The UAE’s unusual approach has its roots in the 2006 controversy that erupted when a firm based in Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, sought to take over the management of six U.S. ports. Intense congressional opposition, some of it resulting from misperceptions about the UAE’s relationship with the United States, scuttled the deal.
Afterward, the embassy commissioned a survey of American attitudes toward the UAE. Although 30 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view, 70 percent said they had no opinion. When Otaiba became ambassador in Washington in July 2008, the survey results provided him with a critical mission: to persuade Americans, particularly those with no opinion of his country, to develop a favorable view of the UAE.
Home to about 8 million people, the desert nation is among the world’s richest countries — and Dubai, with its gleaming skyline, has emerged as a global hub of trade and finance. The UAE is also a key Western ally in the region. Still, most Americans were unfamiliar with it.
“We had a responsibility to educate Americans about who we are,” he said. “We have been in Afghanistan with you. We went into Libya. We’re the largest export market for the U.S. in the [Middle East] region.”
Part of Otaiba’s response was to do what ambassadors have long done: He traveled the United States, giving speeches promoting his nation, explaining how his government has been a loyal partner in the fight against terrorism and how his leaders share U.S. concern about Iran’s nuclear program. The dapper, smooth-headed 40-year-old, whose English has only a hint of an Arabic accent, won over audiences.
But Otaiba, who received a master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University and has a nuanced understanding of American politics, figured he needed to do more than just talk. In 2009, he helped facilitate a $150 million gift from the government of Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate, to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington to establish a new research center to develop innovations in pediatric surgery.
The UAE made large gifts to other hospitals, including Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic, but the ambassador also began branching into new areas — a Baltimore food bank, the New York Police Foundation and a nonprofit group that helps Washington high schoolers pay for university tuition.
In the case of Joplin, Otaiba said the decision to help started with a phone call from the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who saw images of the devastation on CNN. A week later, an embassy staffer was in Missouri, looking for ways to assist.
Beyond a basic rebuild
Joplin, home to about 60,000 people, is a former mining town on the far southwestern edge of the state, near the border with Kansas and Oklahoma. Parts of the main drag have been rebuilt since the tornado, with the construction of modern strip malls and shiny fast-food restaurants. But the new structures, much of them funded by large companies, belie deeper economic troubles in the city, where many residents are dependent on low-paying service-sector jobs. Sixty-two percent of children in the school system live in families whose household incomes are below the federal poverty line.