The rise of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a geopolitical force across the Middle East and North Africa has been as precipitous as it has been surprising. Where less than half a century ago there was pessimism among local and international observers that the new federation would survive into the new millennium, the UAE, and Abu Dhabi – its biggest and wealthiest emirate – in particular, have over the past decade come to play an increasingly visible role in shaping the politics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Most Western policymaking establishments engaged in the MENA region have struggled to keep up with the pace of change.
For much of its first few decades as a nation state, the UAE operated a conservative foreign and national security policy that was largely predicated on ensuring survival in the face of internal and external threats to the fragile unity and territorial integrity of the federation. While internal threats have faded, perceived existential vulnerability to regional currents continues to drive policy. Perhaps the most important difference between the federation’s approach to external affairs in its early years and its current posture is a clear sense of self-assurance and ambition among a new generation of leaders – and a growing perception among this group that the UAE is being left to fend for itself in a deeply turbulent region. The crown prince and de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan – or MbZ – and a trusted inner circle of advisers, many of them his full brothers, have consolidated power internally, and built a strong security and military apparatus capable of warding off most (although not all) internal and external threats, and have since 2011 operated an increasingly activist foreign and national security policy abroad. Whereas his father, Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, aspired to build a model of Arab statehood in the UAE, many observers believe MbZ wants to export his own model.
In 2017 researchers at Chatham House undertook a project to examine the UAE’s foreign and national security policy, including through interviews with UAE officials, regional and Western policymakers, and others. The research, which was completed in late 2019, sheds light on Emirati ambitions to play a key role in shaping regional political and governance structures, under the umbrella of regional Saudi–Emirati (and, to an extent, Egyptian) leadership, with the UAE at times fashioning itself as the ‘intellectual architect’, as one interviewee put it, of a new model for country-level and regional security built around the federation’s own internal structures. This ‘UAE model’ integrates economic openness, strong governance and service delivery, and a relatively secular and liberal (for the region) social environment, combined with a closed political system that polices speech and is built around an entrenched security state; and, just as important, a rejection of any political or religious ideology that might challenge the supremacy of the state and its leaders.
The UAE has been much more visibly activist in its foreign policy across a MENA region embroiled in deepening turmoil since the Arab uprisings of 2011, during which period the US has been perceived by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to be retrenching from its past role as regional security guarantor. In this context, Emirati officials say they can no longer assume that the federation will be able to sustain its past trajectory towards becoming a rare locus of stability while operating a non-interventionist foreign policy. After years of mounting regional disorder and failed Western intervention in the Middle East, epitomized by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the model offered by the modernizing leadership in Abu Dhabi is an attractive one to Western policymakers who have long hoped for regional powers to play a more assertive role in stabilization and securitization in their neighbourhood. Diplomats, policymakers and politicians are also encouraged by time spent with Emirati counterparts who – literally and figuratively – speak their language, and in the safe, orderly and cosmopolitan metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
A principal driving force in the UAE leadership’s approach to the region is as much what it stands against as what it stands for. MbZ and his inner circle perceive that transnational, political Islamist ideologies promoted by Iran and the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its boosters, including but not limited to Qatar and Turkey, pose an existential threat to the stability of so-called ‘status quo’ powers in the region, and act as a driver of regional radicalism. As one interviewee for this paper described it, the UAE’s overriding threat perception can be summarized as ‘Iran and the Ikhwan’.
Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and his inner circle perceive that transnational, political Islamist ideologies promoted by Iran and the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its boosters pose an existential threat to the stability of so-called ‘status quo’ powers in the region, and act as a driver of regional radicalism.
Yet as this paper demonstrates, Abu Dhabi is aggressive in its attempts to uproot the Brotherhood but more cautious in its efforts to counter Iranian influence and expansionism, largely through support for coercive sanctions of the kind pursued by the Trump administration. In June 2017 the UAE was a key player in the blockade of Qatar, accusing its smaller Gulf neighbour of supporting terrorism. Yet after a series of attacks, purportedly by Iran, on oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman, in May 2019, the UAE refused to attribute blame. The US, in the midst of a campaign – which the UAE had hitherto backed – of ‘maximum pressure’ against Tehran, blamed these attacks, as well as others targeting Saudi oil facilities and US military bases in Iraq, on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The UAE has quietly stepped up its diplomacy with Tehran since mid-2019, hoping to avoid becoming embroiled in a regional conflagration.
Despite its rapid ascent to regional prominence, Abu Dhabi’s growing regional role is neither widely nor well understood, in part because it is in a state of near-constant evolution. Western officials often fall into a trap of hearing what they want to hear from their Emirati counterparts, rather than carefully parsing the meaning of what is being said. The UAE approach to internal governance is not necessarily transferable to other countries with limited resources and large, diverse populations. It is financially burdensome and complex to implement in countries with larger and less homogeneous indigenous populations than the UAE’s. It also brings with it many challenges to partner countries whose ostensible values include freedom of speech and a free press. The UAE’s human rights record is poor, and its ‘liberalism’ or ‘moderation’ has as much in common with the authoritarian models of China or Russia than it has with Western democracies. Notwithstanding its call to religious moderation, in practice it engages in tactical alliances with violent hyper-conservative religious groups abroad, and there is clear evidence of a preference for strongmen leaders over well-developed institutions of state.
Some Western policymakers, and even some of the UAE’s regional allies (including Saudi Arabia), have latterly been unsettled by the UAE’s increasing confidence in its ability to influence facts on the ground abroad without consultation to international norms or frameworks. Others question its commitment to its alliances. Yet they little understand how these decisions are made in Abu Dhabi. In fact, while the UAE may have ambitions towards shaping regional order, there does not appear to be a masterplan for achieving its overall end goals. Instead, a small circle often makes ad hoc, tactical decisions under pressure, and at times jumps from crisis to crisis, creating sudden policy vacuums and prompting occasional overcorrections in response to rapidly unfolding events. Faced with pressing economic concerns at home, and ongoing struggles to find reliable regional allies, the federation’s Western allies – the US and the UK in particular – have arguably overlooked the more problematic aspects of UAE foreign policy in the hope of sustaining an important relationship, particularly given the UAE’s deepening ties with rival powers like Russia, China and even India. UAE officials meanwhile express frustration at times that they are treated by their Western counterparts as subcontractors rather than true partners, making cooperation and debate among equals more difficult.
As Mohammed bin Zayed’s UAE becomes an increasingly important – and visible – player in regional geopolitics, its activities and close relationships with Western capitals are likely to come under mounting scrutiny abroad. This research paper attempts to give an overview of the changing face of Gulf and UAE foreign policy under MbZ, particularly since the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011. It discusses the UAE’s overarching strategy, its tactics, and likely future trends in UAE-driven regional initiatives. It was researched and mostly written in 2017–19 and is based on desk research, interviews and travel to Dubai, Yemen, Abu Dhabi and Washington, DC.