4. Threat Perception: Iran and the Ikhwan
Understanding the UAE’s foreign policy requires an understanding of the factors decision-makers in Abu Dhabi perceive as defining the UAE’s national interest, and the highest priority risks to domestic and regional security. When asked to define the biggest policy concerns for MbZ and his inner circle, interviewees point to a keen focus on two issues, neatly summed up by one Western official as ‘Iran and the Ikhwan’.
MbZ, like his father, has long feared an attack on the UAE by Iran. On the basis of long-term dealings with the crown prince, one former senior Western diplomat described him as being ‘obsessed’ with the idea of an Iranian attack on the UAE, potentially in retaliation for US or Israeli action against Iran’s nuclear assets. US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 support this portrayal.
This fear of Iranian attack is not irrational. MbZ was 10 years old when, in 1971, Iran under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, seized Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb islands, just days before the formal establishment of the UAE. He was 18 years old when the Shah was overthrown and the new leadership in Tehran urged uprisings against Arab monarchs – particularly concerning given the large number of Iranian expatriates in Dubai and elsewhere in the emirates. Publicly, Sheikh Zayed maintained a somewhat neutral stance during the Iran–Iraq war, and interviewees underscore that MbZ observed the impact of the ‘tanker war’ phase of the conflict on the Gulf trade routes that are vital to the UAE’s economy. One of Abu Dhabi’s oil platforms was damaged by an Iranian missile in 1987 (reportedly an unintended strike for which Iran later offered compensation). Regional insecurity was heightened in 1990 by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – an eight-hour drive north along the Gulf coast from Abu Dhabi. (Before the invasion, Saddam Hussein had lambasted not just Kuwait but also the UAE for their oil production policies.) And with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a bulwark – of sorts – against Iran was removed and replaced with a chaotic internal conflict. These combined experiences are said to have instilled in the now crown prince a sense of the federation’s deep precariousness within the region.
Beyond the strategic threat posed by Iran, MbZ is also said to be concerned that the UAE’s sizeable Iranian and Shia population (some 5–8 per cent of the UAE’s population is of Persian descent) could be turned against the state. Abu Dhabi has quietly worked to reduce certain emirates’ economic ties with Iran, including Dubai’s role as a financial hub for sanctions-busting Iranian businesses, and Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah’s purported lucrative smuggling trade, albeit with limited success. A US record of a discussion with MbZ and the ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid, in 2006, as later published by WikiLeaks, noted that both men ‘believed that with the Shia tradition of veneration of religious figures, Iraqi Shia loyalties were more to their religion and, by extension, to Iran, than to their own country’. Mistrust of Iranian intentions was deepened by the 2011 protest movement in Bahrain, which was led by Shia political groups.
While the crown prince is a vocal advocate of a robust stance towards Tehran, his approach – and that of his inner circle – is in practice more nuanced and perhaps more pragmatic than Iran’s other regional rivals. According to multiple Western officials who have met with MbZ over the past decade and more, the crown prince is convinced that, for example, a pre-emptive Israeli or US strike against Iran would almost certainly lead to retaliatory action against US allies, with the UAE likely to be the first among these. Iran’s nuclear programme, and the likely fallout – literal and figurative – from a conflict involving nuclear weapons, is also high in the minds of UAE policymakers. As Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, told The Atlantic in 2010:
I think we are at risk of an Iranian nuclear program far more than you [the US] are at risk. At 7,000 miles away, and with two oceans bordering you, an Iranian nuclear threat does not threaten the continental United States … I think out of every country in the region, the U.A.E. is most vulnerable to Iran. Our military, who has existed for the past 40 years, wake up, dream, breathe, eat, sleep the Iranian threat. It’s the only conventional military threat our military plans for, trains for, equips for, that’s it, there’s no other threat, there’s no country in the region that is a threat to the U.A.E., it’s only Iran.
The UAE was a vocal critic of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal since disavowed by President Trump – and lobbied against it in Washington. The strength of the UAE’s objection to the deal, in the telling of UAE officials, was in part at least that Abu Dhabi had not been consulted on its contents before they were at an advanced stage, and that the UAE felt like an ‘afterthought’ to the Obama administration. More recently, the UAE’s compliance with strengthened US sanctions on Iran in 2019, part of the Trump administration’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ against Tehran, had a substantial negative impact on its trade with Iran: by July of that year it was anticipated that trade with Iran would drop by half over the course of the year. Abu Dhabi has grown increasingly concerned by the Iranian response to the US campaign, and has worked to prevent regional tensions from boiling over. When, in May 2019, a series of explosions on oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah were attributed to Iran by the US, Abu Dhabi said that it did not have evidence that definitively proved who was behind the attacks. Reports subsequently emerged of senior UAE officials travelling to Tehran to discuss potential de-escalation mechanisms. Following a purported Iranian attack on vital Saudi oil production infrastructure in September 2019, and again after the killing by a US airstrike, in January 2020, of General Qassem Soleimani, who as commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force had led Iran’s asymmetrical warfare campaign in the region, the UAE made public calls for a de-escalation.
Where Abu Dhabi’s stance towards Iran is carefully calibrated, its approach to the Muslim Brotherhood is more direct. MbZ is said to regard political Islamism as a tool used by regional rivals including Iran, Qatar and Turkey to project their own power and weaken Gulf monarchies and secular republics alike. Linked to this, the crown prince and the other Bani Fatima consider the Brotherhood in particular to be the gravest threat to the UAE’s domestic security and to long-term regional order. Whereas Iran will remain a strategic threat regardless of its leadership, and rapid regime change could prove as costly as maintenance of the status quo, the Brotherhood, as UAE officials see things, can still be prevented from attaining power and directing state policy.
Whereas Iran will remain a strategic threat regardless of its leadership, and rapid regime change could prove as costly as maintenance of the status quo, the Brotherhood, as UAE officials see things, can still be prevented from attaining power and directing state policy.
MbZ’s Abu Dhabi has a history of conflating the Brotherhood with more extreme ideologies of the kind espoused by Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Some Emirati officials describe the Brotherhood as a ‘gateway drug’ to radicalism. (UAE officials are also quietly critical of Saudi Arabia’s promotion of ultra-conservative Salafist doctrine abroad from the late 1970s onwards.) The role of two UAE nationals in the 9/11 attacks on the US is said to have hardened the stance of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai against any form of ideology that invokes religion in its call to violent action, and in particular against its own indigenous Brotherhood organization, al-Islah. Both MbZ and Mohammed bin Rashid have argued that education and economic development are tools for combating extremism, and have been advocates for Western-style secular private education institutions in the emirates. Al-Islah was technically disbanded in the mid-1990s. In 2011–12 the UAE conducted a wave of arrests of members of Islah-linked as well as pro-democracy student activists who it perceived as wanting to overthrow the emirates’ royal families. In 2014 the UAE designated the Muslim Brotherood a terrorist organization, along with the local al-Islah, in a list that included Lebanese Hizbollah and a number of Al-Qaeda branches.
The exact roots of MbZ’s deep enmity towards the political Islamist movement – which US diplomats say MbZ ‘posit[s] as the UAE’s mortal enemy’ – is not entirely clear. The Brotherhood gained a foothold in the UAE in the 1970s and 1980s through an influx of teachers and technocrats from Egypt and Sudan (apparently including MbZ’s personal tutor Ezzedine Ibrahim) and students returning from education abroad, particularly in Kuwait. The group’s teachings became particularly influential among groups in Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah, leading to tensions between these emirates and Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Zayed is nonetheless said to have initially advocated tolerance towards Islamist groups. Explanations of MbZ’s virulent hatred of the group variously include an assassination plot against the crown prince and his family in the 1990s, a planned coup in the mid-1990s, protests in 2011, the discovery of Brotherhood cells in the military, and MbZ’s own flirtation with the group in his youth. In the words of one official, echoed by other interviews:
Mohammed bin Zayed was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, by their ideology, but he realized that they wanted to steal his loyalty from the country … [His father] Zayed did not build the country for this to happen. [He] values loyalty, patriotism, nationalism above all other things.
Explaining their current stance, Emirati officials emphasize that, in 2011, they saw Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood entrenching their role in the region through popular protest movements (in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen) and through their sponsorship of armed groups (in Libya, Syria and Yemen). Thus, in their telling Abu Dhabi’s response to regional events was not a brash or opportunistic attempt to establish itself as a regional power broker; rather, it was a defensive reaction to the growing influence of its rivals, and to the US’s perceived stepping back from its role as a guarantor of regional stability and security, particularly after the Obama administration either did not support or actively called for the removal of UAE and US allies in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. One UAE official noted:
Since 2011, our leadership has been increasingly worried about threats to our model of stability, good governance, and a balanced, tolerant approach to religion in our region and beyond. New threats emerged, and the dynamics of our security relationships had changed. So, there was a realization that you have to match your internal approach with your international approach and be consistent.
Moreover, Abu Dhabi regarded the 2011 uprisings as an attempt by Qatar to further its regional influence by sponsoring Brotherhood-affiliated groups across the region and sowing dissent and feeding misinformation to local and international audiences via Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English-language channels. MbZ and his inner circle had long been suspicious of Qatar’s regional and international agenda, a mistrust compounded by tensions that predated Doha’s emergence as an active foreign policy player in the mid-2000s. An already brittle relationship between Abu Dhabi and Doha, according to one Western diplomat, ‘was effectively broken by Qatar’s role in Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen and even in Libya, where the UAE and Qatar both went after Gaddafi but ended up at each others’ throats’. Abu Dhabi, in the same diplomat’s account, became increasingly frustrated during this period with its Western allies’ apparent indifference to what it saw as Doha’s regional meddling, leading Abu Dhabi, along with Riyadh, to break ties with Qatar in 2017:
There was a lot of lobbying in London and Paris and Washington for people to ‘do something’ to stop the Qataris, and I think they [the UAE] still see a bit of a double standard in that the Qataris got to do what they liked but when they have intervened since then they have gotten a bad time of it in the Western press and from Western politicians. But then, they have also gotten away with a lot since, including the blockade of Qatar of course.