07.10.2021 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

UAE is Gradually becoming a Geopolitical Player in its Own Right


As the ‘unifying and governing’ role of the US in the Middle East diminishes, the leading countries of the region are beginning to adjust their relations with each other, becoming more involved in the struggle for influence and resources, among other things.

Until recently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was part of one Sunni camp of Gulf monarchies (UAE, KSA, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait) traditionally competing for supremacy in the Middle East with the Shiite Iran, the political Islam of Turkey and Israeli dominance. However, the degradation of American global hegemony is now forcing many countries to pursue active independent policies aimed at ensuring their continued existence. Countries previously unwilling to meet each other in the middle now have begun to seek common ground, and former alliances, which only a year ago seemed unbreakable, are falling apart at the seams. The most striking manifestation of the unexpected contacts has been the rapprochement between the UAE and Turkey, previously open geopolitical rivals. The consequences of the end of the cold war between Abu Dhabi and Ankara could certainly be very significant, not only for the countries but also for the further regrouping of both regional and external forces cooperating with Turkey and the UAE.

However, the initiation and development of dialogue with Turkey is not the only manifestation of a change in the UAE policy. And so, on August 26, the UAE National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed flew to Doha for a meeting with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. It should be recalled that in 2017, the UAE, together with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt, severed political relations with Doha, imposed sanctions on it, and tried to impose a general blockade on the Qatari peninsula. They accused Qatar of financially supporting the terrorist organisations Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and Daesh (all three of which are banned in the Russian Federation), as well as collaborating with Shiite Iran. Moreover, a year ago, the UAE urged Saudi Arabia not to lift its blockade of Qatar.

It cannot be ruled out that this UAE U-turn in relations with Qatar was largely due to the fact that, unlike Donald Trump, who endorsed the anti-Qatar stance of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Joe Biden has changed Washington’s official stance towards Doha. The emirate has become a crucial partner of the US in the region in engaging with the Taliban and evacuating Americans and their allies from Afghanistan.

Amid the recent changes in the balance of power in the Middle East, more discord and rivalry has become apparent between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where Yemen has remained a sore subject since 2019, when the Emirates, as part of the Arab coalition against Ansar Allah’s Hussites, withdrew most of its armed forces from Yemen.  In addition, the UAE has financially supported the Southern Transitional Council (STC), advocating the independence for a number of the republic’s territories.

A year after the Abraham Accords were signed in Washington, this document, like the UAE’s engagement with Israel, has gradually begun to lose its lustre, with the two countries never becoming key allies. This was to be expected a year ago, since this agreement primarily concerned the relations between regional states and the US, without touching on the fundamental problems between the countries of the region.  Besides, the said agreement was largely championed by two key players – Donald Trump and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who are no longer leaders of their states and have no say in keeping the signed Abraham Accords afloat.

In addition, the new Israeli Minister of Environmental Protection, Tamar Zandberg, may become an apparent irritant in relations between the UAE and Israel, who, after she took office, requested to cancel a deal with Abu Dhabi to transport crude oil and fuel from the Gulf to Western markets via a pipeline between Eilat on the Red Sea and the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon. As a reason for her position, she pointed out that the pipeline could become a target for terrorist attacks, leading to an environmental catastrophe. The minister’s words were immediately condemned at the highest level in Israel – members of the Knesset have already begun to express their displeasure with her words. MP Nir Barkat criticized Zandberg’s words and said that the minister’s statements endangered the fragile peace with the UAE. A UAE government source was also critical of Israeli Minister Tamar Zandberg’s intentions and told Israel Hayom newspaper that the Israeli government’s termination of the agreement to pump Emirati oil to Israel and further to the Mediterranean Sea could cause a crisis in Abu Dhabi-Tel-Aviv relations and endanger the stability of the Abraham Accords. Probably realising the danger of the situation and the fragility of peace with the Arabs, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid decided for this reason to make his first overseas visit in late June to the UAE, naturally at the instigation of the US, which is interested in strengthening relations between its closest allies in the Middle East.

It is expected that the UAE is now likely to spread its influence through economic cooperation rather than military intervention and the support of certain political figures. In particular, in the revision of its new external reference points, the UAE may expand investment cooperation and develop trade relations with countries such as India, Indonesia, Turkey, Kenya, South Korea, Ethiopia, Israel and the UK in the coming years. And also with Russia and China.

For many years, the United Arab Emirates was considered an ally of the US and the West in general. However, the betrayal of Hosni Mubarak and Ashraf Ghani by the Americans has prompted the UAE ruler to pay closer attention to the emerging geopolitical actors influential in the region – Russia and China. As a result, the UAE has become one of Russia’s most important economic partners and political interlocutors in the Middle East: not only did the Emirates not join sanctions against Russia, but major UAE funds are involved in projects in Russia. The UAE’s development of ties with China also follows a wide range of economic opportunities, with the Emirates so far ignoring anti-Chinese alliances. Thus, developing relations with Russia and China is a logical continuation of Abu Dhabi’s power balance strategy as it allows it to pursue a serious policy, primarily in the Arab region.

Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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