Interview with Dr Ebtesam Al Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Center

Interview with Dr Ebtesam Al Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Center

03/2021  | Reading time: 12 minutes

How does the Emirates Policy Center see the world in 2021? What are the major risks and goals of the Middle East, and what plans do they have as a leading regional institution? You can find out the answers from our exclusive interview.

The United Arab Emirates is known to be an innovation hub and an agile foreign policy actor. In this regard, what are your country’s priorities in 2021, during the crisis, and what role can it play in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a small country geographically but has become an influential one in its neighbourhood thanks to its flexibility and ability to employ resources, pragmatism, and innovation.

Humanitarian aid diplomacy is a genuine part of the Emirati foreign policy. In February 2021, Dubai launched a new international initiative by mobilising the expertise and capabilities of the Vaccine Logistics Alliance comprised of Emirates airline, DP World’s global network of ports, and logistic operations alongside Dubai Airports and International Humanitarian City (IHC) to distribute COVID-19 vaccine more quickly and efficiently with a focus on developing countries which were hit hard by the pandemic and face challenges in transporting and distributing medical supplies.

The UAE said that this project will support the World Health Organization’s initiative, ”COVAX,” to deliver two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.

Since the current global crisis began, the IHC has facilitated the distribution of over 80% of the WHO’s global medical response in the fight against COVID-19.

On 12 August 2020, the UAE launched the Waterfalls Initiative for Continuous Education and Specialized Training, a global project that, through specialised educational sessions, training workshops, seminars, and lectures, aims to deliver continuous education for around one million doctors, physicians, pharmacists, technicians, and specialists in the hospital management sector and the humanitarian field in areas hit by pandemics and health disasters.

This is only a part of the UAE’s assistance in the coronavirus crisis; it has provided many countries around the world with medical aid and vaccines, especially for fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The UAE can also employ its logistic capabilities, advanced infrastructure, location, and foreign policy to alleviate the impact of the pandemic and enhance health security in cooperation with the international community and regional and international organisations.

Turning to the wider Middle East region, from a ten-year perspective, how would you evaluate the consequences of the “Arab Spring”? In your view, how those events have impacted the security agenda of the Middle East?

The “Arab Spring” broke out in a regional context in which Iraq had no longer been a regional player after 2003. Following their popular uprisings, Egypt and Syria—already preoccupied with domestic crises—were no longer influential in shaping the regional agenda, either.

The three countries left a strategic vacuum in the structure of the pan-Arab order. These developments undermined the pan-Arab action, diminished the effectiveness of Arab groupings and unitary organisations, and, ultimately, weakened the pan-Arab security. Non-Arab regional powers found an “opportunity” to invest strategically in these crises and the vulnerability and disintegration of a number of Arab countries during the second decade of the third millennium. This situation was a result of poor governance and accountability and failed development in these countries, coupled with the rise of the terrorist threat, which grew more complex with the use of the information and “social media” revolution. Non-state actors moved to exploit these conditions, contexts, and developments.

Natan Sachs, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, raises an important idea, saying that, before 2011, when you asked, “What is happening in the Middle East?” you would first ask “What does Washington think?” and then “What do Cairo, Damascus (and, of course, Baghdad before 2003) think?” But after 2011, all attention has turned to other capitals in the Middle East, such as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It also became more relevant to ask about Tehran, Ankara, and Tel Aviv. In addition to the question about Washington, it has become necessary to ask about Moscow (and Beijing, as well). This reflects a new geopolitical structure that was taking shape after 2011.

Among the manifestations of the change in regional dynamics, which have been evident since the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, was the growing contribution of the UAE as a country seeking to employ its resources, economic, and developmental success, and increasing military capability to play an influential role in preserving its own national security and deflecting the many threats rife in the region. This could not be separated from an active role the UAE played in the US “burden-sharing” strategy, which was taking shape during the administration of former president Barack Obama. Also, former president Donald Trump followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, striving to reduce US military footprint in the Middle East to focus on other priorities on the international arena, while not leaving a security vacuum in the Arab region that the US’s international and regional rivals and allies would rush to fill.

The Arab region needs consolidated efforts to establish the foundations of security, stability, moderation, and conditions for development. Regional governments must benefit from the lessons drawn from the experience of the “Arab Spring” by enhancing good governance, the rule of law, institutionalisation, fighting corruption, and gradual reforms, and building popular consensus about these reforms. Furthermore, regional countries should cooperate on fighting extremism, terrorism, and sectarianism at a time when all forces of extremism, terrorism and sectarianism are feeding on undermining nation states and empowering militias at the expense of national armies and official institutions.

One of the most debated issues in the world is the future direction the US foreign policy takes. In that context, what kind of Middle East policy do you expect from the Biden administration?

Analysts agree that internal challenges in the US (fighting the coronavirus, improving the economy, uniting US citizens and reducing divisions among them, going back to institutionalisation, alliances, and international agreements, remaining in the global vanguard in the field of multiple power, and preserving its leadership status) will consume most of the Biden administration’s energy and priorities.

Different indications by the Biden administration, especially the extensive appointments in positions related to East Asia and China, show that Biden and his team would focus their attention and energy on East Asia because it is the most important region in the world for the US economy. It is also the region that China considers as its backyard and where Beijing has been trying to increase its political and military influence over the past years.

Some analysts might conclude that the US military deployment in the Middle East no longer has the strategic and financial rationale that enjoys a widespread support inside the country. Nevertheless, problems and crises in the Middle East do not wait. What is needed is a smart US engagement that surpasses the options of either withdrawing from the Middle East or being involved in its wars.

Commenting on this logic, UAE ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba said in a webinar organised by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the Biden administration should empower regional partners with the necessary tools if it thought the Middle East was not a priority and intended to focus more on global powers that represented a greater challenge for Washington, such as China and Russia.

The UAE ambassador seems to pose the question of how can Washington expect its partners to do more in “burden sharing” to protect regional security and stability and face challenges when they are deprived of their tools with less US engagement and presence in the Middle East.

The UAE advocates diplomatic solutions to regional conflicts and files, including Iran’s issue, the wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria, the Israeli–Palestinian struggle, and other outstanding problems. It is important that any global and regional approaches to tackle these issues should help enhance security and stability in the region, defuse tensions, and address hotspots, not vice versa. This probably sends a message to the Biden administration about the need to work hard to find fair and durable solutions based on diplomatic acumen that can help the region avoid the spectre of war, promote development, and ensure human dignity instead of conflicts and regional polarisation.

Almost half a year has passed since the Abraham Accords, a milestone for improving the relations between the Arab states and Israel, were signed. How would you assess the results of the normalisation process so far?

On 13 August 2020, the UAE announced the signing of a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel, which was officially concluded in Washington DC on 15 September 2020. That step marked a turning point in the country’s foreign policy and a change in the traditional approaches towards conflicts in the Middle East.

The signing of the peace treaty between the UAE and Israel was a big shift in the region, which drove both Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv to advance their bilateral interests and strategic cooperation and enhance regional security, address common challenges, and smartly interact with the US ”burden-sharing” policy. That step further consolidated the US–Israel–UAE alliance and helped set the region on a new path.

In a comment on the UAE–Israel peace treaty, David Ignatius from The Washington Post wrote, “The future of the Middle East is about the decline of U.S. power and new internal dynamics, positive and negative, that are filling the vacuum.”

Areas of cooperation between the UAE and Israel include trade and investments in several sectors like healthcare, including the fight against COVID-19, agriculture, water desalination, tourism, artificial intelligence, technology, security, defence, and others.

Dubai’s trade with Israel in the last six months reached a value of AED 1 billion (USD 272 million) according to the former country’s customs statistics. The start of the engagement between the UAE and Israel is planned to be a turning point in economic and investment relations between the two countries with mutual trade expected to grow to AED 15 billion in the next few years, generating more than 15,000 jobs according to DP World Group Chairman and CEO Sultan bin Sulayem.

According to DP World, trade relations with Israel will promote trade flows in the Middle East region. In the light of this exceptional growth, opening new markets and stimulating mutual trade between Dubai and Israel will encourage companies to increase production, leading to greater economic growth and new investment opportunities.

Moreover, the UAE–Israel peace treaty gave the push to the peace process and the resumption of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, as the agreement was linked to freezing or suspending the Netanyahu government’s plan to annex 30% of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley to Israel. It is important that nobody should miss this opportunity, and everybody should refrain from taking unilateral measures, stick to the two-state solution, and help build trust between the Palestinians and the Israelis in support of peace negotiations between the two sides. This would preserve the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their right to establish their own state in a manner that protects Israel’s security. The US is still in the best position to exert pressure on all parties to the conflict to go ahead with the peace and achieve these goals.

In all cases, however, it is still early to assess the impact of concluding the Abraham Peace Accords as a strategic opportunity to build bridges, not barriers, and promote the values of peace, stability, dialogue, cooperation, tolerance, prosperity, and justice instead of conflicts, militarisation, and extremism.

The Emirates Policy Center has been chosen as the second-best think tank in the entire MENA region by the 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report. How would you describe the key to your success, and what makes your centre unique? What are the research priorities of the Emirates Policy Center for 2021?

I am so happy about the new ranking of our center; we reached it even though we are not eight years old yet. However, it even makes challenges harder for the EPC to guard its current success and maintain steady progress.

In reality, GCC countries need more professional think tanks that are competitively engaged in providing the best possible consultation and make various recommendations to support policy making in these countries. It is important that constant channels be established between these research institutions and decision-making circles in these countries. Additionally, these think tanks need to improve their research products and analyses, introducing up-to-date technologies and scientific approaches into strategic analysis, risk prediction, and future forecasts to reduce guessing as much as possible and draw lessons and offer recommendations for the future.

One of the things that brings into prominence the work at the EPC is the high degree of freedom to approach and analyse various issues and provide scenarios and recommendations. Researchers and analysts are free to address any sensitive or thorny issue as long as the study is carried out within the framework of a serious and objective scientific approach.

In my assessment, all papers and research work produced at the EPC follow a consistent scientific approach, as there are no conflicting materials produced by the various research units (e.g., the European studies unit, the Yemeni studies unit, the Iranian studies unit). In other words, there is a central scientific mind in place that continuously seeks to frame perceptions and conceptions to guide the formulation of scenarios and the provision of recommendations.

This can only be achieved through introducing long-established methodologies for data monitoring, analysis, assessment, and forecast. It is rather a collective effort made by EPC experts and researchers, who are often engaged in daily brainstorming sessions (either in small or big groups) as a basic tool to examine and analyse the latest developments of various issues of concern at different levels. This approach helps them develop an in-depth understanding of outstanding domestic, regional, and global issues from different angles. This, of course, contributes to the accomplishment of the EPC’s basic mission: policy rationalisation and development.

One of the top research priorities of the EPC for 2021 is trying to draw lessons from the failure of previous approaches to find solutions to hotspot issues in the region. It is extremely important to think “outside the box” to support negotiated settlements, diplomatic solutions, and de-escalation initiatives.

As an Emirati think tank, 2021 is a very special year for us with the UAE set to celebrate its golden jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation. As a think tank, part of our responsibility is to provide consultation and recommendations that can enhance the UAE’s soft power, contribute to policy rationalisation, and further develop the country’s diplomatic relations with countries in its geographic vicinity and the world in general in a manner that promotes the values of dialogue and coexistence and develops an in-depth understanding of common interests and international cooperation.

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