Bruce Jentleson on the UAE: Up on Renewable Energy, Down on Political Islam

by BRUCE JENTLESON for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 8, 2013:  Our Center for American Progress delegation just finished three plus days in the United Arab Emirates; a visit designed to gain a better understanding of key issues in the region that affect and are affected by US policy.

While I’d been to both Abu Dhabi and Dubai before for conferences, those were more self-contained. This trip involved much more direct engagement with political leaders.

The agenda included meetings with cabinet members (the UAE’s Foreign Minister, Minister of Energy, and Minister of State), tours and briefings at the Masdar City renewable energy project and Dubai Ports, a visit to the joint US-UAE Al Dhafra Air Base, dinner discussions with business leaders, and a meeting with the US Ambassador.

Renewable Energy and Economic Growth 

There is much that is impressive about the UAE, and I don’t mean just the glitz of Dubai (I’m not much for indoor skiing in the desert.)

Noteably, Masdar, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Government’s Mubadala Development Company, is building from scratch a planned free-economic-zone “green city.”

And Masdar and MIT, in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi government, have come together on a project that established a leading graduate research university —  Masdar Institute — focusing on alternative energy, sustainability, and advanced technology. These and other projects make the UAE a world leader in renewable energy.

While it may seem paradoxical for a leading OPEC oil producer to be investing in renewables, it has both a near-term economic rationale (free up more oil from domestic consumption for export) and is indicative of longer-term strategic planning. Our meeting with the Minister of Energy provided a fuller sense of the UAE energy policy, including nuclear energy.

The Dubai Ports operation — the Jebel Ali port is the 3rd busiest in the world — is quite sophisticated; getting to actually see it operating was amazing.  Also, Dubai just won the international competition for Expo 2020 , and is planning economic growth around that. (The six-month-long World Expo, held every five years, has never been held in the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia in the history of the event until now.)

Gender Parity and Human Rights 

Particularly impressive was a meeting with Minister of State Reem Al Hashimi. She is one of four women ministers in the UAE Cabinet. Her portfolio is a broad one, including having been the point person for winning the UAE’s Expo 2020 bid. This too was a frank discussion.  For example, the UAE is #1 in the Arab world in gender parity but #123 in the world rankings for the same, so, as she explained, much has been accomplished but there’s much to be done.

Not so impressive — the UAE’s overall record on human rights. Our delegation did not get to meet with civil society groups and didn’t get very far in trying to raise issues such as the ban on some US NGOs from operating in the UAE, or the nine-month detention in Dubai of Shezanne Cassime, an American  charged with defaming the country’s image abroad with his satirical YouTube video on Arab youth culture. (That said there were reports out today that he will soon be released)

Political Islam: Just Say No? 

In terms of foreign policy, the UAE has been a close ally of the United States. Its troops were part of the coalitions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and also the Libya 2011 intervention against Qaddafi.

While one does get a sense of many shared interests, on two issues our group had some particularly robust discussions with UAE officials.

One was the emergence and strength of political Islam in many parts of the region and particularly in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The UAE has been a staunch supporter of Egypt’s military regime that took over from the Brotherhood this summer – and the UAE together with Saudi Arabia has given $16 billion in aid. The UAE government view of the MB and political Islam generally is essentialist; convinced that it is an unabashed adversary and must be squashed in all forms and all traces.

My own view, as I’ve written here and here, is that such an approach is likely to feed into radicalization, and make the very outcome to be avoided more, not less, likely. Political Islam is here to stay. It will be in the political mix more often than not. No question there are always terrorism risks amid instability and uncertainty about the shape successor regimes take. But while transnational links to Al Qaeda or other similar actors certainly need to be taken into account in shaping our relations, and their significance weighed hard-headedly, this must not automatically trump other factors.  Making further assessments of the goals, strategies, visions and leadership of different Islamist parties and movements in different countries is necessary. Policies need to be tailored to oppose those inimical to our values and threatening our interests, while remaining open to those with which coexistence and cooperation may be possible even though we have differences.

Another issue in our discussions with officials was Iran. While they do stress the threat posed by Iran, and some of their own particular issues such as the disputes over the Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs Islands, they are not as staunch as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-Shia cold (and not so cold) war.

Still we had some robust (good diplomatic word, so I’ll say it again) discussions around these questions: Is the Rouhani regime just a charm offensive, a gambit to feign change and get the world to let its guard down? Or is this a real opportunity, both on the nuclear proliferation issue and for further possible improvements in US and other countries’ relations with Iran — that could have broader constructive effects for Middle East security?

Duke Blue

And yes I even found some Duke blue presence on the trip. The US Ambassador’s mother was a librarian at Lilly Library. And I was wearing my Duke hat when visiting the US air force base, which prompted one of the officers to say “you guys played great the other night, tough loss” – and he meant the football team!

On to Jordan next …


Bruce W. Jentleson is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, and affiliated faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. He is also a Distinguished Scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Jan.-June 2014), and Co-Principal Investigator with the Duke-American University-UC Berkeley “Bridging the Gap” initiative. Jentleson’s areas of expertise include Middle East peace and security, international conflict prevention, global governance, international security, and U.S. foreign policy. In 2009-11 he served as a Senior Advisor at the State Department. His publications include “American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century” (W.W. Norton, 5th edition 2013). Current projects include U.S. policy in the new Middle East, genocide and mass atrocities prevention, and a study of leading statesmen/women of the last century. In Fall 2013 he taught the Coursera MOOC (Massive Open Online Course): “21st Century American Foreign Policy.”

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