UAE’s Al Otaiba goes behind the scenes of the Abraham Accords

Insider Access

The UAE ambassador to the U.S. discussed the deal on a Jewish Insider webcast with Haim Saban and Dina Powell McCormick

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Dina Powell McCormick (left), Haim Saban (top), and Yousef Al Otaiba (bottom).

United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba on Tuesday hailed the Trump administration for working to finalize a normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel, which he said came as a result of Emirati efforts to halt Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank.

During a Jewish Insider webcast alongside Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban — moderated by former White House deputy national security advisor Dina Powell McCormick — Al Otaiba described the behind-the-scenes efforts that culminated in the groundbreaking Abraham Accords.

One of the first steps in the process, Al Otaiba said, came when he asked Saban to help him publish an op-ed aimed at the Israeli public during the time that annexation was being considered. “Haim told me where it should be placed, when it should be placed and, the most important piece of advice on this was, you have to do it in Hebrew,” the ambassador said. “If you really want to speak to the Israelis, it has to be translated in Hebrew.”

“I remember a subsequent conversation with [Saban], asking, ‘Hey, do you think this article made an impact?’” Al Otaiba recalled. “He started laughing at me, like laughing loudly. He’s like, ‘You have no idea how much impact this article had.’ And it was shortly after the article we then started thinking of actual concrete ideas to avoid annexation.”

Al Otaiba said he remembered “having a really serious conversation with [White House Mideast peace envoy] Avi Berkowitz on July 2, right after he returned from Israel, and figuring out what we can do to prevent [annexation], how do we trade this? How do we give something better?”

The deal, which was formally signed earlier this month during a ceremony on the White House South Lawn, jump-started the normalization of relations between the two countries in exchange for Israel’s commitment to shelve a planned annexation of West Bank territory.

The panelists noted that while the threat of annexation may have brought the sides to the negotiating table, there was little doubt that the larger threat posed by Iran was also a driving force. “There is no question that when you have a common enemy that is, basically, a cancer in the region, you unite forces against that enemy,” remarked Saban, who explained that “people have realized that there is much more upside, aligning with Israel, and forming a front against Iran.”

Both Saban and Al Otaiba credited U.S. leadership for helping to manage the negotiation process and deliver on the agreements. “I think the United States government came through every single time,” Al Otaiba said. “And that’s the reason we had the signing ceremony two weeks ago at the White House.”

The Emirati ambassador lauded Berkowitz, Jared Kushner and Brig. Gen. Miguel Correa for their efforts. “I spoke and talked to them and met with them, probably more in that four weeks than I did with anybody else, including my own family. If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure this deal would be done,” Al Otaiba said, adding: “for anything like this to happen, it takes an incredible amount of trust.”

Saban, a longtime donor to Democratic candidates and causes, including the presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden, also praised Kushner, Al Otaiba, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed, Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed and Mossad director Yossi Cohen for paving the way for the deal. The Israeli-American businessman called the agreement “game-changing,” explaining: “There was no precedent for public commitment to normalization… Israelis would give their right arm to have peace with all its Arab neighbors.”

Al Otaiba echoed a similar interest in bilateral peace on the Emirati side, telling the webcast: “People always think we do not pay attention to public opinion inside the Emirates because we’re not a democracy. And it’s actually quite the opposite. Because we’re not a democracy, we have to be very in tune with what our people want, and what the streets feel. And people really wanted this. This is not something that we are forcing against the popular will of the parties that live in the country. There is a genuine energy, that people are excited about this.”

The three participants also sought to emphasize the economic benefits of the recent agreement.

Powell McCormick, who serves on Goldman Sachs’s management committee, noted that “we’re already having clients call us and ask about investment opportunities.”

Al Otaiba said he thinks “people forget about the immediate benefits that we’re going to have once you have direct commercial flights and tourism, about trade, investment, research, development, COVID research.” The ambassador added: “It is not a coincidence that when Jared Kushner came from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi on that historic flight, the first set of MOUs that we submitted to the United States to get done were on consular affairs, civil aviation, trade, prevention of double taxation, protection of investments — what we feel is the foundation, the infrastructure for any healthy relationship, so we can have mutual wins, so you can have trade investment R&D.”

Saban said at least five Israeli entrepreneurs have reached out to him with ideas to invest in the UAE. “Even my chief investment officer and the head of my VC division, they came to me and they said, ‘We have an idea that we can do with the Emiratis.’”

Al Otaiba noted how much has already occurred in just the few weeks since the accord was announced.

“We’ve already seen MOUs on AI, on COVID research, on health care and just today, a very prominent soccer club in Dubai bought an Israeli soccer player,” he noted. “Once an Emirati investor feels that he can invest in Israel safely, and an Israeli investor feels that he can invest in the UAE safely and not get taxed twice… I think the stars are the limit.”

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