The Changing Balance of Power in USA-UAE Relations
Since power in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was consolidated into the hands of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), he has become the country’s de facto ruler. MbZ has also become, in the words of the New York Times’ international correspondent David Kirkpatrick, “the most powerful Arab ruler”. Although many in the region and beyond have differing opinions about MbZ’s foreign policy decision-making, no one can deny that the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is a highly strategic actor on the international stage.
After the UAE gained independence in 1971, Abu Dhabi aligned itself closely with the United States and the United Kingdom in the last two decades of the Cold War. Like other Arab Gulf states, the UAE was well positioned to benefit from the collapse of the Soviet Union because Abu Dhabi had oriented its foreign policy towards Washington, not Moscow. During the Gulf crisis of 1990/1991, Emirati forces helped the US military oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, further strengthening Abu Dhabi’s close relationship with Washington.
Ten years later, two Emirati members of al-Qaeda were among the 17 other Arab terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks. This, combined with the issue of the UAE being one of only three countries worldwide to recognize the legitimacy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (a.k.a. the Taliban regime) had damaged the UAE’s image in Washington. Additionally, Dubai’s financial links to terrorist organizations have led some in the USA to paradoxically view the UAE as a ‘foe’ at the same
(RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – MAY 21) The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump (R) speak during the U.S. – Gulf Summit at King Abdul Aziz International Conference – Anadolu Agency
time as being a strategic military partner, an interesting dynamic which colored the 2006 Dubai Ports World saga. Fearing a public relations backlash in Washington, the UAE took advantage of a unique opportunity to further cement its ties with the USA; through a combination of military actions, lobbying, and rhetoric which pushed a narrative of the Emirates being a forward-thinking and modernized Arab country which was a pioneer in the struggle against violent extremism. As a result, despite controversies in relation to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Dubai Ports World scandal, Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Washington strengthened throughout the 2000s, particularly in military coordination.
Yet for the past ten years at least, Abu Dhabi has been working to become more independent from the West. The UAE has gained greater autonomy from Washington and London, mainly as a result of the destabilizing impact of the decision to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003 by George W. Bush’s administration and the Obama administration’s responses to events in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) following the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. MbZ has been able to develop the UAE’s autonomy by investing heavily in ties with China, Russia, and India.
This is not to say that Washington and Abu Dhabi no longer have a strong relationship. To the contrary, the USA and the UAE remain partners who coordinate closely on many issues with President Donald Trump and MbZ maintaining a special relationship. The formalization of Emirati-Israeli relations on August 13, which Trump announced via Twitter, is a powerful demonstration of the extent to which the White House and Abu Dhabi work closely together and in bold ways that entail risks for the UAE’s leadership given the extent to which the Arab public opinion remains strongly pro-Palestinian. Without doubt, MbZ’s image in Washington will improve substantially as a result of his country becoming the first GCC member to establish formal diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. On both sides of the partisan divide in Washington there is much praise for the UAE’s decision to make this move which will embolden Israel and convince officials in Tel Aviv that making territorial concessions to the Palestinians is no longer a prerequisite for formalizing diplomatic relations with Arab states, especially if others such as Bahrain and Sudan follow Abu Dhabi’s lead.
However, even though the media is heavily focused on the recent development in Emirati-Israeli relations, the Israel/Palestine file is not the only sensitive issue in the MENA region. Regarding other areas of conflict in the Arab region, it is undeniable that the Emiratis are pursuing their own interests with greater confidence, and in certain instances in ways that do not align with the interests of the Trump administration, as well as the US diplomatic establishment. Below are four examples of Abu Dhabi and Washington pursuing conflicting interests which are hard to ignore:
In southern Yemen the UAE has been supporting the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a separatist group which is seeking to re-establish South Yemen as an independent nation-state. The STC’s popularity is largely an outcome of widespread grievances among Yemenis who live in the country’s southern governorates and believe that Yemen’s 1990 re-unification was a negative development for their communities’ economic, social, and political interests. Of course, the UAE has had its own motivations for backing the STC which largely pertain to Abu Dhabi’s quest to assert greater geopolitical influence not only in southern Yemen, but also across the Red Sea in East Africa, as well as the UAE’s determination to eradicate the forces of political Islam from the Arab world.
Yet, with the USA supporting a unified Yemen and opposing ideas for a North-South split of the country, it is clear that Washington and Abu Dhabi have different perspectives and priorities vis-à-vis southern Yemen. Having supported the Saudi-led Arab coalition since 2015, Washington and Riyadh want President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government—the only one in Yemen which the UN recognizes as legitimate—to rule the whole of Yemen. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in northern Yemen and the UAE-supported STC in southern Yemen both make this goal increasingly unrealistic. On July 29, 2020 the Hadi government and the STC agreed to a resolution calling for an acceleration of the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement (signed in November 2019 with the aim of resolving the ‘civil war within a civil war’), which entails the STC abandoning its quest to re-establish an independent state in southern Yemen. However, the potential for a return to violence between pro-Hadi and STC forces is very real.
The strength of General Khalifa Haftar throughout the Libyan civil war is largely attributable to Abu Dhabi’s support for the eastern commander and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). Thus, in Libya, like in Yemen, the Emiratis have been sponsoring a non-state actor whom both the USA and the UN deem illegitimate. Moreover, as is also the case in Yemen, in Libya there are suspicions that Abu Dhabi is seeking to carve the country into two, essentially a partition (either formal or informal) along East-West lines. Also evident is some notable alignment of Emirati and Russian interests: Moscow has sought to gain and consolidate its influence in parts of Libya by supporting Haftar and the Wagner Group’s activities in the North African country, which has put Russia and the UAE in the same boat on many Libya-related issues while pushing Abu Dhabi and Washington’s positions further apart.
With the US diplomatic establishment supporting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), forces loyal to this internationally recognized government are moving east towards the Egyptian border in their anti-LNA counter-offensive. The fact that Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi is threatening to deploy his country’s military forces to halt the pro-GNA militias’ eastward campaign leaves Washington nervous about a possible Egyptian-Turkish war being fought in Libya. Thus, while officials in Washington would like to see both sides in Libya’s civil war make concessions and accommodate each other, there is a growing perception within the US diplomatic establishment that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are encouraging Egypt to be bold in its threats against Turkey and the GNA-allied Libyan forces.
With Syria’s government declaring a military triumph, Damascus is still excluded from the Arab League while most western states have refused to re-establish formal diplomatic relations with Syria. Yet among Arab regimes, there is a general trend toward re-normalizing ties with Damascus, even among some which previously supported the anti-Ba’athist rebellion. The Arab power driving this effort is the UAE, which sees Syria’s re-entry into the region’s diplomatic fold as beneficial to Abu Dhabi’s geopolitical and ideological agendas. The Emiratis have been trying to incorporate Syria into a bloc of Arab states which stand united against Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet even if the UAE wants to re-accept Assad’s ‘legitimacy,’ the Trump administration and the foreign policy establishment in Washington does not feel the same. As the USA continues to pressure Arab governments against re-normalizing their relations with Syria, as highlighted by the implementation of the so-called Caesar Act, differing views on Assad’s government and the role it deserves to play in the wider Arab/Islamic world are a source of tension between Washington and Abu Dhabi.
On July 9, Fox News published an article titled, ‘UAE said to be holding up Gulf deal that could end Qatar blockade and protect US interests in Middle East.’ The piece reported that the Emiratis held up a US-crafted deal which was intended to soften the blockade on Qatar by permitting Qatar Airways to re-enter Saudi/Emirati airspace. If this report is true, it would make sense for the UAE to use its influence to prevent Washington from playing any effective role in terms of moving the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis towards resolution.
As the Trump administration sees it, however, US interests have suffered as a result of this Arabian feud which is entering its fourth year. The White House’s perspective is that Washington should be working with all six GCC states to counter Iran’s foreign policy and this dispute among America’s Arab partners in the Gulf has been counterproductive in terms of the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate and squeeze Iran as much as possible. On July 26, the US Special Envoy to Iran addressed the Gulf crisis after meeting with Doha’s top diplomat, saying that: “The dispute has continued for too long and it ultimately harms our shared regional interests in stability, prosperity and security.” Clearly, the blockade of Qatar, an idea which originated in Abu Dhabi, is one of several red hot issues in the MENA region where the Washington and Abu Dhabi leaderships do not see eye-to-eye.
Abu Dhabi in a Multipolar World
There is no denying that the USA and the UAE have a unique relationship rooted in decades of collaboration across many domains including counterterrorism, investment, diplomacy, technology, education, culture, and so on. Since the early 1990s, the UAE, like its five fellow GCC members, has operated within the US’s security umbrella and there is no reason to believe that this is on the verge of change. That being said, it is indisputable that this bilateral relationship has become far more even and balanced in recent years compared to one, two, or three decades ago.
In a world which is becoming increasingly multipolar, the UAE has engaged in a foreign policy practice of ‘hedging,’ which serves to diversify Abu Dhabi’s network of allies, partners, and friends, ultimately preventing the Gulf country from becoming excessively dependent on any one single power. By investing heavily in stronger partnerships with China and Russia, the UAE has greater leverage in its relationship with Washington.
To a lesser extent, India has also played a role in the UAE’s ability to gain greater autonomy from the West. As the Middle East adjusts to a new geopolitical order in which power throughout the world is more balanced, the UAE and other GCC members have spent the past decade investing in stronger relations with India. The Abu Dhabi-New Delhi partnership has focused heavily on trade, energy security, and defense against the backdrop of many voices in Washington advocating for a US exit from the Middle East, or at least a significant decrease in its commitments in the region.
In this era of increasingly limited American influence in MENA states and growing Chinese, Russian, and Indian power in the region, officials in Washington have to come to terms with their reduced ability to sway GCC states into aligning with US interests. As the situations in southern Yemen, eastern Libya, and Syria illustrate, Abu Dhabi appears to be much closer to the goals of Russian (not American) foreign policy in the MENA region. When it comes to the blockade of Qatar, the Emiratis are not aligning with any major global power, but rather pursuing their own interests, which in the case of the GCC crisis have many ideological dimensions.
Since Trump became president in 2017, he has withdrawn the USA from a leadership role in much of the MENA region. One of Washington’s close Arab partners which sought to influence Trump’s foreign policy from an early stage was the UAE. As MbZ has views on Iran and other issues which sit well with the Trump administration, the White House has quite willingly outsourced a significant amount of Washington’s foreign policy to the Emirates, most obviously in relation to Libya. Although it is understandable that the USA would like to shift responsibilities in the MENA region to local actors, it should not come as a surprise when the UAE and other Gulf powerhouses choose to assert their own interests, including those which rub against the Trump administration or the diplomatic establishment in Washington.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Is Fellow For The Middle East At Rice University’s Baker Institute For Public Policy In Houston, Texas. He Is The Author Of Four Books On The International Relations And Political Economy Of The Gulf, Including Qatar And The Arab Spring And The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics,And Policymaking.