The UAE’s Foreign Policy – 2018 Edition

Summary: UAE’s ambitious foreign policy. Supporting non-oil investment in new areas such as Central Asia, preparing for non-US future, alliance with Saudi Arabia, opposition to Islamists and Qatar. Painful mistakes to be learned from.

We are grateful to Dr. Christopher Davidson for the article below. He teaches Middle East politics at Durham University, and is the author of several books on the Gulf states and the wider region, most recently Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East.

With high profile and at times controversial foreign policies that appear a significant departure from its historical reputation for fairly placid mediation and peacekeeping-oriented ‘active neutrality’, the United Arab Emirates of today is clearly pursuing a very different and more ambitious set of goals.

The most predictable and in many ways most rational are its efforts to get more closely involved in the economies of those states that its various sovereign wealth funds and parastatals have identified as either suitable strategic investment destinations or commercially attractive UAE-organized port hubs.  In this sense, the UAE’s now very vigorous forays into far-flung places ranging from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa can at least in part be understood as a function of its efforts to generate healthy sovereign returns and thus reduce reliance on hydrocarbon export revenues, and for UAE conglomerates to serve as vanguards for both Gulf and global capital seeking access to hitherto difficult-to-enter frontier markets.

As well as preparing for its post-oil future, there are also signs that the UAE is preparing for something of a post-US future, at least in the Middle East.  Again, this seems rational, especially through the lens of ‘realist’ international relations scholarship, as, like many other US clients in the region, the UAE – which is increasingly Abu Dhabi-centric, and thus behaving more and more as a unitary state, at least on the world stage – is clearly worried about the reliability and long-term commitment of its superpower patron, and the possibility of having to survive on its own in an even more anarchic environment.  In this context the UAE has made considerable efforts to set aside numerous longstanding differences with its militarily more powerful neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and to form a more ‘united front’ against the threat that both monarchies believe has morphed from being existential to veritable: that the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies seek to encircle and then depose their regimes.

In parallel, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, along with fellow travellers such as Sisi’s Egypt have sought to roll back the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and other supposedly ‘moderate’ Islamist organizations.  Alarmed as such groups swept to power through the ballot box in the wake of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, the UAE and Saudi Arabia feared the rise of an alternative form of conservative Sunni Muslim state, legitimated by western-friendly democratic procedures, in contrast to their seemingly anachronistic hereditary monarchies and unelected governments.  By launching a campaign against ‘terror sponsoring’ Qatar, the home of the pro-Brotherhood Al-Jazeera new network and identified as the Brotherhood’s most generous backer, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s actions were seen by some as having developed an ideological underpinning.  But in many ways, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards the Islamist-Qatar alliance is quite a recent phenomenon, and again a largely realist reaction to something perceived as a serious threat to the survival of their respective regimes.  After all, for decades both the UAE and Saudi Arabia enjoyed cordial relations with the Brotherhood, co-investing in Islamic banks and stocking their universities with Brotherhood supporting Arab scholars.  At one point at least two of the UAE’s constituent ruling families were even financially sponsoring the local Brotherhood franchise – Al-Islah.

Putting it as diplomatically as possible, not all has gone smoothly with either of these anti-Iran and anti-Islamist-Qatar strategies.  In the Yemen, for example, where the joint Saudi-UAE military operation was intended to push the Iran-linked Houthis out of the capital and restore a Saudi-UAE compliant presidency, the campaign has turned into a bloody mess, and something of a PR disaster, even straining the UAE’s historically tight US relations.  Meanwhile, although Qatar’s economy has certainly been hurt by the Saudi and UAE-led boycott, its leadership has remained steadfast, and, despite the departure of the putatively pro-Qatar secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Doha seems to have quite skilfully kept the US on its side, or at least forbidding any Saudi-UAE coup sponsoring.  Over in Libya, where the UAE and its allies have been trying to thwart the ambitions of Qatar-backed Islamists, not all has gone to plan either, with their secular strong-man, Khalifa Haftar, failing to emerge as the country’s most powerful figure.  More broadly, the PR campaign against Qatar has also gone badly, as despite the existence of copious amounts of evidence that does actually document extremist organizations’ links with Qatar, or at least wealthy individuals harboured by Qatar, the UAE has been unable to touch any of it, as doing so would inevitably also expose its ally Saudi Arabia’s similarly murky relations with such groups.  Thus, somehow, Qatar has managed to emerge as the ‘Good Guy’ in much of the international media.

Nonetheless, amidst these setbacks there are strong signs that the UAE’s foreign policy is becoming more mature and pragmatic, with a number of lessons having been clearly learned in the absence of total victories.  By supporting the southern separatists in the Yemen, for example, it has demonstrated a newfound awareness of the need to sometimes back several horses in the same race, especially if the race is proving harder to win than originally thought.  Moreover, with the UAE’s navy apparently setting up a more permanent camp on the strategically important Socotra archipelago off the coast of Yemen, it has shown willingness to salvage at least something from the conflict, even if UAE forces are eventually ousted from the mainland.  On Qatar, the UAE has arguably demonstrated more restraint than many expected, especially at the beginning of the crisis last summer.  No ham-fisted effort to unseat the Al-Thani monarchy led by UAE-financed mercenaries has materialized, nor has the UAE pulled the plug on the mutually beneficial Dolphin Gas venture between the two countries –

something which would have definitely involved cutting off the nose to spite the face.  Instead, notwithstanding some farcical tit-for-tat accusations being traded between the UAE and Qatar, the UAE seems willing to hunker down, drain Qatar’s coffers, and wait for a better moment to secure US endorsement for its plans.

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