Sheikh Sultan is deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. This interview, originally published in Arabies Trends, was conducted between July and August 1998 by Joseph A. Kechichian, a member of the National Advisory Committee of the Middle East Policy Council.
KECHICHIAN: In the aftermath of the 1991 war for Kuwait and the subsequent divisions within the Arab World, how does the UAE perceive the security of the strategic Gulf region?
SHEIKH SULTAN: Effective regional security in the Gulf region requires the direct and meaningful participation of every state bordering this body of water. This was the position of the UAE even before the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that, undeniably, changed the nature of how countries in this part of the world dealt with each other. By invading a fellow Arab state, Iraq virtually assured that external powers would be involved in our midst, because Kuwait's liberation was achieved through the military intervention of the world community led by the United States. Under these circumstances, the UAE aims to:
- Avoid a repeat of the 1990-91 scenario, since we simply cannot afford to get entangled in such action.
- Work for effective solutions to help resolve regional disputes, rather than responding after the fact. Our emphasis ought to, and will, be on preventative measures to address changing circumstances. We now have two models of what to avoid, the Iran-Iraq War and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and we should learn concrete lessons from both.
- Cooperate with non-Arab states to provide blanket coverage for regional security. By extending such cooperation, we can and must eliminate, or at least control, the spill-over effects of future conflicts.
Q: As a consequence of the 1991 war for Kuwait, Iraq was virtually isolated, if not ostracized. by the world community. Is the UAE satisfied with Baghdad's isolation or do you prefer a gradual lifting of economic sanctions?
A: No, we are not satisfied with Iraq's current isolation, and prefer that economic sanctions be eased to help innocent Iraqis, who continue to pay a very heavy price. The United Nations is monitoring Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities and should continue to perform its duties. But it should also allow people to live.
Iraq is an important country in the Arab and Gulf regions, a vital component of the regional balance of power that provides a unique strategic parity vis-a-vis other actors in the area. Although Iraq upset the balance after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, it retained its vital role and, therefore, cannot be ignored forever. We would very much like to see Baghdad renounce its hegemonic aspirations and return to the Arab fold because that will ultimately better serve the Iraqi and the Arab peoples.
Q: What can the UAE do to alleviate Kuwaiti fears of future conflicts with Iraq?
A: President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan repeatedly called on Baghdad to tum a new page in Gulf affairs and agree to work out a new border accord to settle whatever disputes may exist between Kuwait and Iraq. Iraq must demonstrate its peaceful intentions towards Kuwait through a peace treaty that will guarantee Kuwait's territorial integrity. His Highness's goals in making such statements were very clear: the UAE would very much like to find permanent solutions to those festering problems to the satisfaction of all protagonists. We need to build trust where little or none exists so that far more serious issues, including regional development and security, can be tackled in earnest.
Q: Is that feasible?
A: Without a doubt it is a difficult task and perhaps, given the challenges, may appear to be daunting. In the case of Kuwait and Iraq, we do more than many realize, even if the hard work must ultimately be done by the Kuwaitis and Iraqis themselves. Not only does the UAE promote bilateral cooperation, but it also coordinates diplomatic initiatives through the Gulf Cooperation Council. In other words, the UAE is keen on extending a hand, whichever way possible, whenever possible, at whatever cost, to bring such disputes to an end. Simply stated, the region cannot afford them. Naturally, we trust that our objective - i.e. to bring about a genuine reconciliation between Kuwait and Iraq - can be reached soon.
Q: The "Iraq Question" generated important disagreements within the GCC during the December 1997 Kuwait Summit. What was their nature and how were they addressed?
A: At the last GCC Summit in Kuwait, Sheikh Zayed proposed to send a high-level mission to Bagdad, to achieve two ends: first, to defend Kuwaiti rights on a collective basis and, second, to put an end to the suffering of the Iraqi people. By all accounts, GCC leaders concluded that Sheikh Zayed's proposals were wise, although they could not agree on how best to implement them. Some doubted the president's motives, but that was because they did not understand them. In fact, the UAE's foreign policy - practiced consistently since 1971 - was to foster stability and prosperity for all.
The UAE understood quite clearly that its own long-term prosperity and security depended on genuine harmony among all regional powers and, consequently, could not, and indeed did not, pursue divide-and-rule policies. Sheikh Zayed insisted then, and practices today, the type of cooperation that is genuine and practical. We are interested in sincere initiatives that will allow Iraq to return to the Arab fold.
Q: The next GCC Summit is scheduled to be held in Abu Dhabi in December. Given Sheikh Zayed's earlier suggestions, what will he propose next, especially if an Arab Summit were to occur before then, to address the moribund Arab-Israeli conflict?
A: Given the 1997 experience, it is clear that a general agreement must be reached on this topic before the December 1998 Summit. There is no reason to wait until the last moment to reintroduce previously advanced positions when everyone knows what is needed. I am very confident that GCC leaders, through their foreign ministers and other senior officials, will agree on the next steps, and attend the Abu Dhabi summit fully prepared. It is my sincere hope to see us move much faster, using the GCC forum as a podium to announce concrete actions, rather than to offer new plans. This sense of urgency is further emphasized by ongoing developments on the larger Arab scene over the Middle East peace process. We simply cannot afford the luxury of negotiating with ourselves when the task is to address issues involving foreign powers which have their own agendas and interests in the region. We should never allow others to take advantage of our differences.
Q: What other topics is the GCC likely to address at the December 1998 Abu Dhabi Summit?
A: Naturally, a variety of issues will be discussed at the upcoming summit, including the UAE's dispute with Iran over the Iranian-occupied islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs. We are committed to a peaceful resolution of this strategic question and trust that Tehran, eager to improve its own relations with its southern Gulf neighbors, will respond in kind.
Q: As a participant in previous GCC summits, could you give us a glimpse as to how summit meetings are conducted?
A: The effectiveness of the GCC as a regional institution lies in its enormous flexibility. There are both formal and informal debates that occur at the head-of-state level. While the Ministerial Council holds more structured debates, informality fosters true understanding among senior leaders. When we say that we are neighbors who share an outlook, language, religious and political beliefs, we actually mean it. Many of us are also related through blood ties. To be sure, differences exist, but they are not as serious as most outsiders conclude. We are frank among ourselves and discuss matters in an open atmosphere.
We are free to disagree on some issues, but in the end we discuss these matters either on a one-on-one basis or, as may be required by specific circumstances, through more formal arrangements. The end result is what counts, and against all odds, GCC states have achieved during the past two decades far more than they generally receive credit for.
Q: What would the objectives of an Arab Summit be if one were held before the December 1998 GCC gathering?
A: The Arab world is going through a very critical period concerning the Middle East peace process. Today most countries are awaiting Israel and the Palestinian National Authority to settle their differences and reach an equitable solution that will give the Palestinian people an independent state of their own. This was the direction of the Madrid talks, but the process was significantly undermined by the Netanyahu government and its obstructionist policies, which could lead to further tension and instability throughout the whole region. One is led to believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not seek lasting peace. Rather, it seems Israel is heading toward a far more intransigent approach that, for obvious reasons, should not be tolerated. The peace process today requires intensification, not incineration. The majority of Arabs, led by the Palestinians, have accepted the terms of the Oslo accords, but no one will accept an Israeli dictate with regard to the area. Hopefully, the upcoming Arab summit will respond to this rigid Israeli position by articulating a clear, unified response. Arab leaders must see through this stratagem and address it in unison. This should be the objective for the upcoming summit.
Q: What would the UAE specifically like the next Arab summit to achieve?
A: In order to revive the moribund peace process we must coordinate our positions and speak with a single voice. We simply cannot afford to wander aimlessly because of the divisions brought about by the invasion of Kuwait. We must gather enough courage to come forward and articulate effective and attainable policies. As Benjamin Franklin signed the American Declaration of Independence, he declared, "We must all hang together or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately." Likewise, our strength lies in our collective will. Arabs and Israelis alike should not waste this opportunity to reach an equitable agreement based on the principle of land for peace. Otherwise, we may see further mistrust, violence and instability throughout the region. If the intended objective is to achieve comprehensive, just and lasting peace on all fronts, including the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, then we must address the thorny issues with determination. Everyone must realize that permanent peace is impossible without Syria.
Q: The UAE's concerns span the entire region. After the recent nuclear detonations by India and Pakistan. do you see a shift in the strategic equation?
A: Undoubtedly, new factors have now been added to this already volatile region that, if not addressed, could have serious consequences for us. To address these new factors, we must:
- Recognize that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers that cannot be treated as fellow developing states.
- Take into consideration the underlying changes that both of these countries pose, given the large numbers of Indians and Pakistanis who live and work among us.
- Consider that one or both of these states are saber rattling, which serves no one's interests.
Q: What concrete steps can the UAE take to address this putative threat?
A: We can and must encourage India and Pakistan to solve their bilateral differences peacefully. What is the point of killing millions of innocent people over age-old disputes that are so entrenched that neither side will budge? Rather than isolate the subcontinent, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals - as well as the entire international community - must create an environment conductive to negotiations. Toward that end, the recent Western lambasting of India and Pakistan was not particularly useful. Can India and Pakistan really be intimidated? Will they be affected by sanctions when the global trend is to loosen existing economic, cultural, political and other barriers that exists among states?
Q: Will the UAE ever consider acquiring weapons of mass destruction to respond to India and Pakistan?
A: Definitely not. Not only are WMDs unnecessary, they are also a drain on meager resources that should be invested in far more productive areas. I strongly believe that the UAE and, for that matter, all Arab and Gulf states, can solve their differences without resorting to such weapons.
Q: For what purpose did the UAE purchase 80 F-16s in May from the United States?
A: As Sheikh Zayed recently told The New York Times, the UAE's main goal is to defend the country against potential threats, even if no apparent peril exists today. These platforms will assist our armed forces to prepare an entire new generation of capable pilots and technicians to serve the country with pride by acquiring the latest available technologies. We believe in investing in our future and, since we are planning for tomorrow, to be ready for all eventualities, both apparent and not so apparent.
Q: Finally, how do you see the role of the UAE in the Gulf region as we enter the new millennium? What are your own aspirations for the country?
A: My most sincere goal is to ensure that the UAE develops on the path of progress. We want to work very closely with the developed world to achieve stability in the Gulf region. That is our fundamental objective. We also want to reduce poverty throughout the area. We take our responsibility seriously, because we strongly believe that effective security requires that one's immediate neighbors be content.
Ultimately, the UAE's main goal is to encourage the creation of wealth throughout the developing world because that is the only way to ensure political stability. The well-fed seldom go to war, hardly envy their neighbors and rarely look back. That is our duty and challenge.