The last time the United Arab Emirates was elected to the Security Council, in 1986, the country was only 15 years old, and Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, the current UAE ambassador to the United Nations, was just 7. Since then she has seen her country, a Persian Gulf monarchy comprising seven emirates, evolve into a tech hub and innovation laboratory.
“Growing up, one wouldn’t have imagined then that the UAE within a short span of time would be taking a seat [as president] at the Security Council,” she told PassBlue, adding that her country is also leading the clean energy revolution, in the region and globally, in order to address climate change.
Fifty years in, the country is still not a democracy and it has been criticized for a range of human-rights abuses. Its population of nearly 10 million is unique: nearly 90 percent of residents are migrant workers. Vast inequalities persist between these visa-holders and Emirate citizens.
The UAE also occupies a unique position in Middle Eastern affairs. It has normalized its relationship with Israel under the 2021 Abraham Accords, a diplomatic overture by the Trump administration, and it plays a key role in the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war.
On Monday, Feb. 28, when the Security Council agreed in a resolution to renew an arms embargo and sanctions against the Houthis, the UAE was apparently instrumental in getting the insurgent group — wagers of an eight-year civil war pitting them against both government and Saudi interests in Yemen — designated as a terrorist group in its entirety. After the vote, some diplomats speculated that the UAE got Russia’s support for this designation in exchange for abstaining from the previous Friday’s failed resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The UAE doesn’t engage in vote exchanges,’’ Ambassador Nusseibeh told PassBlue. “Frankly, if we were going to talk about exchanging a vote, people aren’t asking whether other countries were exchanging votes with any of the other P5 [Security Council permanent members, Britain, China, France and the United States], who voted in favor of [Friday’s] resolution. The two things are really separate. I think the Yemen sanctions renewal was important and . . . came about because of the Panel of Experts report and the evidence of Houthi intransigence.” (The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen provides the Security Council with twice-yearly updates on the conflict, the targeted sanctions program and the arms embargo.)
Reflecting on her country’s abstention from the vote on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ambassador Nusseibeh said, “All of these discussions were in many ways foregone conclusions because of the setup and design of the UN Security Council. We were not here in 1945 when the operative environment and the setup and design of a permanent five membership were created [giving the permanent members], an outsized say on everything and the work of the council. So for us it eventually comes back to your foreign policy. We’re focused on keeping, in all situations, the window for dialogue and diplomacy open.”’
Sanam Vakil, a deputy director and senior research fellow at the Chatham House, an international think tank, said that while she was a little surprised by the UAE’s abstention, she shouldn’t have been. “Actually, the UAE has long been sort of walking a tightrope between the geopolitical . . . poles. It has strong economic ties with China, it has a security relationship with the United States and also a transactional energy relationship with Russia.”
Oil exports account for about 30 percent of the UAE’s gross domestic product. But the country, notably the emirate of Dubai, is making a concerted push to establish itself as a center of technological and “green energy” innovation.
This month, during its presidency, the UAE intends to remain the voice of the Middle East on the Security Council by organizing the recurring meeting on the cooperation between the UN and the Arab League. The UAE is also organizing a meeting on women, peace and security, with the theme of “economic inclusion through partnership,”’ and plans to hold an Arria-formula (informal) meeting on March 9. (See her March 1 media briefing below.)
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as their countries assume the rotating presidency of the Security Council. In 2021, the column reported on Tunisia, Britain, the US, Vietnam, China, Estonia, France, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Niger. This year so far, it has been Norway and Russia’s turn, respectively.
To hear an analysis with more details on the UAE’s Council presidency and insights from Vakil of Chatham House, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Stéphanie Fillion and Kacie Candela, on Patreon or SoundCloud. (Excerpts are included in the interview portion below.)
Ambassador to the UN: Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, 43
Languages: English, Arabic, French, Hebrew
Education: B.A. and M.A., Queen’s College, University of Cambridge. M.A. in Israeli and Jewish Diaspora studies, University of London.
Nusseibeh comes from a family immersed in politics and diplomacy, “which is why, of course, like any normal child, I thought I would do exactly the opposite,” she says with a smile.
Nusseibeh initially took a more academic route by enrolling at Cambridge. She then worked for a think tank in Dubai and joined the ministry of foreign affairs to run a task force to secure the headquarters of the International Renewable Agency in Dubai, beating out contenders from Germany, Austria and Denmark. The agency opened in 2009.
After this experience, she says, she was hooked on diplomacy. “I think diplomacy is changing in so many ways. It’s not the traditional diplomacy of international relations courses. Today, it’s everything from technology to climate change, development, to all the new issues that diplomats need to get their heads around and their [bring their] expertise to. That’s one of the things that I love about the job.”
Nusseibeh was appointed UN ambassador in 2013 and was recently named assistant minister of foreign affairs. “It’s just a title,”’ she says. “It’s always nice that your leadership, your government recognizes you as having done a good job, but I always say that you’re only as good as your team.”
The ambassador is one of only a few women ambassadors serving on the Council, along with envoys from Britain, the US, Norway and Ireland. She says they collectively make a case for sending more women ambassadors to the UN because they can increase a country’s influence, at least within the Security Council. She lauded the US ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, for inviting fellow women ambassadors to her residence for brunch, an American tradition, she says started under Ambassador Madeleine Albright (1993-97).
“It is nice to showcase more female ambassadors at the Security Council,” Nusseibeh says. “It makes that horseshoe table reflect the world . . . as it should look, as opposed to pictures of the 1950s of cigar-filled . . . smoky lounges where men decided the fate, the future of countries and empires.”’
Nusseibeh talked to PassBlue on Feb. 28. Her remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity.
I’d like to ask about the UAE’s decision to abstain from the Security Council vote denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 25, a day after Putin’s troops attacked their neighbor. Do you think that, looking back, you were on the right side of history? Just a small question! Look, we abstained alongside India and China, and all three countries explained their positions. . . .We’re focused in all situations on keeping the window for dialogue and diplomacy open, and that always informs our voting. In a time of conflict, the way we see the Council, the way we see the work of the UN, is that it has to reinforce our collective responsibility to identify the most likely successful routes toward a peaceful and swift resolution of crises, to leave no stone unturned toward achieving that. We’re fully committed to those principles. We’re fully committed to the UN Charter, and to the importance of a stable security environment, not only in our region—a complex one—but now in other contexts as well.
I think that will define our presidency, especially if this issue [Ukraine] continues to be one that the Security Council needs to discuss. Our voting will always reflect our foreign policy: diplomacy, de-escalation, focusing on dialogue, focusing on the cessation of hostilities. That’s our foreign policy principle as well.
It was said that your abstention was transactional, to get Russian on board in the Council with renewing Yemen sanctions. How do you respond to that? First of all, the UAE doesn’t engage in vote exchanges. . . . I think the Yemen sanctions renewal regime was an important renewal and a negotiation that came about because of the Panel of Experts report and the evidence of Houthi intransigence in the face of an arms embargo [imposed by the UN] and the use of those arms to commit cross-border terrorist attacks against the UAE, against my country, against Abu Dhabi and civilian airports and civilian infrastructure. Jan. 17 [when a Houthi attack killed three people in the UAE, near the Abu Dhabi airport] was a defining moment for our country, which had never witnessed the scale of an attack like that, with ballistic and cruise missiles. And although it had been happening repeatedly in Saudi Arabia, I think in the UAE this was really a turning point moment for us where we realized what had been done, the failure of the UN to resolve the Yemen crisis. The crisis has gone on for a long time, and we need to — again, collectively — move forward to a diplomatic solution.
I think what was adopted [on Feb. 28] in [terms of] the Yemen sanctions, the [UN] arms embargo on the Houthis, there wasn’t a single Council member who disagreed with stopping missile components going to this Houthi entity, who were using them for cross-border terrorist attacks. There isn’t a single Council member who opposes that, or the designation of the Houthis on the sanctions list [as terrorists]. Of course, when they start showing behavior that is conducive to a political dialogue, they should look at that down the road and in the sanctions panel, but I think that was also really important, designating them [as a terrorist group] and then describing them as an entity, which they are. I think that context is very separate, and also very much in support of the political process of the UN envoy, Hans Grundberg, and the work that he now needs to do to resolve the situation in Yemen through a political process.
How are the Abraham Accords influencing your work on the Council, especially when it comes to recurring meetings on Israel-Palestine? I think the Abraham Accords are essentially an agreement between two countries that other countries have also become part of, essentially opening up a pathway to Israel’s place in the region, pathways for economic development, pathways for technological cooperation and innovation, and ultimately pathways for prosperity not just for the youth of our country, but the youth of the entire region. These are only going to be brought about by cooperation in the sectors. So, we really see the Accords as a pivotal moment for the region that we hope will really herald and has already heralded a new year of cooperation in a region that is turbulent. But ultimately [the Accords represent] a relationship between us and Israel. To answer your question, they have not affected our relationships on the Council.
Every country has the sovereign right to make their own decisions on the countries they have bilateral relationships with, and the UAE is one of those countries. And at the same time, other Council members, including Egypt and Jordan, which represent the Arab group, also have relationships with Israel. We also represent the Arab voice on the Council. Of course, one of the primary issues for the Arab region is that the Palestinian-Israeli issue remains unresolved. It’s one of those situations that I mentioned at the beginning, where we’re also looking toward longer-term resolution of conflicts and not simply conflict management.
But going back to the Abraham Accords and the bilateral relationship, you know, of course, it’s had a huge impact: 300,000 Israelis visited the UAE last year; they’ve resulted already in almost 130 [memoranda of understanding] on a variety of different issues; [we’ve seen a] 222 percent increase in trade every year; and there has been $1.46 billion in trade between Israel in the countries that signed the Accords, so it’s just the beginning. In a very difficult global economy and global environment, it’s estimated that the Accords could create about four million new jobs and a trillion dollars in economic activity. So it’s a gateway to much-needed economic opportunity for the region’s youth. I think that the US played a critical role, of course, in the lead-up to the Abraham Accords, and their continued commitment to the Accords is very much welcome.
Of course, it in no way replaces the very necessary negotiations that need to happen between Palestine and Israel, and that is a separate matter. It’s dealt with by the Council in a regular fashion. Of course, the UAE will represent the Arab point of view on that, which is the two-state solution as based on the international norms, laws, resolutions. We’ve stated that on the record several times, so I think actually, in many ways, the Abraham Accords are separate from the Middle East peace process. But it could be a useful stimulus, perhaps down the road to wider integration into the region when the two-state solution is realized.
President: Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Foreign Affairs Minister: Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Type of Government: presidential, federal monarchy
Year UAE Joined the UN: 1971
Years on the Security Council: 1986-1987, 2022-2023
Population: 9.89 million
CO2 per capita emissions for 2019 (in tons): 20; US, in comparison, 16
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.