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The United Arab Emirates (UAE), member of the United Nations, the Arab League and an ally of the West, has since its founding been balanced and pragmatic in its foreign policy. While from 2011, it intervened in several conflicts in the region, such as in Yemen, Libya and Syria, it has sought to play a new role within the region. This has included re-evaluating its relations with Israel, as well as with Syria.
This article analyses how the UAE’s international relations developed and how the country became a new regional player, changing priorities and alliances.
A Western Ally
The UAE is a member of the United Nations and the Arab League and has established diplomatic relations with more than 60 countries, including the US, Japan, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and most West European countries. The country plays a moderate and pragmatic role in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), the United Nations, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
ِAbu Dhabi has maintained close strategic, political, and economic relations with Western countries. The UAE and the United States have had friendly relations since 1971. The United States was the third country to establish formal diplomatic relations with the UAE and has had an ambassador in the UAE since 1974. Political cooperation, security coordination, and commercial ties, especially in the petroleum sector, have developed into friendly political and economic ties.
It has signed several military deals with the West, including defence agreements with the United States in 1994 and France in 1995. After the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, the UAE was identified as a major financial centre used by al-Qaeda in transferring money to the hijackers, and two of the 9/11 hijackers were UAE citizens.
The nation tried to erase this stigma by cooperating fully with the US, including freezing accounts tied to suspected terrorists and clamping down on money laundering, downgrading its cooperation with Iran and applying the sanctions regime approved by the UN.
Abu Dhabi sent forces to help liberate Kuwait during the 1990-1991 Kuwait Crisis that followed the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. When the massive coalition ground assault called Operation Desert Storm began on 24 February 1991, troops of the Gulf States, including some from the UAE, formed part of two Arab task forces. The UAE contributed to the war by billeting American and French forces and providing naval facilities; Emirati forces suffered some casualties. The UAE also underwrote USD 3 billion of the cost of the war.
The UAE military was one of only two Muslim or Arab participants (along with Jordan) that joined the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, alongside troops from 12 other non-NATO nations. It has also maintained a military unit as part of the UN mission to Bosnia for years. UAE troops have also participated in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in Somalia, Lebanon, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, among other places.
A New Regional Player
In recent years, the UAE 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.
Normalisation with Israel
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. In August 2020, the UAE and Israel fully normalised diplomatic relations, breaking with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). In the API it was agreed that any Arab relations with Israel would be conditional on Israel ending its occupation of Palestine.
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.”
Palestinians, meanwhile, were disappointed by the normalisation of relations between the UAE and Israel. After all, the UAE decided to abandon the demand to end the Israeli occupation, prioritising economic and commercial ties with the Jewish state instead. This added another major obstacle for Palestinians and their quest for statehood.
Rapprochement with Syria
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 Abu Dhabi’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 to the UAE in February 2022, his first visit 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.
Re-evaluation of Foreign Policy
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, former 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.