By Bernd Debusmann Jr
The UAE's ambassador to the US is shattering American misconceptions of the UAE, one handshake at a time
“I think among the American public, there is a kind of fatigue of the Middle East in general,” Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba says in a somber tone. “That’s why I think it’s so important for people to understand what’s at stake.”
If Americans are tired of the Middle East, those in the country’s capital certainly aren’t tired of Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s energetic and affable representative in Washington DC. Among DC’s circles of often cliquish diplomatic and political operators, one would be hard pressed to find anyone as influential – or popular. He’s been referred to by US journalists as “the most charming man” in the city, a powerful figure with the ear of leaders from both sides of the political spectrum in America.
It’s not hard to see that his reputation is well-earned. He’s regularly seen out on the town, dining with people ranging from congressmen and journalists to think-tank policy wonks – often at the Four Seasons in DC’s posh Georgetown neighbourhood. The home where he entertains guests alongside his wife Abeer – the founder of fashion brand SemSem – who is regularly featured in glossy magazines. That’s to say nothing of his philanthropic work – he’s regularly raising money for children’s hospitals or doling out UAE aid in the aftermath of hurricanes and tornados.
“He’s the guy to know in this town,” a European diplomatic insider tells us in Washington. “He knows how to get people to listen to him.”
An invite from Al Otaiba, we’re told, is a hot ticket both in the US capital and his own country. Guests at a December event thrown in Abu Dhabi for prominent figures he’s gotten to know ranged from former New Jersey governor Chris Christie to boxer Amir Khan, comedian Steve Harvey and designer and socialite Nicky Hilton Rothschild.
Arabian Business catches up with Al Otaiba at the UAE’s embassy in DC – a marble, granite and glass outpost of the country covered in Arabic designs that seems plucked brick-for-brick from the streets of Abu Dhabi. There, in an office adorned with golden falcons and books about Sheikh Zayed, it quickly becomes clear: the ambassador’s job keeps him a busy man.
“It’s not boring. There is constantly something to deal with, to address. We’re always talking about where we’re going to visit, where we’re going to go, what markets we’re trying to attract,” he explains quietly, speaking flawless American English without the slightest hint of a foreign accent. “There’s always something to do. This country is not a country; it’s a continent. There’s always room for more engagement.”
More often than not, Al Otaiba’s days on this ‘continent’ start well before the sun rises, catching up on e-mails and the news before eating breakfast with his son and daughter – aged nine and seven – and taking them to school. Then he heads to the embassy, where the work begins.
“Some days I’m in the office the whole day, or half a day,” he says. “Some days I go to the State Department, the White House, Congress, events, dinners. You have to balance – that’s one of my biggest challenges.”
These days, there are few people in America’s capital that are unfamiliar with the UAE. This, Al Otaiba says, was far from the case when he was appointed ambassador – at the age of 34 – in 2008.
“Ten or 12 years ago, when I tried explain to them not just the UAE, but Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, you were starting at a very basic level of understanding. But if you go out today and you start talking to people in DC, I’ve noticed that their awareness has increased,” he recalls. “There [are] a lot of reasons for that.”
The principal drivers of American awareness of the UAE, Al Otaiba explains, are its brands – particularly Emirates and Etihad Airways– and events and forums such as the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Dubai’s World Government Summit. “People have now seen or identified something that they know is part of the UAE,” he explains. “I’d say the airlines have had the strongest impact.”
A large portion of the ambassador’s job, however, is making sure that Americans far from the halls of power in Washington are as familiar with the UAE as those inside. As part of his duties, he’s constantly jetting across the US, meeting with officials and businessmen in every corner of the country – shaking hands and extending invitations.
“That’s one of the ways we try build trade relationships. There’s some stuff you have to do through the federal government, usually security and policy stuff,” he explains. “But sometimes you have to get out of the Beltway. [We want] to bring more governors, more mayors, and get out of DC… we want to open up the aperture and make sure people are aware of who we are.”
The social event-heavy and multilayered approach that Al Otaiba and the UAE embassy have taken is a far cry from the traditional approach taken by those working on DC’s ‘Embassy Row’. The thinking, he explains, was – and for many, remains – that establishing relationships with a few key policymakers in the US government was enough to advance a nation’s interests in the country.
For years, this approach worked for the UAE until a highly publicised and failed attempt to sell the management rights of six US ports to Dubai-based ports operator DP World in 2006.
While the deal had the vigorous backing of then-President George W. Bush, Congress eventually voted to block it, citing concerns about port security and ignoring the president’s threats to block their veto. Those standing in the way of the deal came from both sides of the political divide, including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham.
“With Dubai Ports we got smacked around… that’s what taught us. It was a wake-up call,” he says. “Even with the support of President Bush, Congress had enough votes to override his veto. It taught us that having a relationship with the President and the Administration alone is not enough. Our job is to inform as big a swathe of America as possible.”
These days, the ambassador says, the UAE is “extremely happy” with the way things have changed since the DP World fiasco. As an example, he points to privately-owned UAE-based port operator Gulftainer, which in 2018 signed a 50-year, $600m concession to develop and operate the port of Wilmington in Delaware. The deal was the largest ever by a UAE company in the United States, and the largest investment by a private UAE company in the US. At the time, Al Otaiba said that the partnership was the “perfect example” of the possibilities of the US-UAE relationship.
Gulftainer’s Chairman, Badr Jafar, says that Gulftainer’s expanded operations in the US “are building bridges and trust through operations. There is no better barometer of a successful long-term economic relationship than that.”
Importantly, the Gulftainer deal highlighted an aspect of the US-UAE relationship that the ambassador often mentions: job creation. According to Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock, Gulftainer’s investment can “double the growth of jobs” in and around the port from 2018 levels of 5,000 to 6,000.
“If you’re married, it doesn’t work unless both sides benefit and find value in the other end,” Al Otaiba says of the relationship. “I think what we’ve done, from a military, economic, or even social and cultural side, is show that we both benefit from this.”
As he speaks, Al Otaiba peppers his remarks with reminders that US-UAE ties are “rock solid” and that the two countries “have always seen eye to eye.” But, he warns, every relationship requires work. But while more interest and resources are being dedicated to the Middle East by policy makers and think tanks in the US capital, he says it is equally clear that the American public is growing wary of the region.
“People are starting to tune out a lot of these conversations if they aren’t involved in the region,” he says regretfully. “Americans are tired of wars, violence, and governments who don’t step up and respond to people. Then America is forced to come in and do something. I think [among] the American public, there is a kind of fatigue of the Middle East in general.”
It isn’t just the American public that has expressed exhaustion with the region. Politicians – Republicans and Democrats alike – have expressed their desire to ‘disengage’ after decades of negative headlines, particularly the disastrous aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Trump, for example, has said that it is time that the US “let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand”. His predecessor Barack Obama told reporters that the US has had to curb engagements in Asia “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity” linked to the Middle East.
For his part, Al Otaiba is keenly aware that the US public fatigue and his stint in Washington comes as the country is “trying to define” its role in the Middle East. “There’s a debate taking place as we speak. I think it’s important to help people understand how we [the UAE] see that debate, and how we think America’s role should be.”
In the UAE’s case, Al Otaiba says that the country is a “big advocate” of American engagement and leadership in the Middle East. The alternatives, he warns, could be much worse. “When America is not engaged in the region, things don’t go well,” he says firmly. “We make that case.”
For Al Otaiba, making that case is a daily job. Day in and day out, evening after evening, he’s shaking hands, attending parties and extending invites. The relentless pace of events begs the question: does he still enjoy it?
“Yeah, I do,” he chuckles, leaning back into his sofa. “The one luxury you have after being here a long-time is that you can be a little more selective in what you do and what you don’t. I go to the ones where I find my presence can be valuable, or, I host something.”
Al Otaiba smiles and says he’s hosting a group of Middle East-focussed experts and journalists the following day. “It’ll be like a mini-salon dinner. I tend to do that quite frequently,” he explains. “Part of it is social. You get invited to stuff. Sometimes you have to convene.”
These events, Al Otaiba says, are not only interesting – they are often fun. But there is a serious and important purpose to them.
“It’s so important for people to understand what’s at stake. There’s a good reason America is engaged,” he says.
“This is good for us, and good for the West.”
According to Al Otaiba, Dubai and the UAE could not expect a successful Expo 2020 Dubai without the participation of the US. For months, American participation in the event was in doubt following repeated – and failed – attempts to secure the necessary funding and get around regulations that forbid the government from providing funding for expenditures or operational expenses at world Expos. In January, the State Department announced that the UAE would fund the US participation.
“We came to the conclusion that you can’t have a successful Expo without the United States,” Al Otaiba says. “Due to politics, to be honest, the United States was not able to come on time, so we had to step in and help. That’s how important the relationship is. You can’t have something of this scale without the United States.”
For decades, Al Otaiba says, revenue from UAE oil sales were traditionally invested in the West mainly through ADIA and Mubadala.
However, that trend is now shifting, with American firms increasingly willing to invest in the UAE amid growing confidence. As an example, he points to ADNOC’s $4 billion midstream pipeline infrastructure partnership with US-based institutional investors KKR and Blackrock.
“The relationship is on such a healthy footing that big private equity firms are putting their hard earned, hard raised money into projects in Abu Dhabi,” Al Otaiba says. “That to me says something about how Americans see the UAE market.”For all the latest Politics news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.