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The U.S. and the UAE - C. David Welch Presser

The U.S. and the United Arab Emirates

C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
Press Roundtable With WAM, Al Ittihad, Al Bayan, Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Al Sharq Al Awsat, Al Hayat
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
March 29, 2006

U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Michele Sison: My official duty is to introduce our Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch. Of course, I think all of you already know David so it's a quick introduction. David's here on a visit to accomplish two goals. As he just said, this is the first official visit in his new incarnation as Assistant Secretary. But of course, you have been here many times before to the UAE, so with that hat on we took Assistant Secretary Welch over to meet the Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan yesterday and had a good discussion on issues of bilateral and regional interest. And we are also having a small conference here for our entry level staff from all over the Near East and South and Central Asia, so that was the other reason for David coming and talking with our own young diplomats. And with that, I'll turn it over.

David Welch: Well, good morning and thank you all for coming here today. I will make some brief remarks at the outset and then we can have a discussion, questions and answers on any issue you wish to discuss. I'm very, very happy to be here in the United Arab Emirates and to visit Abu Dhabi again. I think the attention that we are paying to the Gulf region in general and to our longstanding friendship with the United Arab Emirates, as symbolized by the visit of the Secretary of State just recently, shows that this friendship is a strong and growing one. We have initiated a dialogue on the most pressing issues of concern to both of us that we addressed during the visit of the Secretary of State and also had the opportunity, thanks to the leadership of the Emirates, to broaden that discussion with other members of the GCC during the Secretary's visit. I'd like to say a couple words on the bilateral relationship. First, the Emirates is a country of importance to us politically, economically, and in security terms. We appreciate the leadership that the United Arab Emirates has provided in helping those who are less fortunate in the area, particularly the people of Iraq and the people of Afghanistan. We also cooperate on some serious transnational issues: counterterrorism, counterproliferation, terrorism financing, and general security matters. We have a strong and growing commercial business relationship with the Emirates. We commend the government and the Dubai Ports World Company for the statesmanship that government has shown and the company's recent announcement that it would transfer its U.S. port operations to an American entity. We're also engaged in Free Trade negotiations with the United Arab Emirates. Our FTA agreements are complex and complicated but we are devoted to seeing them successfully to conclusion with the United Arab Emirates and in a near time frame. Those are just some introductory remarks. Of course, I'm in this region at a time of intense political interest and developments as we see from the elections in Israel just yesterday and the Arab Summit which has been held also. I'm happy to talk about all those things, so now we'll go to questions if you wish. Over to you.

Question: Can you identify the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I'd like to raise two points. President Bush talked about Gulf investment in America (UNINTELLIGIBLE). How you can improve (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Question: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mr. Haniya, he said that they are ready to start trade with the U.S., they want to play partners, as sponsors, for the peace process in Israel.

Welch: Ok. Thank you, Mr. Hamoudi. As a general matter, the United States welcomes foreign investment from any place. There is a very high interest in my country in continuing to attract foreign investment. We believe that we provide a hospitable environment for foreign investors. We have a very open economy, as you know. And I think as a general matter, we are successful, not just in attracting foreign investment, but in making America a solid partner for foreign investment in the sense that people make money in America. We like that. This is healthy for both of our economies. There is a legitimate concern in any country about what we call strategic assets. And perhaps in the controversy over the port operations purchase, we did not foresee the extent of congressional and public concern about one aspect of our strategic assets. But that does not mean that the United States does not welcome Emirati investment or Arab investment in other places or in other respects. I think most Arabs who have invested in the United States would likely tell you if you asked them this question that they had successful investments. That's point number one. Point number two, with respect to the United Arab Emirates in particular: this country's a friend of ours and we consider the United States to be a friend of the UAE, and in no respect do we see that friendship harmed by a difference in view over a commercial transaction. I am convinced that after this transaction is behind us that we will still be friends and I believe also that there will still be plenty of Emirati investment coming to the United States, and I might add that we would like also to attract American investors to the Emirates. After all, you are a growing and substantial commercial center yourselves and we consider this to be a very positive opportunity for American business. So, look, I think if we all just take a step back and look at what is a very promising future, we can see this in a different dimension. Finally, I will say, did we learn some lessons from this? Absolutely. I think the administration, for example, has to be careful to make a very convincing case about issues such as foreign investment in strategic areas, if it decides that that's the way it wants to proceed. And our foreign partners, likewise, need to pay attention to the political environment in the United States and to make their presentations in a way that is responsive to that political environment. But those are positive lessons. I must say in my discussions with Emirati officials both in Washington and here, I have found, you know, only a good sense about moving forward, not a negative sense about the problem we just experienced.

Welch: Oh, second question. Sorry. I found the first one so interesting. Well, the second one is less interesting to be honest with you. [Are we done admitting people?] We believe that it is the responsibility of any government in the Palestinian territories to deliver for the people of Palestinian territories, to deliver on their aspirations for peace, security, for their aspiration to end the occupation, and have a better life. It is now time for Hamas to form a government. We accept that they were elected. We believe the election that was held was free and fair and now they have a chance to show if they can govern responsibly.

Question: [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Welch: The international community has three positions that are simple but important. The first: we are all talking about a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. There is going to be a state called Palestine one day and there is a state called Israel. Israel is accepted as a member of the United Nations by the majority of the international community. It has a peace treaty with two Arab states, and it is recognized by the Palestinian Authority itself and by the PLO. To this day, Hamas does not recognize that there is something called Israel. Number two: the expectation of the international community, including most of the Arab world, is that you pursue a negotiation in an environment of peace not violence and terror. So we would ask of any government in Palestine that it accept to pursue negotiations peacefully. Number three: there is a very good record of achievement between Arabs and Israelis and in particular between Palestinians and Israelis. For example, there is Resolution 242. For example, there are Arab League initiatives dating back to 1982. For example, there is the Road Map. For example, there are the Oslo Accords, which by the way established the Palestinian National Authority including the PLC and provided a format for elections in which Hamas participated. We believe these are sort of self-evident requests, not ones that are imposed. Unhappily, to this day, the Hamas political party, which will now become the government in the Palestinian territories, has not accepted any one of these. Even it has not said yes to the Arab League's own initiatives. It is Mr. Ismail Haniya's problem to answer this. So far the answers have been vague, contradictory, or lacking in substance. Thank you.

Question (Gulf News): If possible, I'd like a comment on comments recently made by Mr. Olmert regarding fixing the Israeli borders unilaterally, fixing the borders of Israel in 2010 as being "a first priority of the government." Secondly, regarding Iran, can you tell me how you see or how you'd answer those that possibly see talks between Iran and the U.S. regarding Iraq as a prelude to why there were talks on the nuclear program issue?

Welch: Thank you. First of all, with respect to Acting Prime Minister Olmert's remarks up to the Israeli election, I think we need to step back now and await the formation of a new Israeli government, which will have a platform that they will negotiate among themselves and they will put before their trust for a vote of confidence. So I would caution you against reaching judgment right now on political statements made before we see the platform of the new government. That said, it's my conviction that the people of Israel led by Mr. Ehud Olmert do want peace. They would like to have a Palestinian partner with which they can negotiate. For them that means a partner who is committed in a credible way to the bases for peace that I mentioned before, these three elements. This is essential in order to be able to move ahead. I think that Mr. Olmert is committed to pursuing that effort with the Palestinians. That said, we are in a situation in which you have a government led by a party that we, the United States, consider to be a terrorist group that is not committed to those same principles. It's going to introduce a fundamentally difficult effort, fundamentally difficult problem, in the effort to get to peace negotiations. And under those circumstances, I think we all have to reconsider what might be done. We aren't at that point yet in the sense that we still expect that a responsible Palestinian leadership would deliver for the aspirations of the Palestinian people in this regard and we call upon them to answer these requests so that we can get back to what we hope to see, which is a negotiated peace. An effort for negotiated peace.

Welch: On Iran, I presume you're asking about the idea of talks in Baghdad between ourselves and the Iranians. Look, we have suggested to the Iranians that there are issues that concern both Iran and the United States in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which are of course neighbors of Iran. And we, the United States, have been prepared to discuss those matters with the Iranian government representatives in Baghdad or in Kabul. This offer for a dialogue about issues involving Iraq and/or Afghanistan has been made to them for some time. The Iranian government chose to answer some time ago on Afghanistan, but it only answered very recently on Iraq and still no conversations have occurred, sir. We're prepared to have that discussion about Iraq in Baghdad with the Iranians. It will be with respect to issues inside of Iraq and we have some very particular concerns about Iranian interference and misbehavior inside of Iraq, which we will bring to the table. I can't answer at this point what Iran would bring to the table because so far they have only assented to the idea but have not actually proposed any specific time or date for the discussions in Baghdad. Let me just add one final thought. I have to say I'm a little puzzled and I think it's a matter of speculation as to why they picked this moment to say yes to an idea that had been on the table for some time. It might relate to their sense of where they are vis-à-vis the international community's legitimate desire to see where to protection against Iran's nuclear ambitions. As you know we have discussions underway now with our Security Council partners on a statement with respect to Iran's nuclear obligations and we expect to conclude those not too long from now. Perhaps they're reacting to that perceived pressure in agreeing to disband (UNCLEAR).

Question: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). What kind of response you receive from GCC countries regarding the dialogue (UNINTELLIGIBLE) between the United States and Iran? (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

Welch: No, I don't, I haven't heard any rejection from any of the GCC members of this idea. I think well I think you know, I didn't hear it. I think I'm correct in saying that each GCC member has a diplomatic relationship with Iran. So the idea of dialogue certainly is one that the GCC is used to. I think it's necessary for the United States to be very clear about what it is we have proposed. That's why when Mr. Charles here asked this question, I reviewed the situation not just with respect to Iraq but that which had obtained for Afghanistan. We have explained this to all our GCC friends, and I don't think they have any hesitation or concern now with respect to what the American position is. They are concerned about the Iranian position. I think the Iranian government worries people. Its president uses very unfortunate words and terminology on the world stage, and this is disturbing, not just to GCC countries, but to others in the international community. The idea of a peaceful nuclear program is perhaps one that every country could accept, but the idea that you abuse your legal obligations in order to have a clandestine nuclear weapons program is not one that any country can accept. And the prospect of a nuclear weapon in the hands of a dangerous regime is something that makes everybody acutely uncomfortable.

Question: What about the Arab League discussions on Iraq and Iran? (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

Welch: The Arab League has sponsored a dialogue about Iraq involving Iraq and its neighbors. From time to time that dialogue has been expanded to include representatives, for example the G-8. The United States has participated in those discussions. We welcome initiatives among the Arab countries to have a discussion about Iraq. But, sir, I think the United States feels very confident in our ability to have this discussion with our friends in the Arab world and with Turkey. As events proceed in Iraq, we don't envision creating a new format to bring Iran into any new conversation. I mean, let me be candid about this, we are concerned about the behavior of Iran. We wish that Iran would have participated in a more productive way, including in these Arab League neighbors' discussions so that there would be a greater sense of confidence on the part of the Arab world about Iran's responsibilities in Iraq, for example. Regrettably there isn't that confidence right now, as you know. Your second question on Lebanon. The United States is proud to be a guardian of the sovereignty, the unity and the future of a democratic Lebanon. We are not the only guardians. The international community, through several Security Council resolutions, has reaffirmed the importance of protecting Lebanon from outside interference. Israel has withdrawn completely from southern Lebanon. Those lands have been liberated. The only people now interfering in Lebanon are regrettably its other neighbor Syria. Lebanon has two neighbors, neither of which has diplomatic relations with it. Sort of curious situation in a sense. We would like to see the national dialogue move forward both with respect to issues involving Lebanese and with respect to issues involving Lebanon and its Syrian neighbor. We have to say in this respect that it's unfortunate that Syria does not appear to share the same vision about Lebanon's future and that it continues its interference in the affairs of Lebanon. That said, a page has been turned in history here and there will be no going back. The idea of a Syrian role in Lebanon is an antique idea and it won't be restored in the future.

Question: (Khaleej Times) There was a big summit in Khartoum actually. They have actually stunned the Iraq masses, so to speak, by not including democratic reform in the Arab world. In the previous summits actually, there were parts on the agenda regarding democratic reforms in the Arab world because the current will of American pressure. Has the American pressure dwindled this time so that these guys are deliberately excluding things off the agenda?

Welch: Well, sir

Khaleej Times: This is genuine concern at

Welch: I would recommend you ask them what their ideas are for reforming both the Arab League and individual Arab countries. Our belief is that the movement for change in this part of the world is a genuine one and an irreversible one. In the past 15 months, there have been three national-level elections in Iraq and two in Egypt, two in the Palestinian territories and one in Lebanon. These are really very important signs of change in which the popular voice of the masses is heard. Elections are not the only thing for real change to take root. There's a big need for economic reform. In some cases there are social issues that are important to countries, and the nature of political development is different in each Arab country. It proceeds according to its own history, traditions and institutions, so I don't think that there needs to be a fixed formula., but that doesn't mean that there should be no formula. But we think it's important and President Bush has long articulated his own personal belief that there be greater respect for individual freedom in this part of the world. We think that that would be, that would better protect the future of the security, not only in the area, but ourselves too.

Question: Do you think your pressure (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

Welch: Well, I don't like this word pressure, sir. I think, look, I'm in the business of making a positive suggestion and hoping for a good partnership and cooperation on the issue. I dislike the word pressure. I don't think pressure necessarily works, but I think there should be movement and I'm not sure we would see evidence of that at an Arab League Summit. I mean, you would see it in other places. The Summit is convened this time and has its attention on other things, it seems.

Question: There is the appearance of the action, or not action, regarding military action against Iran if she refuses negotiations (UNINTELLIGIBLE), so is that true?

Welch: We definitely prefer a diplomatic solution. The United States does not want to see a problem like that with Iran. On the contrary, we think that if Iran has genuinely peaceful intentions and genuinely wants only a peaceful nuclear program then it should be very easy to satisfy the concerns of the international community. We have been working on this issue, sir, within the IAEA, and now the Security Council and we expect to make progress in both of those places. We have a clear and fixed idea of what is necessary. Every American President always keeps all his options open. President Bush has not taken any option off the table, but every time he's asked these questions, sir, the answer's the same thing. I can only echo the words of my President: we prefer diplomacy to work in this case.

Question: When will the US withdraw from Iraq? (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

Welch: We will withdraw from Iraq as conditions improve. This depends principally upon the Iraqi security authorities' ability to take care of the safety and welfare of the Iraqi people. We are convinced that their ability is improving and in that context we can begin to see changes in the level of coalition troop commitments in Iraq including American ones. Those would be the circumstances. I think it's interesting you're asking this question because if you had been asking it maybe two years ago, you would have been saying that we went there and intended to stay there. We have never intended to stay in Iraq. Our intention was to liberate the country from one of the most diabolical regimes in modern times. That has been done. There is still a difficult political, economic and security situation in Iraq. Iraq needs the help of the international community. We're there to do that but we do see, and we want, our troops to come home and I expect that they will do that at some point. But I would ask, not just of our own country of which I'm a representative, but of all countries, that this be done in a context of support for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people so that their situation is better, not worse.

Question: [GARBLE] the American voice about Syria commitment towards Iraq was hard. Now we didn't hear any more about that. Did Syria improve their situation there so that the insurgency stopped from their border [UNINTELLIGIBLE]? And another point about Syria also, do you have within the U.S. administration any contacts with the recently set-up opposition by Khaddam to Asad?

Welch: We have been successful working with the Iraqi forces in the western part of Iraq along the Euphrates River in attacking terrorists who are seeking to come inside Iraq to conduct operations. As you know, most of those operations are directed against Iraqis, not against Coalition troops. This is a huge, huge problem for the Iraqi people. Any change in that problem has been because we are more effective inside Iraq. Regrettably, Syria still does not adequately control its borders. It is too easy for somebody with evil intentions to go through Syria to Iraq to cause harm to innocent people. Your second question was?

Question: Is there any contacts with [UNINTELLIGIBLE] ?

Welch: With Khaddam. With former Vice President Khaddam? In a word, no. We have no objection to seeing him and talking to him, but he is a figure now who is speaking out on issues involving Syria, in a very interesting way with an unusual insight into the nature of that government, and I enjoy reading his comments. I am learning things about Syria I did not know. But no we have no relationship with Mr. Khaddam.

Question: How do you see his relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood chief?

Welch: You know there are a lot of Syrian voices of opposition. Some inside Syria. To this day the Syrians are arresting people who are speaking out. If Syria is such a comfortable and open place, I don't understand why they need to arrest people for expressing their views about their own government.

Question: To what extent will the political situation in the United States influence a decision to withdraw from Iraq? [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Welch: As an American, I have two opinions on this question. My first opinion is that these are serious issues of our national security and the American people will make responsible judgments about these things. And our President will do what is necessary to protect our country. The second is: I'm glad you asked this question, because it shows that you respect our democracy. We have a very healthy political debate in the United States and, as you know, we have a great diversity of views about this issue, about immigration, about climate change, about the role of religion in public schools. You name the issue, we have a big debate about it. This is what is good about our democracy and you know sometimes people, when they develop a feeling about an issue, they can change the course of history. We respect that. And I think that from time to time you will see that these things get much more attention then even the policy makers had expected. I'll give you an example: the question about the Dubai Ports World acquisition got a lot of public attention. It's a good thing to have an open debate about serious issues. But at the end of the day, an important fundamental of American democracy is we believe in the legitimacy of our political decision-making process even if we may disagree with it. So our President is the one who leads our nation. We elected him to do that job, we trust in his judgment, we believe he'll make the right decision, but that doesn't mean we always have to do agree with it. It's not a perfect democracy by any stretch of the imagination, we are always trying to improve it, but it does work for us.

Press: Thank you very much. Shukran.

ENDS


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