5. Assessing UAE Foreign and National Security Policy Since 2011
Often, UAE foreign and national security policy is analysed in the West on the basis of a series of anecdotal initiatives: its support for Khalifa Haftar in Libya, for example, or for secessionists and other groups in Yemen, or its role in the 2017 Qatar crisis. Rarely are its policies studied through a more comprehensive survey of its activities in the multiple countries in its ‘neighbourhood’ where it is most visibly engaged.
Based on behaviour, investment and anecdotal evidence provided by interviewees who contributed to the research for this paper – set out in the summary table below – three broad priorities emerge: thwarting the Muslim Brotherhood and its perceived backers, Turkey and Qatar; expanding trade through partnerships and investment in ports infrastructure, and protecting trade routes; and building ‘balanced’ relations with the major global powers, with the goal of diversifying the federation’s strategic relations beyond the traditional regional security guarantor, the US.
Notably absent is any appetite for direct confrontation with Iran, the main regional rival for Saudi Arabia – and a chief preoccupation of policymakers in Washington. The UAE advocates for policies aimed at creating ‘behaviour change’ in Tehran; and as already noted has lobbied against the JCPOA and supported the Trump administration’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ through sanctions. Whereas Saudi Arabia has worked to counter Iranian influence in Syria and (to a lesser extent) Iraq by backing local fighters and tribes fighting against the Assad regime and militias backed by Tehran, the UAE has avoided becoming caught up in either conflict. Indeed, only in Yemen has the UAE directly involved itself in a regional conflict involving Iran. The UAE ‘took a look’ at what was happening in Syria in 2011–12, according to one Western intelligence official, but chose not to engage fully and has since moved to rebuild its relationship with the Bashar al-Assad regime. Remarks made by UAE officials and Western diplomats support this commentary, and indicate that Abu Dhabi assessed that other Gulf states were already backing multiple groups that it saw as being political Islamist and/or extremist. In Iraq, the UAE has supported initiatives to develop the local police force, and was involved in the campaign to defeat ISIS in 2016–17, but chose not to embroil itself in local politics. One former diplomat summed up the UAE’s quietly pragmatic approach to Iran thus:
The UAE doesn’t like Iran and sees it as a malign presence in the region, but it doesn’t think it has the military capability to ‘push back’ against Iran and foresees brutally nasty consequences for its economy if it really messes with the Iranians. So it encourages pressure but doesn’t actually want to see a war with Iran across the region.
In some contexts, the UAE has been willing to compete for influence with Iran in ways that it is not willing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abu Dhabi perceived a strong Iranian influence on Sudan but, along with Saudi Arabia, deepened its ties with Khartoum after 2015 while seeking military support for the Yemen war, tying the relationship to a Sudanese downgrade in relations with Iran. Sudanese forces were for a time among the largest contingents of foreign troops – if not the largest – operating alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, while Khartoum has publicly severed its relations with Tehran. When, in 2019, mass protests broke out in Sudan, the UAE played a key role in both the ouster of then-president Omar al-Bashir and the formation of a new military junta before supporting (under some duress from the US) the creation of a unity government. Since the 2019 uprising, Khartoum has drawn down almost all of its forces from Yemen.
The Horn of Africa is increasingly the site of a series of overlapping competitions for influence between the Gulf states and their regional rivals that has seen alliances shift repeatedly over the past few years.
The Horn of Africa is increasingly the site of a series of overlapping competitions for influence between the Gulf states and their regional rivals that has seen alliances shift repeatedly over the past few years. Before 2015, for example, Eritrea was accused of working with Tehran. Asmara also had good relations with Doha. But when, in 2015, a dispute between the Dubai ports operator DP World, the UAE leadership and Djibouti left the UAE without a naval base in the Horn of Africa, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi approached the Eritrean leadership with an offer of economic support and political reintegration after years of international isolation, in exchange for the use of the largely inactive Assab naval base. The subsequent agreement gave the UAE a new foothold in the Horn and arguably eased the influence of its rivals.
The UAE’s position in Eritrea and the rest of the Horn of Africa also points to the emirates’ growing interest not just in the Arab world or the Middle East, but its wider ‘neighbourhood’. The UAE’s neighbourhood can be roughly defined as the Middle East and North Africa, and the western half of the Indian Ocean: in particular the waterways of the Gulf of Suez, the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, the Gulf of Aden, the Strait of Hormuz, and the wider Arabian Sea (stretching to western India and Pakistan). Indeed, the ambition of the UAE’s present leadership looks less like ‘Little Sparta’ – the term attributed to former US defence secretary James Mattis – than that of a modern-day, Arabian Peninsula version of the Venice of the 15th and 16th centuries: a tiny, rich and well-governed trading nation using its resources to protect its interests and project power, and to balance out larger and better-financed rivals alike, as much out of (perceived) necessity as ambition.
The UAE depends on the flow of trade through the western Indian Ocean both to export oil and to sustain its lucrative position as an international trade hub. The regional re-export market is particularly important to Dubai’s economy. UAE officials worry that Iran or another rival power could cause irreparable damage to the emirates’ oil exports and wider trade by closing the Strait of Hormuz, which it borders, or the Bab al-Mandab between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea – the gateway to the Gulf of Suez and European markets – the eastern side of which was controlled by Yemen’s Houthis between late 2014 and mid-2018 before UAE-backed forces seized swathes of coastal territory from them.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai are also focused on diversifying their economies by investing not just in their own trade and travel hubs, but also in those across the region. The two emirates are keenly aware of the potential of their neighbourhood, the economies of which are major targets of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (which has already arrived in Abu Dhabi in the form of a $300 million investment in Khalifa Port). As described by several figures interviewed as part of the research for this paper, this has led to a dual approach of looking to develop potential trade hubs in the neighbourhood while restricting the sphere of influence and potential area of activities of Iran, Qatar and Turkey. There is a perception – which neither Abu Dhabi nor Dubai will confirm – that the UAE’s two centres of political and economic power are increasingly in lockstep on these issues. Between them, the two emirates now hold military and economic positions in Mukalla, Aden and Mokha (Yemen), Bossaso (Puntland/Somalia), Berbera (Somaliland/Somalia) and Assab (Eritrea) ports. Qatar and Turkey have been limited to interests in Mogadishu and Sudan.
Sometimes, this strategic/economic competition produces entirely unforeseen consequences. In 2017, for example, in response to the Arab Quartet’s blockade, Qatar withdrew its peacekeepers from border areas between Djibouti and Eritrea, sparking fears of a military confrontation between Djibouti and Ethiopia on one side and Eritrea on the other. Abu Dhabi’s subsequent move to forge relations with Addis Ababa enabled it to play an intermediary role between Ethiopia and Eritrea, preventing a conflict that would have disrupted its activities in Assab and hence Yemen, ultimately leading – in the telling of several diplomats – to the UAE-brokered peace deal between the two countries the following year.
In sum, the UAE’s foreign and security policy can be seen as prioritizing the protection of vital trade corridors while enhancing trade ties, extinguishing support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist groups, building alliances abroad, and mitigating the threat of Iranian expansion without provoking a direct confrontation.
The UAE’s actions in this context point to a growing sense within the core circle of decision-makers that they stand as equals with other players in the region, and that they cannot count on support from the traditional guarantors of regional security. Abu Dhabi has developed a greater tolerance for risk and, as has also been said of Iran, has developed an ease in dealing in chaos if this serves its longer-term interests. It appears to see the power struggle with the Brotherhood in particular as a zero-sum game in which there can be only winners and losers, and has come to accept that achieving its desired outcomes may well take decades, a time horizon far longer than any Western policymaking cycle. ‘The endpoint is so important and they believe in it, and it negates all the unintended consequences, in the view of one analyst. ‘No matter how we get there, it’s OK.’