Joseph A. Kéchichian is a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He is the author of several books, including Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia. His latest work is Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen.
Khaleej Times spoke with Kéchichian after His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was elected the third President of the UAE. Excerpts from the interview.
What will be Sheikh Mohamed’s priorities as President?
MBZ will most likely continue policies on domestic tranquility and will further strengthen the union. He will work to boost military capability to defend the country from regional foes. The Federal Supreme Council comprising all Rulers views him as a leader who will fulfill his promises. All of them will work with him to accomplish established goals.
Transformation of the UAE
The UAE has benefitted in a big way from the wise leadership of its founders, who made it easy for their successors and, mercifully, their children rose to the occasion. The key is for the new generation to stay put and single-mindedly pursue original objectives.
Rise of a model state
Sheikh Zayed, the founder, was the kind of man that comes along every 500 years or so, so the UAE will perpetuate tolerance, happiness, and pluralism for the next few generations, taking good care to impart those values to youngsters.
The UAE’s relationship with the US
The UAE is a vital ally of the US and has always stood by the latter — even before 9/11- — though sharp policy disagreements, which started under the Barack Obama administration, created undeniable friction. The challenge for the Joe Biden administration is to know the difference between short-and long-term allies. They need to remember that hegemonic aspirations exist in the region, chiefly emanating from Iran, which cannot be overlooked even if most Americans have conveniently forgotten about the 444-day-long hostage crisis, how several Americans were taken hostage in Lebanon (and some even killed), and the scores of problems that Tehran created throughout the Arab world. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was too sophisticated to remind his American interlocutors who their real partners in the region are, but he should not shy away from stating the obvious. He had stood his ground in the past and is likely to continue the same path as he is known to be honest with his friends and allies.
Relationship between MBZ and MBS
The UAE President and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman work in tandem. That serves the interests of the two countries. The leaders understand the real threats that exist in the region, and while they will remain true to their commitments, they realise that the best policy is to rely on oneself. Now, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have embarked on irreversible trends to acquire military deterrent capabilities and, equally important, to enter valuable relationships with India, China, Japan, South Korea, and leading European powers. All these permutations require coordination and chances are excellent that bilateral as well as multilateral ties through the GCC will gain in value and importance.
The UAE’s role in Yemen
The UAE won’t flinch from its commitments in Yemen to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis. However, it’s high time to find a permanent solution to the war, and it seems that all parties are anxious to transform the ceasefire into an acceptable settlement. Time will tell whether the Houthis will live up to their obligations, though no one can blindly trust them to accept a solution that will make them to give up their arms and severely curtail their ties with Tehran.
How can MBZ reset ties with Iran?
The ball is on Iran’s court. The regime will have to decide whether they want to be a neighbour or pursue their hegemonic ambitions. The UAE has repeatedly called on Iran to end the occupation of Abu Musa and the two Tunb islands, but repeated moves were met with total rejection. MBZ can, and probably will call for a settlement at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Ties with Qatar
The Qatar dispute is behind us, and while some tensions linger, a new page has been opened. It is in Doha’s interest to return to the Arab fold and while every Arab Gulf state has an interest in maintaining good ties with neighboring Iran, no one should forget that they are Arabs first.
Arab cultural awakening
Cairo will retain its aura no matter what, though Abu Dhabi and other capitals will also have their roles to play in the cultural reawakening that the Arab world needs. With nearly 500 million Arabs, there is plenty of room to grow culturally everywhere.
Transition of power in GCC nations
Paraphrasing the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who famously said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others, one may venture to state that monarchies are extremely efficient systems, for conservative societies. We should not be surprised that GCC succession mechanisms are functioning very well because that is what Arab Gulf societies want.
Joseph A. Kéchichian is a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He is the author of several books, including Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia. His latest work is Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen
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