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Feud between Congressman and UAE ambassador to US escalates online

Congressman Ro Khanna calls for release of Yemeni journalist Adel al-Hasani after war of words with Yousef al-Otaiba
Congressman Ro Khanna first introduced a resolution to end US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen in September 2017 (AFP/File photo)

US Congressman Ro Khanna has called on the UAE to help secure the release of a journalist held in southern Yemen after trading barbs online with the UAE ambassador to the US.

Khanna's call for Adel al-Hasani's release came after the congressman publicly turned down an invitation to speak on Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba's podcast, Podbridge.

'Given... the UAE's involvement in al-Hasani's continued detention, I will not be able to join your podcast'

- Ro Khanna, US Representative

Instead, Khanna appeared on a podcast for The Intercept during which he spoke about incredulous behaviour allegedly exhibited by Otaiba during a meeting last year. 

During the podcast, Khanna said Otaiba was so angry over the lawmaker's push to end US support for the war in Yemen that the ambassador shouted at him in his Capitol Hill office. 

"I've never had an ambassador of another country come to my office and literally yell at me, but that's what I had with the ambassador to UAE," Khanna said during the interview.

"I was just taken away," Khanna continued. "It led me to think that there's a real arrogance, a real sense of entitlement, a sense that he thought himself so powerful that he could act that way. And I've never really seen that before."

'I have never once raised my voice'

Ambassador Otaiba responded to Khanna's comments in a letter that the UAE embassy's official Twitter account posted on Saturday. 

Otaiba denied ever raising his voice at Khanna and invited the lawmaker to appear on Podbridge for a "direct and calm discussion". 

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"Over thirteen years in Washington, and even longer in public service, I have raised many issues with many people – but I have never once raised my voice," Otaiba said in the letter. "Making my point directly and calmly is more my style. And that's how I remember all of our meetings."

"Let's prove the point that two passionate advocates can have another direct and calm discussion about serious issues," the ambassador continued.

"The theme and our measured conversation will speak loudly for itself, so we won't have to," he said. 

In response, Khanna seemed to take offence to the embassy's publishing of the letter. 

"@UAEEmbassyUS chose to publicize their letter to me," the congressman wrote on Twitter on Monday. "So I will now release my response." 

'It would not be appropriate'

In his letter, Khanna said he appreciated the ambassador's invitation, but he could not take up the offer as long as Hasani - the Yemeni journalist arrested five months ago - remained imprisoned. 

"Right now, it would not be appropriate for me to appear on your podcast while a well-known journalist is detained with the support of your government - apparently because of his work building bridges with [the] US and other foreign journalists as a fixer," Khanna wrote. 

The congressman highlighted a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report released earlier this month, which alleged that the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is unable to release Hasani due to political pressure from the UAE. 

"Given the widespread reporting of the UAE’s involvement in Al-Hasani’s continued detention, I will not be able to join your podcast until he is released," Khanna continued. 

The congressman said he was "gravely concerned" about Hasani's deteriorating health and separation from his family, including his one-month-old daughter. 

"Al-Hasani's prompt release would greatly improve [the] UAE’s reputation in Washington and help strengthen our countries’ important relationship," Khanna said. 

"Upon the release of Al-Hasani, I would welcome the opportunity to join your podcast and publicly thank you for weighing in with the STC to ensure that one of the most well-known journalists covering the conflict in Yemen is no longer behind bars," he continued. 

A source familiar with Hasani's condition told CPJ that the journalist has been beaten, suspended from the ceiling and subjected to sleep deprivation during his detention.

Before his arrest, Hasani had covered the war in Yemen as a reporter and fixer with international outlets including the BBC, CNN, and Vice. 

Representative Khanna has led efforts in Congress to end US involvement in the Yemen war and to rescind US support for UAE and Saudi war efforts in the country since 2017.