2. The UAE’s Foreign and National Security Policy in Historical Context
The UAE’s foreign and national security policy has undergone a series of shifts since the federation’s establishment in 1971, driven by regional developments, internal political calculus and the personalities of its leaders. Early attempts to formulate a unified foreign policy position were undermined by tensions between the seven member emirates: the so-called Trucial States had a long history of infighting before the formation of the UAE, and Ras al-Khaimah did not become a full member of the union until 1972. The agreement to create the federation was perceived by Western observers as being as much a security pact between leaders of tiny emirates surrounded by powerful regional forces, as a commitment to the de facto political union it has become.
Map: The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar
Expansionist and more powerful, Saudi Arabia and Iran were the main strategic risks to the UAE, led by the president and architect of the federation, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. The repercussions of the so-called ‘Buraimi dispute’ of 1950–61 – a struggle between Abu Dhabi, Oman and Saudi Arabia over territory in the west of Abu Dhabi – endured. Saudi Arabia, viewed as an emerging, expansionist power, refused to recognize the UAE until the dispute, and other outstanding boundary issues, were eventually settled in 1974. To the south, Iran seized the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, claimed by Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah, in 1971 just as British forces were departing the area. A legacy of British imperial influence and long-running internecine border disputes, meanwhile, are two Omani enclaves within the UAE’s borders; as well as an enclave-within-an-enclave, territory belonging to Sharjah that sits within an Omani enclave in turn encircled by the emirates of Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca the same year, led to fears among the Gulf monarchies that their rule could be overturned not just by the Arab nationalism and socialism they had battled in previous decades, but also by political Islamism.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca the same year, led to fears among the Gulf monarchies that their rule could be overturned not just by the Arab nationalism and socialism they had battled in previous decades, but also by political Islamism.
In an interview published in 2009, Zaki Nusseibeh, for many years the translator for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan – who was emir of Abu Dhabi from 1966 and president of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004 – noted:
There was a lot of skepticism about whether this place would survive. All the journalists I took around then, the editors, the visiting dignitaries – they all looked at the Emirates and said it would not survive … They thought that the individual emirates would be absorbed by their bigger neighbors. You must remember, we had revolutions all around us – there was Communism and Marxism, and simply bigger neighbors like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
From the time of the establishment of the UAE until his death in 2004, Sheikh Zayed, an iconic figure in the UAE and across the region, spearheaded the federation’s approach to international relations, although many emirates maintained their own links with other countries of the region. As recalled by officials and business figures who worked with him, Sheikh Zayed’s approach to foreign policy was in large part driven by a mix of idealism and pragmatism. Zayed aspired to promote a form of Arab nationalism through multilateral organizations similar to the UAE’s own federation like the Arab League and later the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Box 1: The Structure of Government in the UAE
The UAE is made up of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah. The ruler of each emirate is a member of the UAE’s Supreme Council, and each technically has an equal vote on decisions made by the council, although in practice Abu Dhabi and Dubai – the largest, most populous and wealthiest members of the federation – have effective veto power and dissent is rare. The Supreme Council elects both the president and prime minister. By protocol and tradition, the president is the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the prime minister is the ruler of Dubai. The current president is Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi, while the prime minister is Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the emir of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed, who as prime minister selects a cabinet that is approved by the president and the Supreme Council, is also vice-president. Most key roles in cabinet are filled by officials from Abu Dhabi.
The UAE also has a Federal National Council, an elected body made up of a 50:50 mix of appointees selected by the emirs and elected members. Abu Dhabi and Dubai each has eight seats on the council, Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah six each, and Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Fujairah four each. Each emirate has its own government and budget, and pays a fixed proportion of revenues to the federal government, with Abu Dhabi and Dubai the biggest contributors. In September 2019 the government approved a 60 billion dirham ($16.4 billion) annual budget for 2019–21, a record high and an almost 50 per cent increase in spending compared with a decade earlier. Most spending goes to social development programmes, with dispersal focused on the less wealthy and less developed so-called ‘northern emirates’.
At the time of its foundation, the UAE was militarily weak relative to most of its neighbours, a vulnerability laid bare by the Iran–Iraq war (1980–88) and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The UAE’s economy was – and remains – heavily dependent on the movement of maritime trade, which, as the ‘tanker war’ of the late 1980s demonstrated, is highly vulnerable to regional conflict. (This vulnerability was once again highlighted in May 2019 by a series of attacks on ships off the coast of the UAE, allegedly perpetrated by Iran.) Sheikh Zayed argued for a doctrine of mediation over conflict, and of multilateralism. Along with his Kuwaiti counterpart, Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah (Kuwait’s emir in 1977–2006), he was instrumental in the formation of the GCC in 1981, but he at times took a contrary position to other GCC states on regional events, maintaining for example a position of relatively neutrality during the Iran–Iraq war, likely a response to the UAE’s fragile position and the close trade ties between some of the emirates and Iran. The UAE was one of only three countries to recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban regime after its formation in 1996; and Zayed called for sanctions against Iraq to be eased in the late 1990s, citing the suffering of the Iraqi people. Zayed actively attempted to prevent the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai is said to have offered Saddam Hussein asylum in the emirate, with Sheikh Zayed’s blessing.
After Zayed’s death, divisions reportedly emerged both within the Al Nahyan and between Abu Dhabi and the emirates’ other ruling families over the pace and extent of change in the UAE. Such tensions initially impeded the formulation of a coherent foreign policy in the post-Zayed era. Dubai, which developed as a major trade hub in the 2000s, also began to pursue a more visibly independent foreign policy course in this period, under the leadership of Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s crown prince and subsequently, from 2006, ruler. The more recent trend towards a more cohesive and assertive attitude to external affairs is closely associated with the rise of Mohammed bin Zayed, the current crown prince of Abu Dhabi.