Stopping Annexation Was Our Main Concern: Top UAE Official Hails 'Historic' Israel Deal in Haaretz Interview

Hend Al Otaiba, Director of Strategic Communication at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, plays down possibility of an embassy located in Jerusalem and expresses hope the deal with Israel will lead to a just settlement with the Palestinians

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Hend Al Otaiba
Hend Al OtaibaCredit: Courtesy of Hend Al Otaiba
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

In the wake of the announcement of the U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish formal relations, Haaretz spoke with Hend Al Otaiba, Director of Strategic Communication at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, regarding the historic agreement. 

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First of all congratulations on this historic event. I really hope to visit soon and hope to see you in Israel as well. How soon do you think we will see this happen? Business and travel visas for any citizen from both countries? Are we talking about full diplomatic relations or a more gradual process? You know, Israeli media are already checking out hotel prices. 

“Thank you. I agree, this is a historic event. There is no hard and fast timeline for the process that follows from here, but I think the UAE, and indeed all parties to the accord are keen to make progress. In terms of business and travel visas, absolutely, that is a key component of the accord. We expect both air links and reciprocal visas to be established as part of the new relationship between our countries, and we hope to see many Israelis in 2021 for Expo Dubai, where of course Israel has already previously confirmed its participation

“The intention is absolutely to form full diplomatic relations, with an exchange of ambassadors and the opening of embassies. Again I can’t put a timeline on it, but that is the intention.” 

The city hall in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv is lit up in the colors of the United Arab Emirates national flag on August 13, 2020.
The city hall in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv is lit up in the colors of the United Arab Emirates national flag on August 13, 2020.Credit: AFP

Is an embassy in Jerusalem a possibility? Or are we talking about more of an interest office in Tel Aviv? 

“We’re bound by international resolutions as well as an Arab position that wants an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.” 

Can we expect a royal visit in the near future? Maybe even to the Temple Mount? 

“I don’t have any information on this at the moment, I’m afraid.” 

We know relations between Israel and the UAE progressed slowly behind the scenes for many years. So what was the tipping point? Why now? Was it annexation? Iran? The current U.S. administration? 

Annexation was our immediate concern. We felt it would kill the prospects for a two-state solution, which has been the basis of almost all past peace-making efforts, and set prospects for regional peace back decades. One of the perennial issues impeding closer ties between the Arab world and Israel has been the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We felt it was time the region demonstrated its collective problem-solving skills. 

“On the other hand, informal relationships with Israel have grown and the issue of formalizing these interactions was always just a matter of time. And, I think it’s fair to say that we realize that an approach of no communication with Israel has brought issues to a dead end and began to separate what is political from other areas of cooperation.” 

Jared Kushner, Steven Mnuchin and Robert O'Brien clap for President Donald Trump after he announced an agreement between UAE and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, the White House, August 13, 2020.
Jared Kushner, Steven Mnuchin and Robert O'Brien clap for President Donald Trump after he announced an agreement between UAE and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, the White House, August 13, 2020. Credit: AFP

How important was stopping the Israeli annexation plan for the UAE? Was this the main goal or was it more of a joint opportunity for everyone to proceed with something that has been on the table anyway? 

“It is extremely important. Our ambition is a more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous Middle East, and this can’t happen without resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We believe this accord enhances the ability of all sides to find a lasting and just political solution to the Palestinian issue. I think we’d all like to see an end to the all-too-familiar cycles of violence and suffering. We want to see a day when the Middle East is a model for the rest of the world, not a source of conflict and dead ends.”

What kind of role do you think the UAE could now play in the region better then before? 

“As I’ve said, I think we realize that not talking to Israel was not getting us to where we wanted to go in terms of our ambitions for peace and security in the Middle East. So I think the UAE’s usual model of multi-lateralism, inter-faith dialogue, and diplomacy will stand us in good stead here as well.”

Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags in front of Israeli soldiers during a protest against the UAE' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Haris near Salfit in the West Bank, August 14, 2020.
Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags in front of Israeli soldiers during a protest against the UAE' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Haris near Salfit in the West Bank, August 14, 2020.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

Would the joint battle against Iran benefit in new ways that weren’t available before? 

“I think both the UAE and Israel are concerned about any behavior that destabilizes the region – whether it comes from Iran or any other regional state. In the Middle East, we live with threats to peace and security on a daily basis. Over the years as the UAE’s economy and influence have grown, we have sought to use our influence to create a more sustainable operating environment through diplomacy and dialogue, and I think this accord and the deeper connections it creates gives us more leverage to do that.” 

Some Palestinians claim the UAE has abandoned them and their cause. How do you answer these claims? 

“I would answer by saying that the UAE has always been an advocate of the Palestinian people and their right to dignity and self-determination. We can’t realize the Palestinian ambitions for them, but we believe this accord is a very positive step and one that provides the space and the time in which to build a just and fair settlement. And I think the fact that we have been successful, along with the U.S. and Israel’s agreement, in stopping the annexation of the West Bank has to be viewed as a positive for the Palestinian people.” 

How is the reaction in the region? Which countries do you think could be next

“I think questions about how other nations feel about this accord are probably best directed to them. We have seen one or two outbursts from certain countries, but that is to be expected in what is still a polarized region. For our part, we are pleased and encouraged by the international reaction to this accord.” 

Sunbathers sit along a beach in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, July 24, 2020.
Sunbathers sit along a beach in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, July 24, 2020. Credit: AFP

And something on a more personal level: As a senior woman in government, how do you see the status of woman in the UAE? Do you have a message for Israeli women? Could the new relations form new alliances between women in the Middle East? 

“Gender equality is of paramount importance in the UAE, and indeed our constitution guarantees equal rights for both men and women. We have long been recognized as equal partners in our nation’s development and it’s fair to say the UAE is a regional leader in measures of gender equality. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I work, half our employees are women, along with half our diplomatic staff, and a third of the UAE Cabinet. So I have grown up feeling valued and respected as a woman in the UAE. 

“I would not presume to speak for Israeli women, although I know your country is also a leader in gender equality in the region. I think there is no reason why closer relations would not lead to new alliances between women in the Middle East, and so I guess my message for Israeli women would simply be: I look forward to getting to know you more.”

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