The Takeaway: UAE official warns of ‘even more unstable’ region if Israel annexes West Bank settlements

In a wide-ranging interview for Al-Monitor’s On the Middle East podcast, Yousef Al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States, discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the UAE and the region; Iran; Israeli-Palestinian issues and more.

Background: Otaiba has served as the UAE Ambassador to the United States since 2008. In addition to his role as ambassador, he was promoted to the rank of minister in 2017.

Here are just a few highlights of his interview on dealing with COVID-19, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian issues:

On COVID-19:

Whole of Government: With a population of approximately 10 million, the UAE has 35,788 coronavirus cases and only 269 deaths, a fatality rate of 0.7% compared to a global mortality rate among reported cases of 5.9%. Otaiba suggests that the UAE’s “whole of government” approach may be the reason for such a low percentage. The UAE began planning early to deal with the virus, engaging all relevant government agencies. The Emirates has implemented extensive testing (the UAE has already tested 20% of its population); hospitalization for all positive cases; extensive contact tracing; social distancing enforcement and daily cleaning at malls and public places; and stringent and flexible curfews.

Collective Action: The UAE has its own COVID diplomacy, emphasizing collective action and humanitarian aid. It has provided over 657 tons of medical supplies to 62 countries so far. “Unless the entire world is able to deal with the coronavirus, we will not overcome the coronavirus,” said Otaiba, adding, “The view from the [UAE] leadership is that we have to help these countries who don’t have the type of resources or capacity to test, identify and deal with the coronavirus…We have to do this together…We have to tackle the coronavirus everywhere if we are going to overcome this.”

UAE Post-COVID-19: “We were already marching toward a knowledge-based economy, investing in technology and AI and things that address the future. And I think what the coronavirus is doing for us is making these plans go much, much faster…We are accelerating whatever it is we were planning to do anyway.”

On Iran:

A UAE template for civil nuclear development? The US-UAE civil nuclear agreement, negotiated in 2009, has been referred to as the “gold standard” of such agreements. The UAE does not enrich uranium or reprocess nuclear fuel as part of the deal, which makes civil nuclear energy safer and cheaper while eliminating any concerns about weapons development. Iran, in contrast, has insisted on “the right to enrichment” in its civil nuclear program. “I don’t know if Iran’s receptive” to the UAE model, Otaiba said, “but I know it hasn’t really been positioned; it hasn’t been used as a template.”

On diplomacy with Iran: “We need to see what Iran is going to do…I think it’s important to try to de-escalate, to make sure things don’t get any more unstable in what has become a very unstable region. But I don’t know if we’re going to see any change of behavior between now and November,” when the United States holds presidential elections, with regard to negotiating a new nuclear agreement, as the Trump administration is seeking.

On Israeli-Palestinian issues:

Annexation: Otaiba warned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jordan Valley would make the Middle East “even more unstable,” adding, “It will put an incredible amount of political pressure on our friends in Jordan.”

Trump Peace Plan: “It’s a starting point…and it may or may not produce anything…but we haven’t seen any negotiations,” he said. “Cooler heads need to prevail, and we need to get back to a place where there is some form of dialogue between the sides.”

Palestinian decision to end cooperation with US, Israel: “I don’t think it’s a good move, but I also think the Palestinians have very little options left at their disposal.”

On the PA rejecting UAE COVID-19 assistance: “I honestly don’t know what happened there,” Otaiba said, adding, “I wish I did…We’re trying to help people who desperately need help. I’m disappointed that help will not reach poor Palestinians who need that help…There are 100 ways that could have been handled better.”

Listen here: This is just a small taste of my conversation with Ambassador Otaiba, which also covered Libya, Syria, Yemen and Qatar. You can listen here to the full podcast and sign up for our Al-Monitor podcasts on your favorite platform.

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