Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, the man behind the UAE-Israel deal
by Omri Nahmias
In November of 2018, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) hosted an event featuring Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the keynote speaker. Between the kosher dinner and Pompeo’s speech, the audience took note of another highlight of the evening: Yousef Al Otaiba, the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates, attended the dinner and sat at the same table with Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer.
That was the first public sign of the warming ties between Israel and the UAE, nearly two years before they agreed to the White House-brokered normalization agreement that will be signed next week in Washington.
“He told me before the dinner that this is the first time he’s been at a public event [with the Jewish community]. And I was very clear with him that Dermer was going to be there,” Mike Makovsky, president and CEO of JINSA, remembered this week in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post. He added that he was “a little bit surprised” that Otaiba accepted the invitation.
“I didn’t know that meant there was going to be normalization within two years,” Makovsky added. “But it obviously shows progress. That’s probably all I thought at the time. It was obviously a very encouraging sign for what’s going on in the region.”
The 46-year-old ambassador grew up in Cairo. His father, Mana Saeed Al Otaiba, was UAE’s first minister of petroleum. Yousef Al Otaiba graduated from the Cairo American College and then attended Georgetown University and studied international relations. Later, he served for eight years as the director of international affairs for the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. In 2008, he was appointed as ambassador in Washington – a position that he has held for the past 12 years. In 2017, he was promoted by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan to the position of minister while keeping his post in Washington, in recognition of his “loyal service to his country,” as the Emirates News Agency reported.
If the 2018 JINSA dinner was the first public indication of the warming ties between Israel and the UAE, the second was the rollout of the “Peace to Prosperity” plan at the White House.
“He came to the event in January, which is a very courageous thing, because he hadn’t seen the plan in advance to coming, and yet they wanted to show that the UAE are leaders on normalization,” Avi Berkowitz, US special representative for international negotiations, told the Post.
“Al Otaiba had conversations with Jared Kushner behind the scenes for months,” Berkowitz added. “He was the one who was in the weeds on every single detail, one of the main negotiators. The deal could not have happened without him. When you’re dealing with him, you know that you’re dealing with someone you can trust.
“He brought a very smart approach to things and people, but he’s also very practical,” he added. “If something didn’t make sense, he was able to immediately find a creative solution. He was in the White House, probably about 30 times, leading up to this deal over the last few months and always with constructive solutions.”
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. He told the Post that Otaiba’s influence in Washington “is a combination of understanding the United States and Washington very well and also having been here for a long time.”
“A lot of the diplomats come for a few years, and then they go somewhere else,” he said. “I think the Emiratis are smart,” he said on Otaiba’s long tenure.
“It’s worth remembering that he is also a minister at the Emirati government,” he said. “So he’s not just an ambassador, but he’s a minister, and people know in Washington that when you speak to Yousef, you’re speaking to someone who is very close to the top leadership.”
Speaking on Otaiba’s background and education, Dubowitz said that if you talk with the ambassador, “you could very well assume he grew up in America.”
The most significant element in the warming ties between Israel and the UAE is that both countries share a common enemy: Iran.
Otaiba never tried to hide his hawkish stance against the Islamic Republic. “[The] Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran obviously was a huge issue for the Emiratis, as it was for Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Dubowitz said. “And so it created tension with the Obama administration.”
Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to president Barack Obama, is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute. He told the Post that the relationship between Israel and the UAE goes back more than a decade and evolved over time.
“Its certainly, in many ways, accelerated during the Obama administration,” he said. “What originally produced was a sense of common threats and a common interest in dealing with those threats, principally Iran, but also the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a low visibility relationship. But over the last few years, you began to see some visible elements of it.”
“I don’t think [the normalization] would have happened without him [Otaiba],” said Ross. “I think in many ways he was the key to it. At a certain point, he understood that annexation was going to happen unless the Trump administration had a reason to say no. He understood what the backlash to the annexation might be in the region. And, not knowing exactly what it would be, but seeing that both Turkey and Iran would seek to exploit it, created an incentive to find a way to make sure that the annexation wouldn’t proceed.
“They saw benefits and normalization. But, obviously, they also felt if they normalize with Israel, then there isn’t the same justification to limit access to the weapons that have been long sought and have been denied,” he added, in reference to the reports on a possible deal with the US to sell F-35 jets to the UAE.
“In a sense, they saw a win for the administration, a win for Israel and the prime minister and a win for the UAE,” Ross continued. “It should be a win-win-win outcome. And that’s where I think he presented it to the administration, and then they picked up on. If it wasn’t for his initiative, this probably doesn’t take place.”
Aaron Lobel, the founder and president of America Abroad Media, an international media nonprofit based in Washington, told the Post that Otaiba “understands Washington, its DNA and its rhythms incredibly well.”
“He’s someone of real vision who thinks big. He is decisive. He’s accessible and responsive when you reach out to him. He’s direct; he makes decisions without wasting time. He tells you straight what he thinks and where you stand, and when he tells you he’s going to do something, he does it. And those kind of qualities go a long way in Washington,” said Lobel.
“His skills, his background, his experience, led him to punch above his weight, just as the UAE as a whole, punches well above its weight in the world,” he continued. “There are other countries in the world with resources. Resources alone do not equal influence.”
Jason Isaacson, chief policy and political affairs officer at the American Jewish Committee, told the Post that Otaiba “is among the very most effective, respected ambassadors I have known.”
“He is tremendously well connected across the board, on Capitol Hill, on both parties and big government agencies, including, of course, the White House,” said Isaacson. “But he has gained the respect of all significant power players in Washington, including NGOs.”
Dan Arbell, scholar in residence at American University and former deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, told the Post that Otaiba’s role in the normalization agreement was crucial.
“He wrote an op-ed in Yediot and addressed the Israeli public directly,” he said. “He was instrumental in shaping this agreement, and in many ways he was the key person for it,” Arbell added.
“Otaiba had great relationships with the Bush and Trump administrations,” said Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “During the Obama years, there were a few clashes, as he spoke about the need to attack Iran and tried to build a united front against the Islamic Republic. Obviously, Obama didn’t like it,” Ayalon added.
“He believes in an alliance of the moderate Sunni countries, together with Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt. Unlike Saudi Arabia, there are things that for the UAE, as a small country, are easier to say – for example, against the Iranian nuclear program,” Ayalon continued.
“For the US, it is highly essential that the UAE, as an economic power, is fully aligned with Washington, rather than with Beijing.”
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post