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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tensions in UAE-US Relations Reflect a Geopolitical Shift in the Arab World

Tensions in UAE-US Relations
In this file photo taken on November 14, 2021, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, inspects the open cockpit of an F-35 Lightning II multirole combat aircraft during the 2021 Dubai Airshow in the Gulf emirate. Giuseppe CACACE / AFP

Mat Nashed

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues to chart their own path in foreign relations, beyond the shadow of United States (U.S) influence. However, the country’s lofty ambitions and existential concerns risk disrupting its long-standing partnership with the White House. The most recent dispute between the two nations was over a weapons sale worth more than $23 billion. The deal was first approved by former President Donald Trump as part of his Arab-Peace making initiative, which saw the UAE normalize ties with Israel in exchange for 50 F-35 aircrafts – the most sophisticated fighter jet manufactured by the United States. 

The Biden administration proceeded with the deal after promising to secure important guarantees such as keeping China’s new telecommunications network Huawei 5G – which the UAE has installed to its network – from accessing America’s latest fighting technology. The UAE said they would only remove Huawei’s equipment if given an equally advanced and affordable alternative. A source close to the matter told the Financial Times that the Emirates were more irked by Washington’s attempt to impose restrictions on when and how the F-35s could be deployed after the sale. Those conditions prompted the UAE – once referred to as Little Sparta by U.S defence officials – to freeze talks. 

“The U.S imposing such hyper-strict conditions is nothing new. It’s not UAE specific,” said Hani Sabra, an expert on Gulf affairs and the founder of the political risk consultancy Alef Advisory, to Fanack. “But it is strange that they had announced the sale before the two sides agreed on the fine print.”  

The growing tensions between the Emirates and the U.S point to the dawn of a new era in the Arab world. With Washington shifting its attention and resources to combat China in Asia, the U.S has little appetite for getting dragged into regional conflicts – the rushed exit from Afghanistan being the latest example. As a result, Gulf leaders believe that they can no longer rely on the U.S as a sole guarantor of regional security, prompting them to covet new partnerships to fill the void. 

This has ironically benefited China, whose interests in the UAE are part of a broader policy to encroach on America’s traditional sphere of influence in the Gulf. Just last August, China announced that it will help expand Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program, prompting U.S officials to warn its security partners against granting Beijing a military base of any kind. A Pentagon report from 2020 also claimed that China had long been trying to establish military logistics facilities – including a new naval base – in the UAE. 

Along with Beijing’s ascension, U.S influence is waning in favour of a more familiar ally. Just days before pausing talks on the F-35 sale, Abu Dhabi inked a weapons deal worth $19 billion with France. The move was seen by experts as cementing deeper economic and political cooperation between two nations that share a similar ideological outlook on the region.

Both French President Emmanuel Macron and the de-facto leader of the Emirates, Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ), distrust and even despise the Muslim Brotherhood. They equally bond over the belief that the Arab world is best governed through autocrats that can keep a lid on reactionary movements and extremists. 

However, the UAE’s policies have played a significant role in destabilizing the region since the Arab spring. U.S weapons used by the Emirates in Yemen have fallen into the hands of hard-line Salafi groups and Al-Qaeda linked fighters, while UAE support for the General Khalifa Haftar in Libya has enabled terrorism – not defeated it. Ample studies have also demonstrated the strong link between authoritarianism, poor or weak governance, and extremism since terrorist groups often exploit collective grievances that mount due to state-violence, state-neglect, and corruption. 

Despite the disastrous human toll that comes with arming authoritarian states, Macron is reaping the benefits. His weapons sale with the UAE marks the first time that a close partner of the U.S will depend more on French defence systems than American ones. Macron likely interprets the deal as a form of payback. Just two months ago, Australia backed out of a $66 billion submarine deal with France to ink a deal with the U.S and U.K. Paris responded by recalling its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. 

“At a time when the [UAE] undoubtedly askes themselves more questions about other historical partners… I think that this strengthens France’s position,” Macron told reporters while referencing the United States. 

Along with fostering closer ties with China and France, the relationship between the UAE and Israel will likely strengthen as the U.S disengages from the region. Unlike the Camp David accords signed in 1978 with Egypt – a cold peace reduced to security cooperation with Israel – the Emirates have fully marketed their normalization with Tel Aviv. 

Business cooperation between the two countries reached a total of $500 million last August, excluding investments. The UAE has also welcomed Israeli delegates and has gone so far as to congratulate Israel on its Independence Day – a date that Palestinian refugees refer to as the Nakba or catastrophe to commemorate the theft of their homeland. What’s more, it appears the shelved deal to acquire F-35s from the U.S hasn’t impacted the new UAE-Israeli alliance. 

“The weapons deal not being part of the [Abraham Accords] is a big disappointment, but I don’t see the Emirates in any way breaking up with Israel over this,” said Sabra. “This isn’t a circumstance where the two sides became friends just because of a weapons deal. They had private contact and understanding for many years.”

Indeed, the bilateral relationship blossomed from a shared vision to counter Iran, which both states perceive as an existential threat. And unlike the U.S, Israel has demonstrated that it will use force to check Iran and its proxies, which makes the Jewish state an appealing security partner for the UAE and other Gulf nations. 

Despite making new friends and partners, the UAE won’t breakaway from the United States. The two nations will continue to cooperate on a myriad of files and Abu Dhabi will still consider buying American weapons in the future. However, the White House will discover that its influence doesn’t quite extend as far as it used to, which is the cost of diluting their engagement in the region.

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