Coronavirus Report

Coronavirus Report: The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews Yousef Al Otaiba

The Hill’s Steve Clemons discusses how diplomacy has changed as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic with United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba and asks the Ambassador how he gets himself “virtually in the room” where things happen as a diplomat. 

Some excerpts from the interview below: 

Clemons: How do get yourself virtually in the room where things happen as a diplomat?

YOUSEF AL OTAIBA: First, let me start by wishing you well and making sure that you and your family are healthy and you stay safe. I hope everybody gets through this safely. We are going through something that no one’s ever experienced before so it’s forcing us to think in different ways. It’s forcing us to adapt. And if the question is about diplomacy — just like everyone else — we’re trying to figure out how to do diplomacy online, through phone calls, through letters. Diplomacy, unfortunately, will have to keep going. The crises in the area, extremism, terrorism, all the challenges that we’ve always faced aren’t going to stop because of corona. So, we have to adapt and figure out how to do it. Like what we’re doing here, if this were normal times, we’d be sitting in a studio in person having this conversation. Instead, we’re having it online. We’re going to learn how to do things differently as long as this environment persists. So just like we’re all learning how to distance, teach our kids online, just like we’re learning how to shop online. I think we’re going be doing a lot more diplomacy and meetings and gatherings virtually until people feel safe getting on planes and traveling to see each other again. 


Clemons: I used to run into you on Etihad Airways a lot because I was going to Abu Dhabi a lot as well. We used to all talk about Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of State and the number of miles that she would fly each year. It was sort of a measuring stick for how active someone was in their job. Are we going to measure diplomatic prowess and effort differently in the future?

AL OTAIBA: It’s going to be awkward because this is new. I mean, we’re both old enough to remember that before email, we had to write letters, we had to write faxes. But then email came up and when we adapted. In this environment, nobody knows how long it will last, but we’re going to continue to get things done. We’re facing challenges in the region that were challenges before COVID-19. You know, the crisis in Yemen, situation in Libya, Syria, the economies that were struggling before are now struggling even more because of the economic impact of COVID and lower oil prices. So, we’re going to find ways to get things done. I think we’re just going have to figure it out as we go along. 


Clemons: The other day I had former British Foreign Minister David Miliband, who is now head of the International Rescue Committee, on. We were talking about Yemen as well as other war-torn places and the impact of COVID-19. The UAE has pulled out of Yemen, but how has your lens changed with Iran, with Yemen, with others in the region given this crisis? 

AL OTAIBA: So, there’s an opportunity. I think there are some countries who are going to look at the region and at the crisis that they’re facing and see an opportunity to try to fix the problem, try to resolve the issue. And there are some crises that are going to allow people to manipulate the situation, or hijack the situation and take advantage of it. You know, I don’t think the pandemic is going to force people or countries to change who they are. But whether you see an opportunity to resolve issues and move forward or to create more problems, that ultimately depends on who you are in your true nature. 


Clemons: Do you think there’s an opportunity that’s real with Iran? 

AL OTAIBA: I don’t know. I think the jury still out, and I think it’s still too early to tell. I don’t know if corona changes the dynamics and the mindsets of the decisionmakers there. I think we’ll still see.  

The question I am trying to understand is whether it’s corona or climate change or any of these big global challenges that we both know are not capable of being resolved by any one or two or three countries, these are going to require the entire world coming together with a collective response — whether it’s this pandemic or the next pandemic or climate change and environment. Does this situation create the ability or the opportunity for us to work together as an international community? Are we going to be better prepared to pool our resources, our research and development, for example, and work together? Are we going to be able to work across borders better on resolving climate change?

And this is kind of the big issue I’m trying to get my head around. It’s still early, don’t know which way we turn, whether we turn right or we turn left. But I really think this gives you the opportunity to think about what kind of world we want to live in.


Clemons: One of the things I’ve been looking at is how the UAE, which is 10 million in population responded to the COVID crisis, and now you’ve got about 1 million of those 10 million who have been tested. As we said, you’ve had about 8,000 cases and 52 deaths. But the level of testing that you deployed per head in your country is somewhat staggering. And I’ve read other things that you’re already developing like smart helmets that the police can detect people’s temperatures from afar. How have you been able to achieve so much for a relatively small country in such a short period of time? 

AL OTAIBA: We’re lucky for a couple of reasons that have nothing to do with, you know, decisionmaking. We are a small enough country that we can make decisions quickly and move quickly. So, our decisionmaking process, whether it’s on the security side or on the economic side, or in this case a combination of both — the economic and the health care. They get together, they decide, based on facts. What is the best way to go? Do we go this way? Do we go that way? On the testing, we were just very lucky in that we happened to have a system in place where we manufacture our own tests. So we are, as you correctly pointed out, we have tested up to 10 percent of our population as of today. Our target is to get up to 20 percent. That’s 2 million people out of the 10 million people. That is not easy. It’s really not easy. It requires a whole of government approach. I saw pictures of a briefing that was given to our leadership, and if you looked at the way the room was set up, there are people from the Health Care Ministry from transportation from security, basically the entire government all working together to achieve a common goal. Now that helps when you have the right people in the right positions. It also helps when you design a system that works pragmatically, efficiently, and works together as a team. That is something that we have focused on for a very, very long time in the UAE. But at the end of the day, because we’re only 10 million people, it is manageable. 


Clemons: I know a lot of governors and mayors that might like to buy some of your tests if you have any surplus. That said, one of the things we saw in Singapore which was an early success story was a recent spike up in cases. In part, this may have come from not having tested groups of their guest workers. Are you differentiating between UAE citizens and your many expat and guest workers as you manage COVID-19 infections and testing? 

AL OTAIBA: The rules apply to everyone. I was in a position about a week ago where a member of my family was flying back and they had to quarantine, just like everyone else coming in. The answer I got was that there are no exceptions. This is a health care policy. This is a risk to anyone. The virus does not distinguish between an Emirati or non-Emirati. Everyone in this is completely, completely equal. I mean, this is the first time I’ve ever seen, there is no immunity. Doesn’t matter if you’re from Africa, Asia, Europe or the United States. It doesn’t matter if you live in the north or the south. It doesn’t matter if you are religious or nonreligious. Your ethnicity or religion is irrelevant here. So, I think our folks understand this, and the rules apply to everyone. One of the things we’ve managed to do early on is flights were closed very early on; schools were closed very early on; public gathering places like malls and beaches and so on were closed very early on. But we’re doing our best to make sure we create an environment where transmission is minimal. Once we get the numbers down to certain trajectories and curves, I think we’ll start thinking about what parts of the economy to turn on. But as everyone here is struggling — governors and the administration — finding the right intersection between health care and human risk with turning back on the economy and getting people back to work — it’s a very challenging question, and you really need to do everything you can to get that decision right. So, we are struggling with that, just like everyone else.


Clemons: Any lessons learned yet because I was intrigued to learn, for instance, that Etihad Airways is testing its passengers for COVID-19 in real time when they arrive for flights. I don’t know what we’re doing with United Airlines, American and Delta, but that was a fascinating thing to hear. I was reading that malls are beginning to find pathways to reopen in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and I’m wondering what some of the best practices are if you know them that are being applied bringing your own economy back. 

AL OTAIBA: I think whether it’s an airplane or a mall or school, the most important thing you want to do is you want to make people feel safe. So, I read an article yesterday that now Emirates and Etihad are flying only repatriation flights. So if they’re trying to bring back Emiratis from country X or country Y, or we’re taking expats from the UAE back to their home countries, everyone — before they get on that plane — is now getting a test, and the results of the test comes out before they board the plane. Even when commercial flights start again, I suspect that this will be now part of the new procedure. I think if I am flying back to the UAE, I will get tested before I go on a plane. This will make sure I cannot get on that plane unless I test negative. I think that’s going to be the new normal. I suspect you might see something similar in malls where people get their temperature taken. And so, I think we’re trying to figure out what that formula looks like from A to B.


Clemons: I want to ask you about something you and I have talked about many times, which is about Arab youth and what Arab youth want in their future. We know that studies have shown Arab youth want better schools; they want science, want jobs. They want religion dictating less what they do and what their choices are. How do you think this crisis is affecting Arab youth and their view of their future? 

AL OTAIBA: I’m going to go back to my previous answer is that they have to feel safe. They have to feel whether they are living in the UAE or Egypt or Jordan — they have to feel that their government and their leadership is doing everything they can to protect them, to communicate to them, to make sure that their lives are better tomorrow than it was yesterday. And I know that in the UAE, that’s the case because the numbers in the polls that we’ve both read tell that. But I think if you have confidence in your government before this and your government is doing a good job, you are going to be even more confident in your government after corona. But if you had doubts prior to this, your doubts are probably also going to increase. So, I think this is a stress test of government. How they react and how they respond. The ultimate goal is obviously to deal with and handle the health care policy and side effects of the corona pandemic. But also, your people have to feel that your government is doing the best job that they can to protect them. Ultimately, that’s really the core issue between any government and any society.

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