Former U.S. Officials Optimistic about U.A.E. Relations with New Congress and Administration

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January 26, 2021

Former Senator Joe Donnelly, former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Akin Gump Senior Advisor Geoff Verhoff expressed optimism for the future of the U.S.-U.A.E. relationship during a U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council webinar about the Biden Administration and the new Congress on January 26th 2021. A video of this event can be found here


Former Senator Joe Donnelly, who served on Capitol Hill for 12 years, including one term as U.S. Senator from Indiana and three terms as a U.S. Representative, said that he expects the U.S.-U.A.E. relationship to strengthen under the Biden administration, noting that this relationship is a “very special one.” Former Senator Donnelly also stated that although the focus will be mainly domestic at the beginning of the Biden Administration’s term, “we can do more than one thing at a time.” Former Senator Donnelly also predicted that U.S. relations throughout the Middle East will strengthen, and he is “positive and optimistic” about the upcoming years under the Biden Administration for the Middle East region.

Former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who served as the Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) during her three decades in Congress, asserted that, “Trump doesn’t get enough credit” for his work with the Middle East. In fact, former Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen noted that the best legacy that Trump left for the United States was his work with the Middle East, especially with regard to the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states. She also said that she expects, “Biden will continue the strong plan of President Trump’s in the Middle East” and echoed sentiments from former Senator Donnelly that the U.S.-U.A.E. partnership will only continue to strengthen under the new administration.

Geoff Verhoff, who formerly worked for Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-DE) and has been serving as a Senior Advisor at Akin Gump for 15 years, pointed out that the United States has an “opportunity to revert back to the good old days” when two parties worked hand in glove to get things accomplished. Geoff predicted that the Senate will try to move legislation again, and expects to see the middle of the Senate come together. 

Following the panelists’ remarks, Mr. Danny Sebright, President of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council, moderated a question and answer session during which the speakers shared additional thoughts on the Biden Administration, the new Congress, and what this means for the United States and the United Arab Emirates along with the region as a whole.

In regards to the Biden Administration’s policy toward the Middle East, former Senator Donnelly acknowledged that, “there’s significant concern about Yemen and human rights,” explaining that those factors will play a larger role in the Biden administration’s Middle East policies than they have during the Trump administration. However, he stressed the resounding bipartisan support for the Abraham Accords, as well as the recent rapprochement between Qatar and its neighbors. Geoff Verhoff also noted that President Biden has a chance to differentiate himself from the Obama administration in terms of developing close relations with Israel and Arab States. 

All three panelists agreed that while there may be some Congressional opposition to the process used by the previous Administration in signing historic arms sale packages with the U.A.E., they stated that there is widescale Congressional support for the sales to a key friend in ally in the U.A.E.

Former Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen commented on dynamics in the House of Representatives, noting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is “firmly in charge” of her party, as she “always is.” But, she said she does not think that Republicans in the House will easily line up with Pelosi’s agenda as they, “want to get things done but want to do it in a more conservative manner, not the Nancy Pelosi way.” Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen noted that Biden has an ambitious agenda, and he must, “tone it down if he wants to make it law,” as nobody has a clear-cut majority in Congress.

The panelists contrasted dynamics in the House with those in the Senate, with Geoff Verhoff stating that, “most (republicans) that are there are there to get things done.” Geoff Verhoff spoke of the difficulties Senator Schumer may have in corralling members of his party, commenting, “the only thing worse than being minority leader in a 50-50 senate, is being majority leader.” As the speakers recognize this will prove to be a difficult road to maneuver for both Senator Schumer and Senator McConnell, former Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen shared that, “publicly, (Senator) Schumer and (Senator) McConnell will spar more in public than in private,” sharing her optimism for the new Senate’s leadership.

The three speakers suggested the new Congress may be able to agree on infrastructure, COVID relief, defense bills, and many Middle East issues, outside of Iran. They also see areas of agreement regarding China, “big tech,” and potentially trade.

The speakers agreed that it is unlikely the Senate will move to convict former President Donald Trump. Moreover, they are optimistic about the ability of President Biden’s nominations to pass through Congress, with one or two possible exceptions.   

The webinar was attended by over 200 senior executives from leading American and Emirati companies as well as by U.S. and U.A.E. government officials and thought leaders.

For more information about the Business Council’s webinars and upcoming events, please contact the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council’s Head of Communications Ms. Mary Zuccarello at mzuccarello@usuaebusiness.org.