Arab soil before the UN Security Council.
The construction of settlements, viewed as a major obstacle to a peace deal, has nearly doubled since 2007, despite Israel's pledge to freeze such activities, the Israeli watchdog group Peace Now said last month. A statement released by the Middle East Quartet - comprising the US, the European Union, Russia and the UN - after Friday's meetings addressed Arab anxieties by voicing "deep concern about increasing settlement activity, which has a damaging impact on the negotiating environment and is an impediment to economic recovery".
Sheikh Abdullah said: "The Quartet statement was quite positive if you compare their statement yesterday with any other statement they made before, certainly a step in the right direction. The UAE is trying to work very closely, not only with the Quartet, but also Mr Blair, helping his efforts. "We look forward, working very closely in helping and aiding the [peace process], but, no doubt, that needs a lot of work on the international level. That is why we are praising the Quartet statement yesterday."
Sheikh Abdullah also warned of the dangers associated with the proposed prosecution of Sudan's president, Omar al Bashir, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide in Darfur. The UN estimates that up to 300,000 people have died and more than 2.2 million have fled their homes since rebels rose against Khartoum in Feb 2003. The ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, asked the court in July for an arrest warrant for Mr Bashir, alleging genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the war-torn western province.
A panel of judges is reviewing the prosecutor's evidence and will decide in the coming weeks whether to issue a warrant against the 64-year-old president, who seized power in Africa's biggest country by toppling a democratically elected government in 1989. But a coalition of the Arab League, the African Union and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has been urging the UN Security Council to invoke Article 16 of the Rome Statute and defer the prosecution for a year.
Advocates of a postponement were supported at UN headquarters last week when France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said he would use his country's influence to have the prosecution suspended in exchange for "a radical change" in Khartoum's policies. Sheikh Abdullah reinforced the Arab League position that prosecuting Mr Bashir would undermine any potential peace process in Sudan and be counter-productive to the nation's stability.
"We believe that dealing with this matter in this way will further the escalation of the situation in Sudan," said the minister. "We want to resolve the situation in Sudan, we don't want to create a mess out of it. That's why we think that this is not the right way forward. "What's the end game that you want from doing that [prosecuting Mr Bashir]? We don't think that is the way forward for stabilising Sudan. There are already enough problems in Sudan ? we have to encourage parties in Sudan to work closely with each other to resolve [the dispute].
"That's why there are African troops in Darfur and the international community is providing the logistical requirements for it. There is no doubt that the situation in Darfur could be improved, but that's not the way forward - by prosecuting a sovereign leader." Sheikh Abdullah then addressed the situation in Somalia, where drought is fuelling a humanitarian crisis in a country that has operated without central authority since Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords in 1991.
Security Council members have recently debated whether to send troops to Somalia on a peacekeeping mission. But UN officials warn that a council mandate would present a uniquely complex and dangerous theatre for UN soldiers. The crisis resonates in the Emirates because thousands of Somali refugees are heading across the Gulf of Aden seeking better opportunities on the Arabian peninsula and the pirate-infested waters off Somalia's coast extract a heavy toll on UAE trading dhows.
Asked whether the UAE would again commit peacekeeping troops to the turbulent Horn of Africa nation, Sheikh Abdullah urged caution, questioning whether it was safe to send troops into a lawless land. "We were in Somalia many years ago as peacekeepers, and we were there for quite some time," he said. "To go to Somalia without a political understanding between the parties, I don't think would be very helpful.
"So, prior to sending a peacekeeping force to Somalia, we have to have a political process in Somalia. If that's the case, I'm sure that the Arab League will be interested in participating in helping a new government, which has a very clear mandate from its people to do so." Sheikh Abdullah then referred to a long-running controversy between the UN and the Government over the quantity of aid and development assistance provided by the UAE to war-torn and disaster-stricken nations.
In April, the Minister of State Dr Maitha al Shamsi told the UN General Assembly that the UAE gave 3.6 per cent of its gross national product (GNP) in overseas assistance - about US$5.87 billion based on an estimated US$163 billion GNP. The figure surprised many delegates to the 192-member body because it is more than five times larger than the 0.7 per cent share of GNP that a handful of developed nations agree upon as the benchmark quantity of overseas development assistance.
Sir John Holmes, the UN aid chief, claimed the Government's figures were "highly dubious", adding that "there doesn't seem to be those vast sums of money flowing that I have seen". However, Sheikh Abdullah challenged Sir John's view, saying the dispute was ultimately a numerical issue and reaffirming the UAE's status as an "important provider" of aid and assistance. "Many organisations and countries do have different ways of measuring and calculating numbers," he said. "So, probably, he was just calculating in a different way than we would.
"But we are quite sure that the UAE is an important provider of aid and assistance in the world. As I mentioned in our speech today, the UAE provided three countries, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, with over two million tonnes of wheat, and this is just a small example of our commitment." He added: "I don't want to personalise the situation, but I think he was wrong in his claim." After his crowded week of high-level diplomacy, the minister returns to Abu Dhabi tonight to join the Eid al Fitr celebrations.