The new model adopted by the UAE in its domestic and foreign policies is becoming clearer, and the understanding of its main features and disadvantages is growing. This month, two reports on UAE foreign policy were issued by Britain’s Chatham House and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs which make interesting reading.
Both studies conveyed the same message: the UAE’s policy has changed, particularly since the Arab Spring. It no longer adopts the traditional policy for which the Emirates was known during the rule of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan, who sought consensus and built frameworks for joint Arab and Gulf development. The current UAE policy, which is driven by the de facto ruler of the country, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, is very different and has had an impact across the Arab world. It requires us to focus on it, understand it and rationalise Western dealings with it, as old perceptions are no longer valid.
The Chatham House study was carried out by chief analyst at the International Crisis Group, Peter Salisbury. He says that the UAE is embracing a model of governance and foreign policy that is increasingly moving away from what the West advocates. Under the leadership of Bin Zayed, the UAE wants to build an economic empire, with ports across the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Horn of Africa, along with military, economic and soft powers to defend and expand its economic interests. However, at the same time, it relies on an autocratic security governance model, suppressing opposition and spreading its ideas and style of governance in the region.
The report by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, written by researcher Guido Steinberg, states that it was Bin Zayed who persuaded the Saudi leadership in 2015 to get involved in the Yemen war. Both studies indicate the great influence that he has over his Saudi counterpart, Mohammad Bin Salman, and the close relationship that binds them, noting that the latter considers Bin Zayed a role model and teacher.
The two studies illustrate the role that the UAE has played in supporting the military coup in Egypt (2013), and in supporting the efforts of retired General Khalifa Haftar to control Libya by force. These efforts are being thwarted by Turkey’s military support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The reports also note the UAE’s support for the separatist militias in southern Yemen, which have changed the map of the political forces in the country, all of which are clear influence factors for the new Emirati role.
All of this requires Western governments to have some awareness about the nature of the Emirati inclinations, and not to deal with the UAE from the traditional perspective of its perceived social and religious openness, its economic model, the ease with which Western diplomats live there, and their close relations with its officials, without also focusing on the essence of its new orientation. The latter is based on a police state, which suppresses dissent, monitors its citizens using the latest technology, spreads tyranny in the region and works to strengthen its ties with China and Russia in order to counter any pressure that the West may exert.
Both studies show that Mohammed Bin Zayed’s political vision is based on his animosity towards Iran — which has occupied Emirati islands since the 1970s and has increasingly spread its influence in the region — and the Muslim Brotherhood, especially since the Arab Spring. The German Institute says that Bin Zayed’s hostility towards the Brotherhood is the main driving force behind his foreign policies and exceeds his hostility towards Iran. The root of this is the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince’s fear of political opposition and the fact that the Islah group, which is linked intellectually to the Brotherhood, is the largest political opposition movement in the UAE. Hence, he has focused on suppressing the group and outlawing it after the Arab Spring; he continues to oppress liberal activists as well.
The problem is not the Muslim Brotherhood itself, but Bin Zayed’s objection to political opposition per se, and his fear that the regime will be changed. As such, he insists on portraying all branches of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists, even if they are not violent. He also portrays them as non-national groups, suggesting that their loyalty lies with the mother movement in Egypt and not to their own countries. The Crown Prince fights the group across the whole region, even if this exposes him to political losses, as happened in Yemen, where the study says that the Houthis succeeded in controlling Sanaa because the Arab coalition did not stand strongly against their encroachment on the capital in the hope that the Yemeni Brotherhood would be drawn into a violent confrontation. This did not happen, however, and Sanaa fell into the hands of the Houthis, after which Saudi Arabia allied itself on occasions with the Yemeni Brotherhood, while the UAE remained hostile to the movement. Hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood as well as political opposition, and working to spread dictatorships and autocracies since the Arab Spring, seem to be the most important focuses for UAE foreign policy today.
The UAE’s animosity towards Iran appears to be more complicated, due to the direct threat that it may pose to the Emirates, which also fears that it will suffer heavy material losses in the event of a military confrontation between the US and Iran and its regional allies.
According to the Chatham House study, this UAE policy is full of serious flaws as the spread of dictatorships and autocracies does not help stability in Arab countries, not least because those like Egypt, for example, do not possess the huge financial resources that help the UAE pursue such a policy while also spending generously on economic projects and thus buying the satisfaction of its citizens. Other Arab countries are distinguished by their internal pluralism or their keenness to preserve the rights and freedoms of their citizens to varying degrees. Chatham House, however, shows that the Emirati leadership does not have a clear strategy in this respect, nor decision-making institutions, and that political decisions are made predominantly by Mohammed Bin Zayed and a small group of close advisers.
This lends itself to ill-considered decisions, such as the withdrawal of a large number of UAE forces from Yemen in the summer of 2019, and the decision to stop training Somali forces in 2017 after a dispute with the Somali government arising from Abu Dhabi’s relationship with the Republic of Somaliland — not recognised by Somalia — and building a military base in Berbera Port. Other ill-fated decisions include the UAE’s involvement in Libya and Yemen without coordination with its allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The two studies mention the UAE’s cooperation with militant Salafi groups in Yemen and Libya that support its political project, which contrasts with the UAE leaders’ keenness to affirm their hostility to religious extremism. In reality, they are cooperating with militant religious groups, some of which may be linked to Al-Qaeda, as is the case in Yemen.
UAE policies have led to grave human rights violations in war zones, particularly in Yemen, where the Emirati forces are accused of supporting political assassinations, arbitrary arrests and torture, through their allied militias. This exposes the UAE to Western criticism, which it is not used to and perhaps helped push it to decide to withdraw most of its forces from Yemen.
According to the German Institute study, “The UAE is also important to the current US administration because it has the least problems with Jared Kushner’s plans for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Bin Zayed would probably also accept a solution that is largely in line with the Israeli government’s ideas.” In short, UAE governance has changed radically since the Arab Spring, and Western governments need to understand the new political model that it has adopted. Its policies are affecting more countries, such as Russia and China, with regard to the pursuit of economic growth under a despotic domestic system and foreign policies that support tyranny and autocracy, even as the UAE continues to maintain its strong relations with the West and Israel.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 28 July 2020