The first time he spoke in public, Omar Saif Ghobash spent months preparing. As the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Russia, he had needed special permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deliver remarks at the University College London — unheard of at the time as Emirati diplomats rarely spoke to the media. Ghobash walked onto the stage in March 2013, certain, he says, someone would be listening for errors.
Instead, his 30-minute talk, “An Accidental Liberal,” struck a chord in the audience, boosted his stock at home and turned the 46-year-old Ghobash into the exemplar of a new idea: “There is this myth that we [in the Gulf] are young countries, we don’t have the experience … we don’t have the smarts,” he says. “I think we need to stop saying that.”
Four years later, Ghobash — incoming UAE ambassador to France — has become a de facto spokesperson for his country and its global ambitions. He is often described as the most important Emirati ambassador after the country’s representative in Washington — a post many expect him to fill one day. His gift for carefully crafting messages allows him to address taboo issues, as few others can. “I don’t want to be shocking; I want to be inviting,” he tells OZY. “That was a choice I made.”
He believes that a relationship can be improved only once it exists; you need economic ties to secure political alliances.
Ghobash’s fixation with language stems from a personal history constructed from fragments. His father, Saif, briefly served as the UAE’s first minister of state for foreign affairs before being assassinated in the Abu Dhabi airport in 1977 (Omar was 6 at the time), struck by a bullet intended for the Syrian minister standing beside him.
Raised by his Russian mother, Ghobash says he absorbed a “positive Frankenstein” of characteristics, including from the father he imagined, based on the clues he had: books of German philosophy, a memory of Seif reading Arabic poetry at the beach each Friday. Ghobash thinks in English but scribbles notes in Arabic to uncover new ideas; he became fluent in Russian as a way of understanding his mother and to grow closer to her.
In his late teens, Ghobash started wondering why no one could point to an Arabic literary canon, as a German or Russian might. In one of his first jobs, at a foundation in Abu Dhabi, he convinced the board to back the first International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known today as the “Arabic Booker.” In 2005, he opened the Third Line art gallery, which became “one of the motors” of the visual arts in Dubai, says Neil van der Linden, author of the Gulf Art Guide.
By the mid-2000s, Ghobash, who studied law at Oxford and math at the University of London, was ready for a new project. “I looked at my Russian background … and I looked at the [low] trade statistics between Russia and the Arab world, and I thought to myself, maybe I should try to fill that gap.” He began traveling to Moscow, building contacts and business ties. He caught the eye of a member of the UAE ruling family and was named ambassador in 2008.
In Russia, Ghobash maintained his entrepreneurial streak, always willing to “challenge conventions within the UAE Foreign Ministry,” says a former colleague, who is not authorized to speak to the press. And he pushed forward with two strategies that would come to define UAE foreign policy following the Arab Spring in late 2010. First, he believes that a relationship can be improved only once it exists; you need economic ties to secure political alliances.
Second, he compartmentalized. The UAE and Russia disagreed on many foreign policy matters, but not on doing business together. Ghobash proved that “the fault lines in regional politics run along different lines depending on the issue,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
After protests against authoritarian regimes erupted across the region in 2011, the Emirates balked as the Muslim Brotherhood won elections and gained territory in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Turkey. In response, Ghobash says he felt a “duty to stand up and advocate” for liberal values. He began speaking out as the UAE mustered its political courage. In Libya, the country supported the NATO-led effort that removed Moammar Gadhafi from power, and Abu Dhabi offered aid to the military-led Egyptian government that ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi.
In late 2015, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia’s coalition attacks in neighboring Yemen, aimed at rolling back Iranian-allied rebels. Then, in June 2016, the two countries gathered a coalition to impose a boycott against Qatar, which they blamed for funding the Brotherhood’s regional rise.
Abu Dhabi’s moves have, at times, rattled Moscow: Russia opposed Gadhafi’s ouster and is a strategic ally to Iran. Yet, as a diplomat, Ghobash sees potential beneath every conflict. “I instinctively like to investigate the cracks in the relationship and try to understand what we can do to improve it,” he says. The UAE and Russia have recently found common ground pushing back regional Islamists, from ISIS to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ghobash insists that the new activist Abu Dhabi stems from an optimism that helped transform a roadless desert into a thriving metropolis. Still, the verdict is out on the country’s activist foreign policy: While UAE-held areas in Yemen have fared better, that country is the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, many U.S. and Western policymakers dismiss the Qatar boycott as “an unnecessary distraction from the real issues,” says Ulrichsen.
Now the articulator in chief of those positions, Ghobash heads to Paris with a heightened profile that he intends to leverage. If, according to van der Linden, he is “diplomatically representative of what the UAE wants to stand for,” we can expect even more deliberate engagement. In his simpler estimation, Ghobash says, “I hope to be able to demonstrate to other Arab diplomats that there are things that we can do.”
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