Exclusive - Omar Saif Ghobash Extended Interview

January 4, 2017 - Omar Saif Ghobash 01/04/2017 Views: 21,490

Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash weighs in on Russia's pursuit of global influence and explains how young Arabs can reject extremism in his book "Letters to a Young Muslim." (16:09)

Watch Full Episode

Please welcomeOmar Saif Ghobash.

-♪ -(cheering and applause)

-Welcome to the show.-Thank you very much.

This is, uh, great for me.

I-I don't often get to chat to,uh, ambassadors and diplomats,

especially, uh, someonewho's an ambassador to Russia.

-It's an interesting place.-Uh... I'm sure it is.

-I'm really sure it is.-(chuckles)

L-Let's talk a littleabout that.

You-you are the... you arethe ambassador, uh, of the UAE

to Russia, uh, at a timewhen Russia seems to be,

you know, uh... What's-what'sthe way I can phrase it?

Causing some (bleep)in the world,

uh, is the best wayI can put it.

How do you liaisebetween them and your country?

Well, I'll tell you, I mean,yeah, c-causing a bit of (bleep)

in the world is one wayof looking at it.

Uh, I would say that they're,uh, exerting influence,

um, uh, in the region,and it's extremely important

for us to be ableto speak to them,

uh, to understandexactly what-what they're trying

to-to do.Uh, and there are sort of...

There are a coupleof different versions

of what they're trying to do.One of the versions is

that they're trying to,you know, sort of impose

their own im-imperial mighton our... on our...

-with a... througha-a great Russian empire. -Yeah.

The other one-- whichI'm more inclined to believe,

uh, because-because, you know,coming from the region--

is that they are tryingto contain

the problem of radical Islam.

Uh, I... and I thinkyou-you should know

that a lot of peoplewho, um... uh, from-from Russia,

in the southern part of Russia,are Muslim,

uh, and many of themare, actually, radicals

who are fighting in Syriaand Iraq

and-and even places like Libya.

Um, so they do havea serious kind of a issue,

uh, with radical Islam, whichwe have in-in common with them.

-So there's actually a lotto talk about. -But...

I mean,that-that's a great answer.

And, I mean, I guessthat's why you're a diplomat.


but it seems likeRussia's actions in the world

aren't limited to just fighting,uh, extremism, you know?

It seems like they're doinga little bit more than that.

And what-whatalways interests me

and, you know, when I seethese discussions in the world

is I go, "How do you then workwith a nation

that seems to be hell-benton forging its own path?"

It seems like Vad... VladimirPutin is doing his own thing,

-you know? I mean,Crimea is a good example, -Yes.

where you... it doesn't seemlike he's engaging with anybody

in the world. He's not tryingto work with anybody.

The same goesfor what's happening with Assad.

You know, you've-you've come outand so has the UAE

against Assad. How do youreconcile with that then?

Well, first,these situations change.

Um, and so you have to dealwith a new situation.

Um, uh, the-the fact is that,you know, the-the rebels

did morph froma relatively benign, uh, force

into, uh, something that maypose a much greater danger,

uh, to the regionand-and to the world.

Uh, and so that sort of requiresa recalculation,

um, a reevaluation.There-there...

The problem is that thereare only very many bad choices,

and you're tryingto choose the least bad choice.

Um, in general, uh,you know, I don't...

I'm not a Russian diplomat,so I don't feel obliged

-to defend their actions.-Yeah.

Uh, my job, as a diplomat,

is to figure out how we can,uh, educate the Russians

about the region and how wecan pull them into the region--

if they're... if-if they'renecessarily gonna be there--

how we can pull theminto the region

in a way that is constructive.

Um, and, actually,through my conversations

with my Russian counterparts,there is a great deal

-of readiness for constructiveengagement. -If you...

if you have Russiancounterparts,

the question I think a lotof people would like to know is,

do your Russian counterpartsthink

that the Russianswere responsible

for, you know, hackinginto the DNC's...

-Hmm.-...uh... servers?

Yeah, interesting question.

Um, I, uh...

They don't... Even if they haddone it, they wouldn't tell me.

-Uh, I mean...-(laughter)

They're all great guys.

Um, there is no doubt

that Russia has very, very goodcomputer science education,

and there are a whole bunchof young hackers

who do a really fantastic job.

-Now, whether they're doing...-Did you say "A fantastic job?"


A really fantastic job.

Now, I don't know whether

they're doing it on behalfof the Russian government,

and that they're actuallydoing it in the U.S.

Um, you know, this is an area

where we're never really gonnaget down to the...

-to the reality, the... what'sreally going on. -What...?

Then what is the opinionof Russians?

-I mean, you stay in the region.-Yeah.

You know a lot of people there.

What is their opinion on...

on even Donald Trumpand his ascent to power?

Because from the U.S. side,a lot of people go,

"Oh, the Russians must bereally happy about Donald Trump,

because of how he feelsabout, you know, the Kremlin."

You know, there isthis whole idea around here

that he's some kindof Manchurian Candidate

workingfor the Russian authorities.

I think you guys have to have

a little more pridein your system.

Uh, it's highly unlikelythat that is the case.

I think Donald Trumpis very likely

to become a great president.

And, you know, he's done it onU.S. terms, on American terms.

He's done itfrom within the system.

Um, you know, there are,of course,

many jokes in Russiaabout the situation.

I think many people area little surprised

at the influence that has beenattributed to the Russians.

And so, for example,if you don't mind...

Um, there is one particular joke

where Putin is seento be signing a document

appointing Donald Trump governor

of the North AmericanFederal District of Russia.

-(laughter) -And, you know,it's entertaining,

but, uh, it's difficult

for many peopleto believe, in Russia,

that any outside force

could really influencethe American election, so...

It's interesting that you say

that Donald Trumpwill be a great president,

especially as, you know,as we talk about the book.

-Mm. -I mean, Letters to a Young Muslim.

-You're a Muslim man.-Yes.

-You come from a Muslim country,the U.A.E. -Mm-hmm.

It strikes me as a paradoxfor you to say that--

say Donald Trump will bea great president.

And yet, this is the same manwho has said

he wants to implement a banon all Muslims in America.

How do... how do you say that?

Well, I mean, he saidquite a lot of things.

I mean, he... I actually thinkthat he had worse things

to say about Mexicansthan he did about the Muslims.

-Uh, I also... -(laughing):That's a strange thing to...

-Yeah. -"Oh, he said worsethings about them,

-so, I mean..."-(laughter)

No, but I think we need to be...

We need to put thingsinto perspective.

There is the pre-electionkind of generation of ideas,

and some of them may have been

not particularlyattractive ideas,

but it appealed to somethingwithin the American people.

So I think it's...

From my perspective, it's lesswhat Trump said in the past,

and what people want to hearin the American population.

So that's, I think,is one thing.

-The other... -I'm goingto interrupt you there...

-Sure. -...because that's aninteresting point that you make.

'Cause I watched a town hall.

And I know it's anecdotal,and it's not a...

representativeof all Trump voters.

But there was a Trump voterwho said,

"I heard him sayingthese things,

"and I just likethat he was saying it,

but I don't actually expect himto do it."

-Hmm. -"And I don't thinkhe's gonna do it."

So you're saying that'ssomething you almost agree with

in that way by saying that?

Well, I think that there aremany more constraints,

uh, on the powerof the president

once he's in office,

uh, as comparedto when he's campaigning.

When you're campaigning,presumably you can say

-pretty much whatever you want.-Yes.

But once you come into power,

then you havethe laws of the land,

you have the Constitution, youhave all these different kinds

of constraints,um, and, you know,

what we in the outside world,outside of the U.S.,

have been taughtis-is we've been taught

that the Founding Fathershad a certain kind of genius,

uh, that they had builta system that would, uh,

would... would make surethat no populist or demagogue

would actually come to power,

and if somebodydid come to power,

there were enough constraintsin place.

So, I don't know,maybe-maybe I'm more optimistic

and more of a...have more confidence

in American democracythan many Americans.

But, uh, you know, I would...I would have hope.

Uh, maybe you're justa really good diplomat.

-Um...-No. (laughs)

-Let's-let's talk a little bitabout the book, then. -Sure.

Because it really isan optimistic book.

This is a bookthat you've written,

and it's Letters to a Young Muslim,

but more specifically,it is letters from a father..

-Yeah.-who is Muslim.

And talking... to a childthat is growing up in a world

where you are worried...

about the role that theymay be influenced into playing

-in the world. You know, I mean,-Yeah.

I don't wantto give a lot of it away,

but one of the most interestingpieces I read in the book

was where you talked abouthow your son, you realized,

-in the UAE,-Yeah.

was being radicalizedby his teacher at school.

Yes. Uh, absolutely.And I think this is

one of our key problems,is that it's not necessarily

part of the curriculum,

it's not necessarily partof government policy,

but, you know, there is a...a readiness or an ease

with which certain people talkabout fairly radical ideas.

And I think there'salways been a disconnect

between having the radical ideas

and then implementingand carrying them out.

And I think, unfortunately,September 11 was, uh,

for me, a turning pointwhere I saw radical ideas

actually taking expressionphysically.

Uh, which is, you know,a great tragedy.

Uh, the book thatI've written here

is really to be able to providesome kind of framework

for young people, to give themconfidence in themselves,

uh, for them to, uh,to respect authority,

whether it's...whether it's father figures,

whether it's teachers or,uh, you know,

governmentor religious scholars,

but always to be able to comeback to their own gut instinct,

to remember that, uh, you know,adults can be very manipulative,

um, and can-can have a...a cavalier attitude

towards young people.

And so what I want to sayto young people

in the Muslim worldand the Arab world

is to really have much moreconfidence in your instincts,

uh, and to believethat you can build a life,

and you can build a healthy andgood life even in the worst...

worst of politicaland economic circumstances.

So then how would you respond,then, to somebody who says...

Islam is fundamentally opposedto the ways of the West?

You know, when you lookat Islam, you know...

As you say in the book--and we know this--

"Islam" means "peace."

But then there aresome scholars who say

Islam is morethan just what you believe,

it is a way of life,and oftentimes, that way of life

doesn't match up with, you know,the Western way of living.

Well, that's actuallyalso a very important point,

and I think it is a pointthat needs to brought out

into the...into the Muslim world.

Which is the idea that Islamis a complete way of life.

Actually, that isa political position

taken by certain scholars.

And part of the reason they'vetaken that position

is because they have controlof the scholarship,

they have the authoritywith which they can speak,

and because they're essentiallymaking, in my view, a land grab.

Uh, they-they're grabbing theminds of our young people

by saying that every act of life

falls under the, uh,under the umbrella of religion.

And there's a very powerfulargument to be made against it,

using the Quran, using theprophetic traditions,

using the sources of, uh,Islamic knowledge,

to say actually, the ProphetMuhammad, peace be upon him,

said this is religion,

and this is the rest of life.

So you-you do what you need

to satisfy God's demands,

but you then continueand do your own thing.

Now, here's-here'swhat-what becomes--

It sounds like a paradox to mein saying that.

-So I've been to the UAE-Yes.

multiple times.

And, you know, I-I respect thecustoms and the culture,

but I also acknowledge thatthere is a certain, uh,

there is a certain disconnectbetween a world I'm used to

and-and the world there.

For instance, in the UAE, andyou're an ambassador of the UAE,

it is legal, uh...

to, you know,to have domestic abuse.

That is not somethingthat is against the law.

-Really?-That is, that's what,

that's-that's what we--am I... ?

You can correct me if I'm wrong.

Well, you may correct me,but I didn't know

that we had, uh, you know,we had legalized domestic abuse.

-I-I should...-But, but, but...

-...go back and think aboutthis. -But then when we...

So-- No, no. But then, you-you--this is a great moment,

-where you can educate mein and around that. -Sure.

At what point, then, aregovernments going above

and beyond that,and at what point

is that what, you know,

the-the religion is all about?

In terms of-- solet's-let's-let's move,

-let's take domestic abuseoff the table. -Yeah.

When we look at the UAE,and we look at what people

-in the world talk about interms of women's rights. -Sure.

-Your book talks a lot aboutrespecting women, -Yeah.

and women's rights and equality,and so on.

Then how do you respondto somebody who says,

yes, but that is not somethingthat is echoed

in the countrythat you represent.

But it is, actually,and that's the funny thing.

I mean, I've written this book,coming out of a certain context.

I'm not writing a book that hasabsolutely nothing to do

with the backgroundthat I've grown up in.

Um, and in fact,you know, um, uh,

there-there are certain partsof the Islamic world

where women are given, um,sort of subservient

and secondary roles, and they'redeprived of an education,

and mobility and allof these other, uh, uh,

obstacles that areput in their way.

The Emirates is actually a veryinteresting example

because we're a Muslim countrywhere women are, uh, given,

uh, pretty much as many freedomsas you can think of.

-And, um...-But is that...

I mean, it's not, uh...

-Forgive me, but it's weird tosay as many freedoms -Tell me.

as opposed to justall the freedoms.

Well, well, um,what I would say is, uh,

it's probably more importantto say

that men and womenhave equal freedoms,

-as opposed to, you know,talking about -I understand.

-some kind of absolute sense.-I understand. Yes.

So what I'm sayingis that I, uh...

And I speak to womenin the Emirates,

and, uh, they have as manyfreedoms as we men have.

Now, culturally, depending onwhat family they come from,

they might find constraints,however, uh,

in terms of legality,and in terms of-of,

you know, the general directionthat the government is taking,

and the policy, um, womenare actually the great hope

for the Emiratesand for the region,

because they're better educatedthan the men,

uh, they're more focused,

uh, they seem to bemuch better organized,

and they've got a purposein life. And actually, in fact,

you know, the-the...the problem of radical Islam

is more a problem of young men

not knowing what to do withtheir lives or their time

or, uh, with, uh, you know,their sense of impotence.

So, um, we, uh, havea great deal of admiration

for-for the womenof the Emirates

and we want them to go... get ahead.

So I... I mean, I couldtalk to you forever on this,

-because it really isa fascinating book. -Thank you.

That-that isn't one where...It is-it is very pro-Islam.

You know, you-you are... you aresupporting and you-you...

you're encouraging your sonto go into the world of Islam,

but at the same timewhat you're doing is saying,

"Be wary,because there are those

"who are hijacking the religion

and are hijackingwhat your beliefs should be."

So, in writing this book,

what is the one thingyou want young people

to take abou...take away from it?

'Cause it is Letters to a Young Muslim. -Yeah.

What specifically do you want,uh, Muslim people to take away

from this book and even maybe,uh, non... non-Muslim people?

Well, I-I would say that, um...

go with your questions.

Don't be afraid of having doubt,

um, at-at any one particularpoint in time.

Certainty, uh, in matterof religion and matters of life,

uh, is... is a privilege.

Um, and so, uh,you-you need to believe

that you can beconstructively critical.

These are the key things thatI'd like to say to young people.

Uh, and thatthey should continually

ac-accept, um, questions.

Um, I also think that it's veryimportant that we don't

per-perpetuate this myththat Islam is incompatible

with modernityor is-is incompatible

with Western values.In fact, there are

many, many valuesthat we share in common.

Uh, and-and these arebasic human values.

I mean, the value of-of freedom,um, speak to young Muslims.

I... You know, they-they feel,

uh, the same urge for freedom,

um, and they have...But the problem is that

there is a theological kind of,uh, fear of freedom,

uh, that we really need to-towork out.

So what I'm asking for hereis not-not reform of Islam

but clarifying Islamfor the 21st century.

What does it mean in today'sworld to be a Muslim,

uh, and how-how do we justget on with life?

It's a powerful book and, uh,I hope to have you back again.

-Thank you very much.-Good luck in Russia, my friend.

-Thank you. -Thank you, sir,for being here.

(cheering, applause)

Letters to a Young Muslim is available now.

Omar Saif Ghobash, everybody.