Sunday, 29 November 2009

What a difference in UAE diplomacy three years later

In 2002, a new window to the Emirates was opened with the inauguration of our embassy in Washington DC’s diplomatic quarter. It’s a 1,500-square-metre building that is proving to be a barometer of where the country is heading.

Just over the past year, the work conducted in this new structure has been revolutionising the way the UAE conducts diplomacy. This is largely due to our young Georgetown-educated ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, who in 2008 was advanced for the post by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

The US diplomatic posting has seen many firsts. It was there in the 1980s that Hessa Omran Taryam broke new ground by becoming the first high-ranking female Emirati diplomat. Also in Washington, Reem Ibrahim al Hashimi, the current Minister of State, started work on the first UAE trade office abroad in her former role as commercial attaché.

To understand the context of the recent shift in diplomatic efforts, consider this story: in the spring of 2006, Dubai Ports World purchased P&O, a British-based shipping conglomerate that was managing ports around the world, including six in the US. The UAE firm did not alter the management structure of the new acquisition although it did upgrade P&O’s screening equipment and security systems.

But there was a backlash in the US Congress, and the deal was rejected by an overwhelming 62-2 vote. Many Emiratis still recall the multiple television appearances made by Ms al Hashimi explaining the UAE’s position and stringent security precautions; often she appeared in several extensive interviews in a single day.

Based on that incident, the UAE learnt a valuable lesson about dealing with the US government, the legislative as well as the executive branches. Fast-forward to the fall of 2009, when the UAE managed to secure what Newsweek called a “groundbreaking” nuclear deal with the US and a model for future nuclear co-operation.

How did a country that faced stiff opposition three years ago in one deal turn around and secure an unprecedented nuclear agreement despite considerable challenges? Although it was a major collective effort, involving too many parties to name, much of it rests on the work of our new ambassador.

In just over a year, the Embassy was able to transform itself from a passive post merely handling student, medical and diplomatic affairs into a proactive model for diplomacy unmatched by any other UAE embassy I have come across.

A new group of Emirati young professionals has been brought in, several in their mid-twenties. I was impressed by how the mix of Emiratis there reflects the mosaic that is the UAE, with Arabs working alongside compatriots from diverse backgrounds including ethnic Ajamis, Balochs and Africans.

The Embassy’s work over the last few months reflects both a quantitative and qualitative shift in how the Emirates conducts its business. For instance, the young team has produced a guidebook that assists UAE companies on business trips to the US.

Recently a UAE-based airline visiting Chicago was given a customised briefing handbook, including information on bilateral trade, major trade sectors, state-specific information and even prayer times. Emirati firms are also advised on how to deal with the media to make sure that their visits get the correct kind of coverage in the US press.

The importance of these very detailed briefings cannot be underestimated. The laborious research has proven vital in talks with senators, congressmen and the media. For instance, the UAE is the fourth largest export market for the state of Washington: essential information to emphasise the importance of the UAE in economic terms when conducting trade talks.

The young staff members are also working on outreach. Firas, an Emirati in his twenties with an MBA from Harvard University, tells me he’s heading to his alma mater to speak to students and alumni about the UAE. Saud, a graduate of the American University of Sharjah, has just delivered a speech to the World Affairs Council in Seattle.

In addition, the Embassy offers assistance to both US and UAE firms that want to set up shop in each other’s country, matching possible partners and providing relevant information.

In his short tenure, Ambassador Al Otaiba has often visited Los Angeles, where the UAE is setting up a consulate, as well as New York and Chicago. However, he says he is just getting warmed up. “I haven’t ventured out of DC much,” he told me in his flawless English. “We were building relations in the capital during the past few months. In my second year I will be travelling extensively to promote the UAE.”

During my stay in Washington, the US Congress passed the 123 nuclear agreement. It was no surprise. The UAE’s new approach meant that more than 70 per cent of US senators were aware of the treaty details well in advance of it being discussed. In the end, both Saud and Firas told me, the P&O story turned out to be a great learning experience for the country.

My last question for Ambassador Al Otaiba was what his vision for the Embassy was. “I want to present the right picture of the UAE,” he said. “I want via our outreach initiatives for Americans to know about my country and encourage trade, tourism and cultural exchange.”

The word “outreach” was possibly the one I heard most in my visit to the Embassy. If, as I believe, our embassy in Washington is a barometer of the UAE’s international affairs, then it’s a bright future indeed.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 29 November 2009

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