The UAE is a rare example of a state-building project in the Middle East that has seen resource wealth, geostrategic position, institutional development, and a political and economic vision for the future melded to produce both economic development and soft and hard power projection. In many ways, the current group of decision-makers in Abu Dhabi may be victims of their own success: they have built such a commanding position so quickly that they are often overstretched as they attempt to meet new challenges head on.
There is also a risk of hubris born of overconfidence. The UAE’s problem in the future, in the view of one diplomat interviewed as part of the research that has informed this paper, is that it ‘has never lost’ in the past two decades, and has escaped meaningful censure abroad even when its actions have been impulsive and destabilizing to its partners’ interests. And there have been costs at home, too. In particular, the Yemen war has seen Emiratis (most of them from the poorer northern emirates) brought home in body bags, while the UAE economy – Dubai’s in particular – has suffered as a result of the blockade of Qatar and the Trump administration’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ against Iran.
The UAE’s preference for developmental autocracies led by strongmen who command strong security apparatus and repress free speech is modelled on Abu Dhabi’s own evolution. But there is no guarantee that this model is replicable or sustainable.
The UAE’s vision for the region is also quite different from most Western governments’ idea of what is needed to build a stable and secure future for the Middle East and North Africa. The UAE’s preference for developmental autocracies led by strongmen who command strong security apparatus and repress free speech is modelled on Abu Dhabi’s own evolution. But there is no guarantee that this model is replicable or sustainable. Indeed, where it has been piloted in poorer and more populous countries – in Egypt since 2013, for example – the cracks have started to show. Western governments are also well aware that the UAE is increasingly focused on building relationships with the West’s geopolitical rivals, like Russian and China, in an attempt to balance both economic and political interests.
Capacity constraints at the senior decision-making level in the UAE are also cause for concern, leading at times to tactical, short-term decisions that are often retrospectively recast as strategy. Like the break with Mogadishu, such decisions can have damaging legacies. So too is the willingness at times to act like a start-up, moving fast and breaking things, particularly given Emirati policymakers’ lack of willingness to acknowledge their past missteps. This may be changing, as UAE officials claim, but the Bani Fatima still struggle to deal with increased public scrutiny and will need to learn that strategic communications only go so far.
Western governments still have an opportunity to influence Abu Dhabi, but should bear in mind that they are no longer in a position to explain the way the world works to its leaders, who describe their Western interlocutors as being, at times, patronizing on issues the latter do not fully understand. The UAE increasingly sees its relationship with the West as one of equals, and Western diplomats would do well to recognize this. They should also understand that, while the UAE has institutions of state, it is individuals who need to be lobbied and convinced on key policy issues. The UAE’s allies should also understand where their leverage lies, and be willing to use it. Notably, the UAE is acutely aware of its international image. It has attempted to isolate Qatar, has been accused of funding coups abroad, and has attempted to influence Western governments, including the US, outside of conventional diplomatic channels. But there has been no punitive response, in part because of Western fears over the loss of an important partner. But if they believe that the UAE is a robust and mature partner, they will have to be more willing to push back.