Emirati Ambassador: Qatar Is a Destructive Force in the Region

Yousef al-Otaiba on the Gulf crisis and the future of the Middle East

United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al Otaiba, sits on a table and stares out the window.
United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al Otaiba, is seen during an interview in Washington on February 13, 2009. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

Three months ago, six countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qatar’s foes declared it complicit with extremism—citing, among other things, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas—and argued that it was too close to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis in the Middle East. Not long after, they issued 13 demands to Qatar, including that it “curb diplomatic ties with Iran” and “shut down” the state-backed broadcaster Al Jazeera, and more generally “end interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs” through contacts with opposition figures. Qatar vowed not to negotiate; despite some mediation efforts from the United States and Kuwait, the standoff has continued ever since. Last week, Qatar, trolling its erstwhile Gulf partners, restored diplomatic relations with Iran, which had been broken in  2016.

The battle for leadership of the Gulf is also playing out in Washington, through hacks, leaks, and influence campaigns. Weeks before Qatar-GCC relations reached a crisis point, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States—a person widely seen as the most influential Arab ambassador in Washington—saw his email account breached; new reports based on their contents are still surfacing. Immediately preceding the break in relations, other hackers allegedly planted a false story on Qatari news sites in which the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is quoted calling Iran an “Islamic power” and urging the other Gulf states to drop their policy of confrontation with the country. The Qataris disavowed those remarks. The UAE was accused of orchestrating that hack; and the UAE in turn denied involvement.

The level of dysfunction in the GCC has become breathtaking, even more so because President Trump has lined up with Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar, declaring on Twitter that it was “so good to see” Saudi Arabia and others taking a hard line on Qatar, and that “perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” It was not clear if Trump knew that Qatar hosted the biggest American air base in the Middle East, Al Udeid, which houses about 10,000 American military personnel and facilitates the campaign against ISIS. Trump’s State Department, though, apparently did know this, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, expressed the hope that Qatar’s antagonists would lift the trade and travel blockade they’d imposed on the country. The blockade remains largely in place.

Otaiba usually prefers to keep out of the media spotlight. But in an interview with us, he set out to explain what precipitated the break with Qatar. “This is not the first rodeo,” he says. “We went through this in November of 2014”—when the Saudis and Emiratis withdrew their ambassadors for eight months—and “we had the same exact concerns and grievances.” Back then, relations were restored when Qatar signed on to a list of principles Otaiba says resembles the current set of demands; the demands are more detailed and onerous now, he says, because Qatar broke the 2014 agreement.

Still, he says the break in relations and the impasse over restoring them does not represent a crisis. Qatar seems poised to endure it; economists who spoke to Bloomberg News recently noted, in the news organization’s words, that “Qatar has absorbed the embargo’s economic shock”—to such an extent that its rate of economic growth next year is expected to be the highest among the GCC countries. (This is due in part to the gas deposit it shares with Iran.)

“We’re three months in now,” Otaiba says, “and I’m more convinced than ever that [the Qataris] are not serious about sitting down and having a conversation about how this gets resolved.” Of Qatar’s leader, who took power from his father in 2013, Otaiba speculated: “This is just my opinion, that perhaps Emir Tamim is not fully in charge. It’s possible his parents continue to call the shots in Qatar.”

Otaiba sees the two biggest threats to his country and the region as being Iran and extremist groups. “Iran is a sovereign state,” he says. “You see that their behavior is harming the region, you see that their support for terrorist and proxy groups is destabilizing the region. Sunni extremism comes from within. Sunni extremism attempts to hijack our religion and then use it for political reasons to gain power, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, like Hamas in Palestine. These groups hide behind religion but use religion for political purposes. So the two threats are very, very serious, they just manifest themselves differently.”

A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation follows.

The Atlantic: You have enough fights in the world with serious adversaries. Why are you picking a fight with Qatar?

Yousef al-Otaiba: No one is picking a fight. This is not a crisis.

The Atlantic: Seems like a bit of a crisis for them. Aren’t you embargoing and blockading?

Otaiba: No one is starving. No one is dying. Their airports are open. Their ports are open. Their hotels are open. People going in and out. All we’ve done is we’ve said, our airlines are not flying in; our ships are not going in. It’s not to isolate or marginalize Qatar—it’s to protect ourselves from Qatar.

The Atlantic: Tiny Qatar?

Otaiba: Outside of Iran, Qatar hosts the second-largest number of designated terrorists in the world, including 59 people that we’ve just designated, of which 12 are on the U.S. list and 14 are on the UN list. They’re not in jail, they’re not under house arrest, they’re moving around freely and openly and raising money for al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, Libyan militias, and many many others.

The Atlantic: The New York Times reported that the UAE had been jockeying to host the Taliban before Qatar had—

Otaiba: The stolen email that the Times used to write that story only told half the story, which is that we set preconditions on the office being opened in Abu Dhabi, and that was: The Taliban has to accept the constitution, lay down arms, and renounce bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Those were the three conditions for us to accept the Taliban office—the Taliban refused, we said no. So, Qatar goes in, no conditions, takes the office.

The Atlantic: What’s the status of mediation efforts between the GCC and Qatar now?

Otaiba: General [Anthony] Zinni [an unofficial envoy to the Gulf], made the rounds over to the region about two weeks ago. And what we said to him was very consistent to what we said in the past: We’re ready to sit down and negotiate with the Qataris, provided they are willing to sit down and negotiate with us without any preconditions. The positions haven’t changed, and I don’t think we’ve made any substantial progress on getting this resolved. What they’ve been saying is, we’re not going to sit down with you until you lift the blockade, and we’re like, that’s not going to happen. We’re three months in now, and I’m more convinced than ever that they are not serious about sitting down and having a conversation about how this gets resolved.

This is just my opinion, that perhaps Emir Tamim is not fully in charge. It’s possible his parents continue to call the shots in Qatar.

The Atlantic: Why do you say that? You think the emir would want to negotiate?

Otaiba: I think there’s a possibility he might, but I don’t think his father is interested. And I strongly believe that the father is still calling the shots.

The Atlantic: Now they’ve reestablished diplomatic relations with Iran. I’m wondering whether, in your view, any of this has been counterproductive, in terms of the UAE’s own goals.

Otaiba: Does that validate or refute our initial position going in? Our stated goals are a behavior change from the Qataris. Why? Because we think they’re too close with the Iranians, and they’re too close to the extremists. And not coming to the table, and doubling down on Iran, confirms the position we’ve taken and why we’ve taken it. It just shows the world that, you see? We told you this was the problem.

The Atlantic: Do you worry about the long-term realignment in the region? If the goal of cutting off relations with Qatar was specifically to lessen some of Iran’s influence, has cutting off relations now backfired?

Otaiba: No, not at all. If Qatar changes behavior, it’s excellent, we’d welcome them back into the tent immediately. If they don’t, if they prioritize their relationship with Iran, their relationship with Hamas, and their relationship with Islamist militias in Libya and Syria—if that is more important to them than their relationship with us, then we wish them good luck, but they can’t do that and be our friends at the same time.

The Atlantic: Is this really about Al Jazeera and you guys not liking regime criticism?

Otaiba: It’s far less about Al Jazeera and far more about security. If you look at the 13 demands [Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have issued to Qatar], [shutting down] Al Jazeera is one. The vast majority of these address things related to security, extremism, and meddling in our internal affairs. This is not the first rodeo. We went through this in November of 2014—we had the same exact concerns and grievances. And if you look at what happened in 2014, and you look at the principles and the document that Qatar actually signed, it’s exactly the same set of issues. It was, “stop supporting terrorist groups,” “stop meddling in our internal affairs.” It was very much in line with what we are asking for now. The 13 demands are a far more specific set of demands because the agreement in 2014 was violated. So the bar is higher because even after they signed a document that said, “We are committed not to doing any of this stuff anymore,” they have continued to do it, and more aggressively.

The Atlantic: Could this Al Jazeera demand be seen as meddling in the internal affairs of another country?

Otaiba: I understand the argument here—it’s freedom of the press and first amendment. You can be for freedom of the press, and against incitement. It’s not mutually exclusive. Can someone go on The Atlantic tomorrow and promote child pornography?

The Atlantic: No, of course not, but you’re using extremes. No one is going to argue—

Otaiba: Al Jazeera Arabic comes on TV and literally radicalizes people. When a sheik like Yusuf al-Qaradawi [an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader based in Qatar], who has millions of followers, goes out and condones and promotes suicide bombings against American soldiers, that’s incitement. It’s no longer freedom of the press.

The Atlantic: What do you think Qatar wants?

Otaiba: There’s two theories. [One is that] it’s an ideological affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamases and the Talibans of the world—they believe that the region should have more religion and ideology injected into the way it operates. Or it’s political calculation and hedging, and wanting to keep a foot in each camp on every single issue.

If you ask me personally, I don’t think it’s ideological. But at the same time, if you house your country with people like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and Muslim Brotherhood members, and you have a large number of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood officials working in your Ministry of Education, where do you think you are in 10 years from now? Do you think you’re going to be more radical or less radical? You’re talking to a country [the UAE] that favors the Western approach of separating religion from governance. And part of the reason the UAE has become what it is today is because we don’t inject Islam when we’re debating our economic policy; we don’t find a religious verse that helps guide our energy policy. We learned that from you guys.

The Atlantic: You haven’t learned democracy from us though.

Otaiba: We tend to focus on governance. Governance is about providing security, providing infrastructure, providing healthcare, providing education. But we have our own style of democracy. We have something called the majlis system, which is open forums where people address their leaders, where they voice their grievances and they come and they say “I need this” or “This is a problem” or “My son’s school isn’t working,” and this is the Bedouin style of democracy. Is this the Jeffersonian style of democracy? No. But it works for us, it works for our culture, it works for our identity.

The Atlantic: Who’s a bigger threat to you, Iran or Qatar?

Otaiba: We face two threats in the region. One is Iran’s behavior, and two is extremism and terrorism. For us, Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaeda, they’re all terrorist groups. We’re not going to distinguish whether you’re a Shiite or Sunni—if you are a threat to the stability of our country, you are a threat, regardless of your religious beliefs. I put Iran’s behavior as another category. Iran is a sovereign state. You see that their behavior is harming the region, you see that their support for terrorist and proxy groups is destabilizing the region.

Sunni extremism comes from within. Sunni extremism attempts to hijack our religion and then use it for political reasons to gain power, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, like Hamas in Palestine. These groups hide behind religion but use religion for political purposes. So the two threats are very, very serious, they just manifest themselves differently.

The Atlantic: Is this, for lack of a better term, a “fake news” crisis, where someone associated with your side put out material that wasn’t true, in the name of Qatar, in order to generate a kind of broad-based anxiety and an excuse to trigger this? I know your side has denied it.

Otaiba: Absolutely, categorically, and 100 percent false. And I know that for a fact. It wasn’t us.

The Atlantic: Do you accept the premise that the report was fake?

Otaiba: There’s so much fake news that it’s become really hard to distinguish real news from fake news anymore. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that it was not us. Now, that story came out, I think, on Monday. A couple days later, there were several disparaging stories about [Saudi] Prince Mohammad bin Salman engineering the ouster of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. And so, in one week, there were quite a few stories coming out that were not necessarily positive about Saudi Arabia. This is the new style of warfare in Washington—leaks, planted stories.

The Atlantic: If you don’t know whether or not those reports were true, why is this happening now? What was the real turning point?

Otaiba: The truth is, there isn’t one. This is a consistent pattern of behavior. There’s a leaked audio tape between an adviser to the emir of Qatar and a leader of a banned opposition group in Bahrain, where they were discussing organizing protests and demonstrations and subversion in Bahrain. This is an official in the Qatari government, talking to an opposition member who was banned in Bahrain, conspiring against Bahrain. That’s one example.

Another example is: We found out that one of the attacks against our soldiers in Yemen by al-Qaeda—and this was released on BBC—the coordinates and the information was provided by the Qataris.

The Atlantic: But the story is attributing it to you guys. That’s a pretty serious accusation to make. What proof do you have?

Otaiba: We have intelligence services, just like you guys have intelligence services. We’ve gotten to a point where we’re saying, if you prefer to work with the Brotherhood, and Islamist militias in Libya, and Hamas, and al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, you have the sovereign right to make that decision. Good luck. You just can’t do it while we continue to work with you.

The Atlantic: The UAE is feeling its oats a bit because of Trump, right? I mean, you wouldn’t have done this with Obama still in office. He would’ve gone ballistic.

Otaiba: We did this in 2014 and pulled our ambassadors! And you know what, the Obama administration never came to us and said, “No no, you guys have to stop.”

The Atlantic: Why does your government like Trump so much?

Otaiba: The two initial threats that we talked about—Iran’s behavior and extremism—on both of these issues, we see the Trump administration taking a far more forward-leaning posture. I think the reason that there is enthusiasm for the Trump administration is that he sees Iran as part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

The Atlantic: The D.C. foreign-policy establishment is pretty squeamish about Trump. Are you worried about the long-term effects of being seen as allying yourself so closely with him?

Otaiba: We’re not taking a “Trump position.” We have never changed position on anything based on the U.S. administration. Our view on Iran has been consistent forever. Our view on extremism has been consistent forever. We’ve had two U.S. presidents who’ve had completely opposite approaches to the region. So we’re the ones who are in the same place–whether the establishment and Trump have an issue, that’s between them, not between us.

The Atlantic: Are you finding no pressure from the Trump administration to curtail efforts in Yemen?

Otaiba: There’s no efforts to pressure. We want a solution in Yemen. I don’t think anyone wants a solution in Yemen more than we do. And we’ve been trying to reach it, there’s been both political and military challenges to getting to a solution, but it has nothing to do with the U.S. posture.

The Atlantic: With the cholera outbreak—do you see any path to getting humanitarian aid in, and how, if at all, has the Saudi-led coalition’s position changed on that?

Otaiba: I had a few conversations on that, and one thing that was pointed out to me that is probably harming our abilities is that all the different aid organizations are working on their own. Depending on what part of the country, and how stable or unstable that part of the country is—that’s what drives whether you’re able to get assistance in or not. In Somalia, for example, everyone worked under a UN mandate, and the UN managed all the assistance going into that country. I think the fact that everybody is doing things on their own is actually preventing a more efficient system of delivery of assistance.

The Atlantic: Do you think that the fact that Sana’a’s airport is closed is also preventing that? Aren’t there some things that the coalition could do on its own right now?

Otaiba: And the main port in Yemen, Hodeidah, is controlled by the Houthis. That’s also preventing aid from coming in. There’s lots of things that the current climate doesn’t allow for. But if we do it in an organized fashion, through the UN, that gives us the ability to get a lot more delivered and distributed in a difficult environment.

The Atlantic: How do you keep your own clerics in check?

Otaiba: We educate them. We work with them. We license them. Why do you license pilots? For safety.

The Atlantic: But we’re not talking about operating an airplane safely.

Otaiba: We’re talking about preserving our religion. We’re talking about not having clerics promote jihad in mosques.

The Atlantic: Do you have resentful clerics who are saying, “Hey, don’t tell me what to talk about”?

Otaiba: We tell them what not to talk about. But we’re talking about what Islam is, right? There are 1.6 billion Muslims who practice their faith privately and personally and safely every single day. Most of them are not going out and calling for jihad. We’re promoting our religion as we know it. I grew up in a house where I was encouraged to pray when I’m ready, encouraged to fast when I’m able to, I was never told, “You have to do this or else.” So that’s the version of Islam we promote because that’s the version of Islam we believe in.

The Atlantic: But let’s use Egypt as a case in point. You’re supporting a government that may be setting in motion a cycle that we’ve already seen: repression leading to the driving underground and radicalization of more Muslims, who will then burst out again like they did in previous iterations and murder large numbers of people. The Arab world goes the way Egypt and Saudi go.

Otaiba: Absolutely. Egypt and Saudi are the two most important countries in the region, not because of their population or because of 10 million barrels of oil, it’s because of what they mean for Islam [through] Al-Azhar [in Egypt] and Mecca and Medina [in Saudi Arabia]. If those two countries are not stable, if those two countries are not moderate—can you imagine if Al-Azhar was graduating clerics like Yusuf al- Qaradawi? You think ISIS, with 30,000 foreign fighters, is a problem? It would be like 300,000 or 3 million foreign fighters. When you have preachers who go out and say, “Go fight in the name of Islam,” good luck fighting that.

The Atlantic: Egypt and Jordan already have public and open relations with Israel. You and Saudi, together with some other Gulf states, why don’t you just do it already?

Otaiba: I think, on the Palestinian issue, there is definitely an opportunity that presents itself in a version of the Arab peace initiative. We need to address Palestine because it’s this one, brooding tumor that’s been sitting there for 60 years, and it allows Iran to kind of come in, and say “I’m the defender of Palestine,” and groups like Hamas to exist, and Hezbollah. What’s the argument for Hezbollah existing after there’s a Palestinian state?

The Atlantic: Hezbollah doesn’t agree to the idea of the existence of the state of Israel. So that’s why it exists now. Israel got out of Lebanon and it continued to exist.

Otaiba: It’ll take a big argument away from groups, people like Iran, and groups like Hamas, and everyone understands or believes that there should be a two-state solution. I don’t know a lot of people that aren’t. But let’s analyze what the upside of a two-state solution is for Israel. Because we always talk about what the downside is for Israel, let’s talk about what the upside is.

The Atlantic: What kind of Middle East do you think we have 10 years from now?

Otaiba: As long as we have leaders like Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Mohammad bin Salman, Jordan’s King Abdullah—I think there are open-minded dynamic, young Arab leaders who want to see a very stable, prosperous Middle East. We want to engage the youth, we want to kind of empower their countries and their societies, and they want to engage with the West. I see that as a good thing. Those are the kind of leaders we have to work with, encourage. And we’ve seen what happened in the Arab Spring, so I’m not a big believer in revolutionary change, I’m more of a fan of an evolutionary change. So if it’s going to take countries, to reform, five to 10 years, that’s the path I’d like to see.

The Atlantic: Do you want to talk about all these leaks?  What’s it like to be Washington’s most effective and controversial ambassador?

Otaiba: I actually exert a lot of effort staying out of media attention. I don’t enjoy being in the spotlight. It’s not something I’ve worked on, it’s not something I want, I like to do my job and stay in my lane and do my work quietly. I typically do not do TV interviews, I do not do on the record interviews—

The Atlantic: So what encouraged you to do it on the record with us now?

Otaiba: To clarify and explain our position. I think there’s a lot of confusion. I get questions about, “Why now?” or “How does this end?” and so the purpose of this is to explain to people what caused this, where we are, and what the potential consequences are. This plays out in a negotiation with both parties about the 13 demands. And if the answer is no, it stays like it is—a separate, peaceful coexistence. Sometimes, dysfunctional relationships end up in divorce.