Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The UAE Foreign Policy: Balanced and Pragmatic

UAE Foreign Policy
United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan looks over during a meeting at the l’Hotel de Matignon, the official residence of the Prime Minister, in Paris on July 19, 2022. Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

In recent years, the United Arab Emirates has sought to be a regional player that takes advantage of all the contradictions in the Middle East. While Egypt‘s role at the Arab level has declined and Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are occupied with their internal problems, the door has opened for second-tier countries such as the UAE to fill the vacuum in the region. Filling this vacuum would not have been possible without forming new alliances.

New Friends

The UAE and Israel do not share borders, nor have the two countries fought any wars. The pretence of coexistence as a pillar of foreign policy has allowed the UAE to establish an unprecedented level of openness in its relations with Israel.

Two years after the signing of the Abraham Accords, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan discussed the visit of about half a million Israelis to his country. Bin Zayed made this statement during a recent visit to Israel, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Demonstrating what he described as the continued growth in trade between the two parties, bin Zayed considered that the free trade agreement between the two countries may be “the fastest free trade agreement signed by Israel.”

Concerning bin Zayed’s visit, Lapid stated, “Today, we celebrate the visit of a strategic partner to our state.” Lapid expected that the trade volume between the two countries would reach about $2.5 billion by the end of 2022.

The repeated description of bin Zayed as a “friend” is telling of the Emirati rush towards Israel. Lapid stressed that for establishing the Negev Summit for regional cooperation, he initially contacted bin Zayed as others would follow suit, something Lapid considered true leadership. The Negev Summit was held in the presence of the US Secretary of State and the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt in March 2022.

Lapid defined the future of relations by saying, “Together, we are changing the face of the Middle East, moving it from war to peace, from terrorism to economic cooperation, and from talks of violence and extremism to a dialogue of tolerance and cultural curiosity.”

Looking for A Role for Syria

UAE Foreign Policy
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with UAE Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Abu Dhabi on March 18, 2022. Government of Dubai – Media Office / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP

In March 2022, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the UAE. At the time, Assad met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, still Crown Prince, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. On Syria’s return to the Arab League through the UAE, Assad said, “We did not go anywhere. Syria remained in the same positions and circumstances, dealing with them in its way and according to its principles and visions.”

However, Assad‘s visit to the UAE – the first of its kind to an Arab country since the beginning of the Syrian crisis – marked a shift in Abu Dhabi’s approach to the conflict. The UAE moved away from the unified stance the Gulf states had adopted against Syria since 2012 to a phase of renewed relations.

According to analysts, by this new approach, the UAE has sought to present itself as a “leader of the Arab world,” hoping that others will follow. Analysts say Abu Dhabi aims to become a “decision-maker in the Middle East” as Washington‘s role dwindles. The latter has criticised the visit as “profoundly disappointing and troubling” and labelled it an apparent attempt to legitimise Assad.

Pragmatic Cheques and Balances

The return of the UAE’s ambassador to Iran is economically incentivised. While one analyst considered Abu Dhabi the political and commercial winner of restoring diplomatic ties with Tehran, this perception contradicts the UAE’s previous approach to dealing with Iran. Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser to the UAE’s president, has previously blamed Tehran for pushing many Arab countries to review their positions toward Israel because of what he described as Iran’s aggressive policy.

Later, however, the UAE stated it was “not a party to any regional coalition against Iran.” In early 2016, in response to Iranian protesters storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran in protest of the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, the UAE downgraded its diplomatic ties with Tehran while Riyadh severed them. More than six years after doing so, the UAE took steps towards Iran prior to Saudi Arabia resolving its issues with the country.

The pragmatic Emirati diplomacy has also sought to relieve previous tensions with Turkey. The shift towards pragmatism was visible in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit months ago, his first visit to the UAE in nearly a decade. Twelve cooperation agreements were signed on numerous topics even though both parties formerly disagreed on most regional issues.

Meanwhile, Egyptian-Emirati relations are continuously positive, despite unspoken Egyptian reservations about the UAE’s policies on Yemen and Libya.

Reevaluation of Foreign Policies

UAE Foreign Policy
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid meet in Jerusalem on September 15, 2022. Israeli Government Press Office/ Anadolu Agency via AFP

Before the end of 2021, the UAE reevaluated its foreign policy. It vowed to abandon its policy of intervening in conflicts and focus on the economy. As such, Abu Dhabi has sought to make investments worth $150 billion through intensified links with fast-growing economies.

Instead of the regional clashes that accompanied the UAE’s policies during the Arab Spring, the UAE has resorted to strengthening its presence financially and economically.

With the end of former US President Donald Trump’s term, the UAE pursued policies for the new Middle East grounded in realpolitik.

The unanticipated US withdrawal from Afghanistan was a lesson in US foreign policy’s unpredictability for America’s Gulf allies, led by the UAE.

Anwar Gargash, who recently left his position as minister of state for foreign affairs, had predicted that events in Ukraine would bring about changes affecting the international system with “deep and long-lasting” repercussions. The UAE’s new policies appear to have aligned with these changes.

Abu Dhabi Tails Dubai

This change marked the end of Abu Dhabi’s control over the UAE’s foreign policy, which was based on a policy of conflict intervention. The shift followed the emirate of Dubai’s push in this direction under the weight of the Emirati economy’s decline.

Jim Krane, the author of City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism, told Bloomberg that “Abu Dhabi’s policy of choosing sides and picking fights has been bad for the economy. They realised this is not a successful strategy.”

Some believe that the UAE lacks influential cultural and popular heritage and is surrounded by numerous social and demographic threats resulting from openness, globalisation, a free economy and a weak social structure. This exposes its national identity to volatile changes that affect the state’s foreign policies.

Researcher Eleonora Ardemagni believes that “maritime security plays a key role in the UAE’s recalibration of its foreign policy.” Ardemagni calls this Emirati approach “straits diplomacy,” contributing to the UAE’s shift “from spreading power to protecting influence.”

According to Ardemagni, this type of diplomacy focuses on three maritime straits: Hormuz, Bab al-Mandeb and Suez. It also combines three policy dimensions: maritime security presence, pragmatic and institutional dialogue on maritime security, and geo-economic investments around critical waterways.

Ardemagni deduced that the UAE’s recalibration of its foreign policy since 2019 was to preserve the geopolitical leverage it acquired after 2011. Perfect examples of this recalibration are the Emirati military withdrawal from Yemen in 2019 and disengagement from the military outposts in Eritrea and Somaliland (2019-2021).

Ardemagni added, “The UAE has prioritised diplomacy over military adventurism to reduce geopolitical risks and improve its international image. This new approach will reduce maritime tensions and thus contribute to a balance between the UAE’s national ambitions and global security. Nevertheless, the UAE’s foreign policy adjustments do not mean abandoning its ambitions to play the role of the middle regional power.”

Researcher Ahmed Nusair believes that developing stable and positive political, economic and popular relations is one of the UAE’s most critical foreign policy priorities. There is a conviction that the UAE’s political turn is not just a tactical move but a strategic direction serving broader geopolitical incentives.

One study considers that the increasing number of failed and weak states in the Middle East has produced ample opportunities for competition and intervention from second-tier countries such as the UAE, owing to their economic capabilities. As such, this new approach has allowed the UAE to play multiple regional roles in controlling the course of regional transformations and dynamics.

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