Against the backdrop of the events of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the subsequent confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE’s role in the ongoing military and political crises in the Middle East has been overshadowed. At the same time, this Persian Gulf state is pursuing quite an independent political course and is turning into a significant regional player.
The United Arab Emirates’ geopolitical strategy in the region in recent years has been twofold. First of all, opposition to political Islam in all forms, but especially to the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood (a formation banned in the Russian Federation), seen as a Qatari Fifth Column, planned to bring power to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen, and secondly, countering against Iran’s political expansion.
Definite confirmation of this is the statement in December 2014 by Dubai Police Chief Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, who was in charge of security in the UAE, when asked by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir: “Who poses the greatest threat to the Emirates, Iran, Israel, or the Muslim Brotherhood?“ Even then, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim answered without hesitation. “The Muslim Brotherhood.”
In this regard, it is understandable why the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, supported the coup d’état in Egypt in July 2014 that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government and brought the current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. After that, they provided financial assistance to Egypt’s secular government for three years.
This also explains why the UAE has pursued a coordinated policy with Cairo in Libya to support Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), since 2014 and has a very negative attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood, calling it a terrorist organization not unlike Al Qaeda or the Islamic State (both terrorist groups are banned in Russia).
The UAE’s attitude towards Iranian policy clarifies the emirates’ strong opposition to Hamas’ policy in Palestine and supports Mohammed Dahlan, a prominent exiled Palestinian politician. He is openly hostile to the Islamist Hamas movement that won the 2006 parliamentary elections.
Against this backdrop, the UAE’s actions in the Yemen crisis draw attention. In 2015, Abu Dhabi joined Saudi Arabia’s Operation Storm of Resolve in Yemen. Still, the fundamental differences between the positions of the KSA and the UAE in the Arabian country soon became apparent. While Riyadh bet on President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and sought to take complete control of all Yemeni territory, Abu Dhabi’s objective was to establish UAE control over South Yemeni territory. Under these conditions, the Emiratis began to rely on the movement of Southern Yemen separatists, as opposed to the KSA, which in search of a broader political base of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi began to actively cooperate with the Islah party (banned in Russia), the Yemeni branch of the “Muslim Brotherhood.” Ultimately, in 2019, the UAE withdrew most of its armed forces from Yemen. In addition, Abu Dhabi has financially supported the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which advocates the independence of several territories in the republic.
The rise of the radical Taliban (banned in the Russian Federation) to power in Afghanistan has caused tectonic political shifts across the Middle East. As a result, many of the former allied coalitions have been considerably shifted. Countries that previously could hardly move towards each other have begun to find common ground, with alliances that seemed unbreakable just a year ago now bursting at the seams.
The most striking manifestation of this was the rapprochement between Turkey and the UAE, previously open geopolitical rivals. This rapprochement occurred against the backdrop of Joe Biden’s demonstrated interest in bringing back the “nuclear deal” with Iran after coming to power. Thus, Abu Dhabi decided to contribute to a de-escalation of tensions by interacting with Iran and Turkey, whose influence it previously tried to counter in conflicts in Yemen and other countries of the Middle East.
Dialogue with Turkey was not the only manifestation of a change in UAE policy. A few days after meeting with Erdoğan, the Emirates attempted to improve relations with another long-time rival, Qatar. On August 26, the emirate’s national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan held a meeting with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Despite the gradual deepening of interaction between the UAE and Israel, the two countries did not become key allies. The Abraham Accords Declaration gradually lost its luster a year after its signing in Washington.
As for Syria, the Emirates has taken a nuanced stance in recent years. Thus, in December 2018, the UAE government decided to reopen its Embassy in Damascus to “return relations with Syria to normal.” On October 3 this year, the UAE held talks with Syria on reforming and revitalizing the Syrian-Emirati Business Council and continuing the process of normalizing relations that began three years ago. On the margins of Expo 2020 Dubai on October 10, the UAE Ministry of Economy announced an agreement with the Syrian Arab Republic to expand economic cooperation and explore new sectors to develop ties in the next phase. According to the UAE Ministry of Economy, in the first half of 2021 alone, the turnover of non-oil-related goods in the Syrian Arab Republic was about $272 million. It is expected that trade volumes will only increase in the future.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, had a telephone conversation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on October 20 this year to discuss development in Syria and the Middle East. According to Emirates News Agency, the sides also discussed bilateral relations and expanding cooperation in various fields.
According to the Arab press, on November 9 this year, for the first time since the start of the war in Syria more than a decade ago, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the UAE, arrived in Damascus at the head of a high-level delegation, breaking a 10-year siege. According to Syrian media reports, Assad received Al Nahyan and the delegation. They discussed “the bilateral relations of the brotherly countries, ways to expand cooperation in various areas of mutual interest.” During the meeting, Al Nahyan stressed the UAE’s interest and support for any efforts to “end the war in Syria, establish stability in the country and meet the aspirations of the Syrian people,” regional media reported.
However, while the UAE delegation’s visit to Syria was received very positively in the Arab world, the USA has once again demonstrated its hostility to the world towards any moves to resolve the situation in the Middle East. US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said, “The United States is concerned about last Tuesday’s meeting between the UAE Foreign Minister and the Syrian President,” but stressed that the current Joe Biden Administration does not intend to support any effort to normalize relations or rehabilitate Assad’s image.
Abu Dhabi did not react in any way to Washington’s hysterics and its attempt to put back the Arab world “into its stable.” In the Arab world today, hope for the US contribution to the Middle East development is waning. There is a growing belief in the region that the pre-existing partnership with the USA was only due to Washington’s temporary interests following the change of administration, choosing to leave its allies alone with their problems.
Under the circumstances, the UAE has embarked on an independent policy course in the Middle East without a backward glance to Washington, as it used to do, which only adds to the Emirates’ foreign policy credibility. Earlier, the country set a new course for itself for the next 50 years, UAE Centennial 2071 global plan, which should be fully implemented by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the state. To succeed in this endeavor, the Cabinet of the United Arab Emirates has been renewed. The authorities have developed a comprehensive work plan to bring the country among the most developed nations in the world. And the United Arab Emirates understands that it can achieve its goal only through cooperation with other powers without being strongly tied to the bloc confrontation imposed by Washington.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.