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UAE ambassador nominee emphasizes commitment to pushing back on China in the Gulf

‘That there are certain categories of cooperation with China that would run up very directly [against]... our U.S. national security interests,’ Martina Strong said

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Martina Strong

Concerns about deepening Chinese involvement in the Middle East — brought to a head in recent days by Beijing’s brokering of a diplomatic agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia — were front and center yesterday as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned Martina Anna Tkadlec Strong and Karen Hideko Sasahara, the nominees to be the U.S. ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, respectively.

Lawmakers raised concerns during the hearing about increasing cooperation between the UAE and China, particularly in military and high-tech matters. They highlighted now-stalled plans for military sales to the UAE, which ground to a halt in part due to American concerns about increasing UAE-Chinese cooperation, and reports that China sought to establish a military installation inside the UAE.

“We have been very clear with our partners in the region, to include the UAE, that there are certain categories of cooperation with China that would run up very directly [against] and impact very directly our U.S. national security interests,” Strong said. “That message has been delivered. And we believe that our partners in the region are very clear about our concerns.”

Strong added that responding to the rising Chinese challenge also requires the U.S. to “strengthen our partnership” with the UAE. She said that administration officials have been “very focused” on the China issue in ongoing conversations with the UAE and that she would make it a “top priority” if confirmed — particularly emphasizing that Chinese involvement in the UAE’s telecommunications infrastructure could pose a threat to U.S. security cooperation.

Strong noted that administration officials are set to brief Foreign Relations Committee staff on Thursday on the military base issue in private.

Sasahara, the nominee for Kuwait who previously served as consul general in Jerusalem, said she also harbored concerns about “aggressive Chinese security cooperation and commercial prospecting in the region,” likewise pledging to confront the issue. 

“We cannot be complacent. We have to stay present,” she said. “We have to be engaged and we cannot cede space to China or to any other country.”

Lawmakers directly addressed the Chinese-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and China yesterday. 

Hagerty said it should be “a wake-up call for us” and raised concerns about remarks from the Biden administration casting the deal as a potential positive. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who has previously expressed to JI concerns about China’s growing role in the region, emphasized that Saudi-Iranian peace would be a positive development for the region.

Strong is currently the chargé d’affaires in Saudi Arabia; the incoming ambassador, Michael Ratney, was confirmed on Tuesday by a Senate voice vote. Ratney himself was in the room for Wednesday’s hearing, supporting his wife, Sasahara, the nominee to represent the U.S. in Kuwait. 

Strong took a cautious approach to the Saudi-Iran pact, indicating that the U.S. had some awareness of Saudi efforts toward rapprochement with Tehran. She said the U.S. was supportive of Saudi Arabia’s desire for a “diplomatic path to deescalate their tensions in the region,” while warning that “it remains to be seen” if Iran will actually hold to its commitments under the agreement. If the agreement holds, Strong said it would be “a positive development.”

“What is not in question and should never be in question is our partnership with Saudi Arabia, and, in my future, if confirmed, with the UAE,” she added. “There is no question that it’s a more competitive environment for us. But we need to step up, be present and certainly not cede any ground to China or any other strategic or regional competitor.”

Looking more broadly, Strong urged lawmakers to engage with Saudi Arabia directly, emphasizing “they need to hear your concerns” because the Saudis do not always “fully appreciate that our concerns, your concerns are grounded in some very core concerns… that impact on our national security, that may impact on our foreign policy priorities.”

In questioning, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who chairs the committee’s Middle East subcommittee, and Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who served as the acting chair and ranking member for Wednesday’s proceedings, took different approaches to the U.S.-UAE relationship.

Murphy characterized Strong as painting an overly “rosy” picture of the U.S.-Emirati relationship, emphasizing that the UAE is “a dictatorship,” arguing that it has “not always wielded [its] influence in ways that support U.S. interests,” and describing it as willingly “at the center of the attempt to try to support Russia against Ukraine.”

Hagerty, meanwhile, highlighted the UAE and U.S.’ “history of strong friendship and cooperation” and the UAE’s role in regional energy, commerce and security issues.

Strong described the relationship as “critical to U.S. national security at a time when our interests in a region are being challenged by conventional and asymmetric threats,” and pledged to support U.S. businesses in the Emirates. She added that the U.S. has been working to address sanctions and export issues, and committed to pressing Emirati authorities on their treatment of detained Americans.

In her testimony, Strong also highlighted the promise of the Abraham Accords.

“Leveraging this opportunity and expanding the growing cooperation between the UAE and Israel will buttress our shared goals of peace, prosperity, and greater integration in the Middle East.,” Strong said. “This historic achievement should be our focus, and certainly, if confirmed, will be my focus because I think that it can underpin a lot of positive developments. We’ve already of course seen a lot that has been achieved.” 

She expressed support for efforts to bring together an integrated air and maritime defense architecture in the region and described the recently opened Abrahamic Family House as embodying “shared values like interfaith tolerance.”

Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) urged Sasahara, in her post in Kuwait, to work toward bringing Kuwait into the Abraham Accords. She pledged to evaluate “what is possible” on the ground if confirmed.

“I share your disappointment that Kuwait was not part of the Abraham Accords. To not even consider it is to risk being left behind in the region and possibly an outlier, which can be very risky in today’s global markets and in the strategic security environment of that region,” she said. “We’ve already seen the benefits of the Abraham Accords.”

In introductory remarks, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) credited Strong with having helped negotiate a $37 billion Saudi purchase of Boeing airliners manufactured in the U.S., announced earlier this week. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), while criticizing the Saudi human rights record, cited the Boeing deal as a positive development in U.S.-Saudi ties.

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