Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,
I am honoured to have the opportunity to address you in the fourth year of this important forum, the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate.
I would like to express my deep appreciation for Dr Ebtesam Al Ketbi and the Emirates Policy Center for the enormous effort they put in to organising this event.
I am also grateful to the Atlantic Council and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy for their valuable support for the forum.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our region continues to face critical challenges. The pendulum tends to swing between aspirations for stability and development and the realities of chaos and violence.
Too many people are suffering the terrible humanitarian consequences of the recent years of turmoil.
We keep trying to manage these complicated issues, but so far we have found the solutions elusive.
However, my argument today is that amongst the many serious ongoing challenges, there have been some small but strategically important steps towards greater stability in the region.
We now need to focus our collective energies on deepening and widening the consensus around a moderate regional agenda.
Allow me to say more about these developments and what I see as their implications.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, I am more hopeful that the naivete that there has been in some quarters about Iran’s destabilising role in the region, is being replaced by a clearer appreciation of the need to robustly
address the challenges it presents.
Some had felt that once the JCPOA was agreed, Iran would start to limit its destabilising behaviour in the region. Unfortunately, Iran understood the agreement as an acquiescence by major powers to it playing a hegemonic role in the region.
Its efforts to provide active support for proxies in other countries, stoke sectarian tensions, and undermine the integrity of nation states, have got worse, not better.
And in recent days, we have seen Iranian-made ballistic missiles fired by Iran’s proxy Houthi militia towards the Saudi capital, Riyadh. This is a serious escalation and one that undermines Iranian claims about the defensive nature of its missile programme.
The UAE will not remain idle under the shadow of such a threat.
This is why the new US administration’s robust commitment to addressing the Iranian challenge is an extremely welcome development. Indeed, the UAE strongly endorses the approach towards Iran that was set out recently by President Trump.
We now need to work on building a wider international consensus behind this approach. But I have no doubt that the international community will increasingly come to realise the grave risks associated with Iran’s expansionist behavior.
In addition, there is now an opportunity for Iraq to reassert its historical role in containing Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.
We need to look beyond sect in order to reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq and help reinforce its Arab identity, so it can once again take its rightful place at the heart of the community of Arab nations.
All of this means that there is now a real opportunity for Arab countries to work hand in hand with the international community to consistently push back against Iranian interference.
It is deeply regrettable that this is the lens through which we are compelled to deal with Iran. But given its current behaviour, we are simply not yet in a position to be able to speak about de-escalation or dialogue.
At the same time, important advances have been made in the fight against extremism and terrorism.
Daesh has lost vast swathes of the territory that it once occupied, including key cities such as Mosul and Raqqa.
The struggle against Al Qaeda in Yemen has also made significant progress. Al Qaeda was substantially defeated in Mukalla last year and it is on the run in numerous Yemeni provinces.
All of this is thanks to the brave work of the Arab coalition and the UAE-backed Yemeni forces.
The battle against extremism is far from won, and it is a long-term challenge that will take a generation or more to defeat. But beyond the courageous success of our military men and women in combating the terrorists, I believe there is something even more important happening.
The battle of ideas is tipping against the extremists.
The UAE understood early on the dangers posed by extremism. We have consistently held the view that extremism and terrorism are two sides of the same coin. Terrorism feeds off the swamp of extremist ideas.
The international community has increasingly woken up to this reality.
Those countries that support extremists, such as Iran and Qatar, are finding themselves increasingly isolated on this issue.
The Riyadh Summit in May united the US with moderate leaders from across the region in a resolute commitment to show zero tolerance for those who fund and support extremists.
At the same time, in Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, we are seeing the emergence of a country equipped to deal with the challenges of the future.
These developments, in a key regional power such as Saudi Arabia, send a powerful message of hope.
Everyone who cares about a moderate, stable future for the region, should lend their support to the Saudi reform agenda.
In short, the region’s moderate Islamic bloc is getting stronger, and the extremists weaker. But we need to remain vigilant. This is a battle over the heart and soul of our region and it is one we cannot afford to lose.
And I believe that this combination of a weakening of extremist factions and an enhanced resistance to Iranian interference should help open the door to political solutions to the region’s conflicts.
For while military action is sometimes necessary, these conflicts can only be comprehensively resolved through political processes.
Yet for as long as the extremists remain strong and external powers fuel conflict by reinforcing illegitimate factions, it is hard to make progress at the negotiating table.
But recent regional developments have the potential to provide opportunities for political progress in Yemen, Libya, Syria and even in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Certainly, the drying up of Qatari funds and mischief has helped to create improved conditions for progress on these and other issues.
In Yemen, the UAE remains strongly committed to the Arab Coalition, led by Riyadh, to restore the legitimate Yemeni government.
The targeting of Riyadh with ballistic missiles only serves to underline the threat that the Houthi insurgency represents. We cannot stand idly by while a new Hezbollah is being built with the support of Iranian ideology and money.
The UAE is also working with the Yemeni government’s forces, and with the support of the US, to combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
At the same time, we are doing what we can to alleviate the terrible suffering of the Yemeni people: since 2015, the UAE has provided more than 2.4 billion dollars in humanitarian assistance.
It is shameful that the Houthis manipulate their control over the port in Hodeidah to ensure a continued flow of arms and to finance a prolonged war, rather than as a channel for humanitarian supplies.
Yet ultimately, the best way to resolve the humanitarian crisis is to achieve a viable political solution to Yemen’s conflict; a goal to which the UAE remains firmly committed.
In Libya too, there is a new window of opportunity for political dialogue, thanks to a weakening of extremist forces.
The UAE supports the road map facilitated by the UN Special Envoy, and welcomes the efforts to refine the Libyan Political Agreement to ensure it is as inclusive as possible.
We continue to do our part in fostering dialogue among the various Libyan factions. For we understand that only Libyans themselves are capable of bringing peace and stability to their land.
And in Gaza, we have seen the recent formation of a unity government. This is in part thanks to the reduction of disruptive external influences.
It is too early to say where it will lead. But it at least raises the prospect of greater progress.
In both the Libyan and the Palestinian case, Egypt’s diplomatic initiative has been very important and will be central to any future successes.
And finally, it is vital that we find a political solution to what is probably the greatest crisis of this century: the ongoing disaster in Syria.
A genuine political process remains the only viable route to resolving the crisis, as a military victory is unobtainable for any side in Syria.
But let us be clear: whatever happens next, the humanitarian cost of Syria will haunt us for generations. The lessons of Syria must be absorbed and the mistakes never repeated.
Underlying our approach to all of these challenging situations is a strong desire to foster stability in the Arab regional order. The Arab world needs to move to the driver’s seat and determine our own future course.
And it is only by adopting a strategy focused primarily on achieving stability, that we will be able to alter the current trajectory.
In the UAE’s view, the success of this strategy depends on there being a strong and developing Saudi Arabia, and a stable, robust Egypt.
But it will also ultimately depend on the success of modernising agendas across the region.
For the UAE does not argue for a return to the past. There is a myth sometimes propounded that the UAE seeks a return to the status quo from before the uprisings in 2011. This is profoundly mistaken.
The UAE was right to fear the consequences of revolutions. It has proved easier to destroy institutions than to build new ones.
Revolutions have created vacuums that extremists have exploited and that have allowed certain regional players to exercise an outsized role in our world.
But the UAE has always been a passionate advocate of evolutionary change in our region.
What we need is for governments to make use of stability to provide opportunity and good governance for all their people.
In the UAE, we are proud of what we have achieved in this regard and are happy if we can provide some inspiration to others in the region.
The UAE is not a status quo country. For proof of this, you only have to look at our myriad of initiatives in the social, economic and cultural fields, as well as our continued efforts to reach out to be part of the rapidly unfolding future.
But we also want to see others diversify their economies, improve the quality of their education, and empower women. For it is our belief that a more open and prosperous region will benefit all of us.
This is why the UAE is a strong supporter of Saudi Arabia’s inspirational Vision 2030 as well as Egypt’s economic reform programme, which are starting to unlock the potential for economic growth.
For while we must continue to directly challenge the extremist narrative, it is equally important that we show people that there is a hopeful alternative.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The last few years in this region have been turbulent and violent. It has sometimes felt that we are caught in an ever-worsening cycle of conflict and instability, driven primarily by the two malign forces of Iranian interference and the spread of extremist ideas.
But I feel we may be reaching a strategic tipping point. I certainly do not want to risk appearing sanguine: Iran’s behavior has not improved and extremism is still a grave threat. Nevertheless, there have been small but important steps towards tackling these destabilising forces.
So now is the time for moderate Arab countries to come together to build momentum around a common, forward-looking agenda. One that values stability but that at the same time recognises the urgent need to improve the lot of our fellow Arabs throughout the region.
And I argue that there are five principles that should guide this common approach.
First, we need to show zero tolerance to extremists and those who support them. We need to send a united and clear message to those who preach hate and division, and to countries that opportunistically stoke division to achieve their ends.
At the same time, the message of extremists needs to be countered with a message of tolerance and development.
Second, we need to work together to push back against external interference in Arab affairs. This interference is one of the primary causes of instability and sectarian division in the region.
But no single Arab country can contain this interference on its own; it can only be achieved by working together.
Which brings me to the third principle, which is that we need to promote cooperation between sovereign Arab nation states.
A healthy region needs to be premised on secure, sovereign nation states. It is vital that countries respect each other’s independence.
But at the same time, we need to enhance cooperation between us. Working together, we will be more successful in combating extremism, in containing external interference, and in developing our economies.
Fourth, we need to promote political solutions over conflict. From Syria to Yemen to Libya, we know that there is no substitute for political agreements that provide a platform for inclusive governance arrangements.
Without this, there will always be those who will act as ‘spoilers’ and seek to disrupt any attempt to achieve peace and stability.
And finally, we need to get the politics and the economics better aligned in the region, by prioritizing good governance and economic development.
This needs to be underpinned by greatly improved education standards, by the empowerment of women and by the creation of more space for the private sector to thrive.
We do not need to reinvent the wheel. There is a vast wealth of good practice out there. But we do need to get serious about it, by taking tough reform decisions and showing real commitment.
That is why it is so welcome to see the leadership that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are showing in this regard.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
After years of suffering, this region has an important opportunity to take its destiny into its own hands.
For ultimately the solution to our region’s problems needs to come from within this region.
It was never a given that the UAE would become a success. In 1971, many were skeptical that the seven emirates could make this newly-formed country work, and that our small nation could survive.
But thanks to wise leadership and the collective effort of our people, we have thrived.
Our story might have been different. In this same way, the story of other countries can now be different.
It will not be easy. But with strong and moderate leadership as well as support from other moderate countries in the region and further afield, there is an opportunity for Arab leaders to start to shape a better future for their own countries and for wider region.
And in doing this, they can be sure that the UAE will remain a strong and consistent partner, as they seize the opportunity to write the next, more hopeful chapter in their countries’ and region’s history.
[Delivered November 12, 2017]