The United Arab Emirates in search of strategic autonomy

Jean-Loup Samaan, associate researcher at the French Institute of International Relations  (Institut Français de Relations Internationales), formerly associate professor in strategic studies at the  United Arab Emirates National Defence College from 2016 to 2021, based in Abu Dhabi.

Summary

The decade that has just finished has seen the United Arab Emirates, a small federation of Gulf principalities, emerge as a strategic actor of some weight in the region. Relying on a modern army, Abu Dhabi has conducted power politics and has not hesitated to employ force (Yemen, Syria, Libya) or to use other coercive methods (the Qatar blockade, linking the conditions of aid to development and investments in Africa). This strategy which has earned the country the reputation of the Middle East’s ‘little Sparta’ has led to mixed results, in particular in Yemen where the operations of the Saudi led coalition have not been able to resolve the crisis that started in 2015. This is why the UAE now seems to be embarking on a new stage in its international development, placing its armed forces on the back burner in order to position itself as a key diplomatic actor in the region, either through its role as a mediator in the Horn of Africa or in South Asia, or through the strengthening of its ties with Asian powers, first and foremost amongst them China. It remains to be seen if the UAE’s venture for strategic autonomy will bring results without giving rise to tensions with its traditional western allies, above all the United States. 

Last April the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent Anwar Gargash, special advisor to the president, to Cyprus to represent the country at a summit of the Greek, Cypriot and Israeli foreign ministers [1]. Shortly beforehand Dubai had hosted negotiations between India and Pakistan,  aimed at re-establishing dialogue between the two south Asian countrie[2]. Only a few weeks apart these two events symbolised the growing ambitions of a young country, the UAE, which this year celebrates its fiftieth birthday and whose citizens number barely one million people.

Endowed with the seventh largest oil reserves in the world this federation of seven principalities has long been known for the exuberance of Dubai and its architectural projects. However since 2011 its federal capital, Abu Dhabi, led by its crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (known as MBZ), has developed an unalloyed system of power politics that has taken precedence over Dubai’s mercantilist approach. During the last decade the UAE has therefore become an key actor, not just in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, but beyond it from the African continent to the shores of Asia:  through its key role in the peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018, its close relationship with the transitional military council in Sudan, or again in its continued convergence with China, the country has expanded the scope of its international agenda.

At the same time Abu Dhabi has projected internationally its model of governance, that is to say an absolute monarchy that prevents any expression of dissidence, in particular that emanating from the promoters of political Islam. This dissemination of the Emirati model has been done in a robust manner, through the use of economic pressure or the deployment of the country’s military assets. In consequence this use of power politics has led the country to find itself in the forefront of affairs like the conflict in Yemen, the civil war in Libya or the regional competition with Iran.

That said, this Emirati activism – remarkable given the modest size of the country – recently seems to have reached its peak. More precisely since the summer of  2019 Abu Dhabi appears not so much to have abandoned its ambitions, but rather to have demonstrated a pragmatism which in certain cases has been imposed upon it by the realities on the ground. That is the perspective that this essay uses to study the development of the UAE’s development of its power politics, in order to understand not just the motivations but also the outcomes. In consequence it should be possible to arrive at a better understanding of the current issues affecting a deep-rooted review of Emirati policies.

The regional rise of ‘Little Sparta’

In November 2014 the Washington Post published an elegiac article on the UAE describing the country not just as a solid ally of the United States in its war against terrorism, but also as a veritable “little Sparta”, an expression attributed to James Mattis, who at the time of the comment was head of the US Central Command [3]. The reference to Sparta was meant to underline the conclusion of the huge reforms that the Emirati military had undergone since the middle of the 1990s and that were without any equivalent in the Arabian peninsula.  

The incorporation of the Dubai Defence Forces into the federal army in 1996 completed the process of centralisation that was at the heart of the federation under the aegis of Abu Dhabi, and now allowed it to put its military project for the UAE into place. Since then Emirati forces have been deployed in Kosovo, in Somalia, and Afghanistan. Over and above that they have benefitted from a modernisation of their capacities, particularly in regards to combat aircraft. Since 2009, the creation of a Presidential Guard based on a US Marine Corps training programme has allowed it to rely upon special forces that are judged to be amongst the most effective in the region.

This growth in power of the Emirati military relies to a large extent on its links with the western allies, starting with the United States. Relations with Washington are based on a defence cooperation agreement, renewed for 15 years in 2017, which includes the presence of 3,500 American soldiers as well as the  delivery of massive arms contracts.

Alongside the United States there is also France, with whom the Federation has had close links since its inception in 1971. Its closeness to Paris was increased under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, with the opening of a military base in Abu Dhabi housing the HQ of the French commander of the Indian Ocean maritime zone ‘Alindien’, as well as a contingent of around 650 men. In terms of arms deals France remained the UAE’s second largest supplier for the period 2000-2020, although data gathered by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute disclose a net reduction in real terms compared to the United States[4].


Emirati Forces in 2021 (sources: The Military Balance, SIPRI)
Total number of effectives (personnel)63,000
Army (personnel)44,000
Artillery brigade1
Infantry brigade1
Mechanised brigades2
Armoured brigades2
Armoured vehicles3,203
Leclerc tanks (French) in service258
Air Force (personnel)4,500
Fighter squadrons6
F-16E/Fs in service77
Mirage 2000-9Ds in service63
Navy (personnel)2,500
Patrol/surveillance vessels42
Frigate1
Presidential Guard (personnel)12,000

This reform of its military is the fruit of MBZ, son of the late emir and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and having risen through the ranks of the military hierarchy, MBZ saw the modernisation of the Emirati defence forces not just as a means of consolidating his power internally but also as a way to turn his country into a player on the strategic stage. For MBZ, the UAE must in fine be able to deploy its military assets, in external interventions if need be, not just in order to affect regional issues but also to prevent growing menaces from outside that could target the  federation.

This interventionist vision reflects Emirati aspirations for strategic autonomy. It also contrasts with the vision of  Qatar, the neighbouring and rival country where the previous emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, preferred to gain influence during the same period by concentrating on foreign investment and Qatari soft power.

From the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011 the Emirati military reforms matched Abu Dhabi’s political agenda. The UAE perceived the unrest in the region less as an expression of popular rejection of authoritarian leaderships and more as attempts at coups d’états led by adherents of political Islam, and more particularly the Muslim Brotherhood  .

The Emirates themselves have a complicated relationship with the organisation and its local branch, Al Islah. For a long time influential in Emirati society, in particular in the poorest emirates (Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, or Umm al Quwain), the brotherhood even controlled school textbooks in the UAE for a time. Its relationship with power in Abu Dhabi deteriorated constantly during the 2000s and the events of 2011 only served to accelerate a rupture which ended up with the banning of Al Islah and the arrest of dozens of its leaders[5].

If these tensions are the result of the power struggles between the reigning family and Al Islah within the Emirates, Abu Dhabi is convinced that on a wider basis they reflect the desire of Islamist groups to seize power in the Middle East. In consequence, the escalation of internal tensions has manifested itself internationally in Abu Dhabi’s desire to prevent Islamist movements from coming to power anywhere at all. It is within this context that the UAE has steadily moved closer to Saudi Arabia to form a counter-revolutionary camp that will come to the aid of Arab leaders threatened by revolts.

Abu Dhabi’s posture has become more and more opposed to that of Qatar which for its own part made the opposite decision, to invest politically, even financially, in political Islam[6]. During the years following the uprisings of 2011 Emir Hamad, then after his abdication in 2013 his son Tamim, supported groups viewed as enemies by their Emirati neighbours. In Egypt the removal of President Morsi, who had been supported by Qatar, in the summer of 2013 at the hands of a coup conducted by the military and supported by Abu Dhabi and Riyad is a reflection of the increasing division within the Gulf.

From 2014, Qataris and Emiratis also confronted each other indirectly in Libya where a new civil war opposed the forces of Marshal Haftar and the Government of National Accord. In Marshal Haftar Abu Dhabi saw a strong man, a professional soldier, someone with a nationalist rhetoric facing up to Islamist movements seeking to control the levers of power in Tripoli – movements which benefitted from Qatari support.

This proxy war between Abu Dhabi and Doha resulted in a first diplomatic crisis in the Arabian Peninsula in  2014, when the Emiratis, alongside the Saudis and Bahrainis, recalled their ambassadors from Qatar. The crisis lasted for six months before a road map that was supposed (in vain) to restore confidence between the two sides was put in place. The crisis foreshadowed the blockade imposed on Doha by the same countries from June 2017 to January 2021.

If political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood constitute a primary threat for Abu Dhabi, Iran’s regional policy continues to inform the UAE’s foreign and defence policy. Iran’s nuclear programme is clearly a subject that fuels Emirati perceptions of an imminent threat,  but it is linked to even older contentions such as Iran’s occupation of three islands (Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs). This occupation is a longstanding element of the UAE’s diplomatic discourse which regularly calls for a relaunch of negotiations at UN level, efforts that have never had any effect. In addition, Iran’s ballistic arsenal and the logistical or financial support provided by the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution to non-state actors in Iraq or Yemen heighten Abu Dhabi’s fears.

This Emirati reading of Iranian politics lead Abu Dhabi to be sceptical about the attempts at dialogue made towards Teheran by Barack Obama’s US administration, and then immediately to support Donald Trump when in 2018 he withdrew from the nuclear agreement signed in 2015[7]. Beyond that the UAE’s arms policy reflects the priority that Abu Dhabi places on reinforcing its capacity to dissuade any Iranian aggression, notably through the massive purchase of American anti-missile defence systems (Patriot batteries and the THAAD missile system) and combat aircraft (three squadrons equipped with F-16s; three others equipped with Mirage 2000s, and potentially with American F-35s in the immediate future). In view of these acquisitions, the former head of US Central Command, David Petraeus, declared in 2009 that the Emirati Air Force could defeat the Iranians just by using its own resources[8].

In other words, Abu Dhabi’s security assessment of its environment led it during the 2010s to put in place policies aiming at one and the same time to contain regional  advances by Islamist movements and those of the Iranian regime. In doing so the UAE did not hesitate to use force, contributing to air strikes against Islamic State between 2014 and 2015 and deploying nearly 4,000 soldiers to Yemen from 2015. This relaxed deployment of force naturally fed the narrative of a ‘little Sparta’. Nevertheless, as with so many expeditionary forces before it, the federation is today understanding the limits of the deployment of military force.


A scaled down strategy

In autumn 2016 the UAE’s regional strategy was giving rise to approbation at least, if not actual admiration, on the part of many western observers. US and French military personnel in  Abu Dhabi emphasised the technical prowess of this young army that in a few months had led amphibious assaults on the port cities of Yemen, Aden (May 2015) and Mukalla (April 2016). If the performance of the Saudi army was being judged very critically at that point in time, that of the Emiratis was perceived positively, vindicating the efforts to modernise it over the preceding two decades. Furthermore, while the US and France were making a priority out of the fight against Islamism, Abu Dhabi with its intransigent rhetoric seemed to be an objective ally in this regional campaign.

 Nevertheless, the Emirate’s posture gradually underwent several setbacks. Militarily it soon became clear that its retaking of the territory in Yemen that had been captured by the Houthis, or in certain areas by the local branch of Al Qaeda, had not resulted in genuine stability in these regions. Not only were the Emiratis forced to make local agreements with some extremist factions so that they could deploy these very factions’ forces[9] but the fighting with the Houthis began to bog down and from the end of 2016 took on all the appearances of a static war.

This stagnation affected relations between Abu Dhabi and Riyad, with the Emiratis considering that the Saudis’ local partner, the Yemeni president in exile Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, had neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to see an end to the Houthi insurrection. Out of pragmatism, Abu Dhabi found itself supporting South Yemeni fighters who seemed much more experienced on the ground to defeat the Houthis. However the southern militia fighters saw the war as an opportunity to redirect the spotlight onto their secessionist agenda. If the UAE did not officially support these secessionist ambitions, neither was it wholly opposed to them and its military support contributed to the strengthening of these groups. This posture of Abu Dhabi’s, ambivalent at best, ended up annoying not just Hadi’s legal government but also its Saudi allies.

Adding to these tensions at the heart of the coalition, the presence of the Emirates’ military in Yemen exposed the country to accusations of neo-colonialism. While the international community became more and more exercised by the humanitarian crisis the country was undergoing, the deployment of Emirati forces on the islands of Socotra and Mayun also fed speculation about Abu Dhabi’s wish for a long term presence in Yemen.

Meanwhile in Libya, Marshal Haftar, galvanised by the support he thought he could count on from the Emiratis and from neighbouring Egypt, launched a military offensive towards Tripoli in spring 2019. The operation publicly put into doubt the  efforts at reconciliation led by the UN’s special envoy Ghassan Salamé. If the first weeks seemed to go well for Haftar’s initiative, his forces soon came up against those of Tripoli.  Above all, Haftar’s offensive led Turkey to come to the aid of Fayez al-Sarraj’s government, deploying a military contingent in January 2020.  The Turkish intervention definitively sealed the fate of Haftar’s ambitions and challenged the Emirates’ indirect strategy in Libya.

Finally, Abu Dhabi’s support for Donald Trump’s strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran also landed the UAE in difficulty. At the start of May 2019, four tankers off the coast of Fujairah – the Emirati port on the Gulf of Oman – were attacked. While the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately accused Iran of being behind the attack, Emirati diplomats talked of an action carried out by a “state actor”, but pointed the finger at nobody [10].

This series of multiple setbacks seems to have caused a review of the  UAE’s regional strategy. This change manifested itself in several ways. First of all in the summer of 2019, Abu Dhabi announced a gradual withdrawal of its forces from Yemen. Emirati diplomats presented the withdrawal as an opportunity for local actors to take their destiny into their own hands[11]. While the Yemeni theatre had hardly indicated any imminent end to the crisis, the announcement surprised foreign observers. The Emirati decision to redeploy its troops was guided by several factors and in particular the desire to find a way out of a conflict which was having a persistently negative reputational cost on its principal participants, starting with the coalition’s leader Saudi Arabia. It appears Abu Dhabi also wanted to prevent the tactical divergences with Riyad from harming its alliance with the Saudi kingdom any more seriously, a partnership that remains essential for the UAE.

During the same timeframe, Abu Dhabi decided to re-open dialogue with the Iranian regime, one that had been broken off since  2013. While tensions grew between the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and the American armed forces after the attack on the tankers off  Fujairah, the Emiratis made the choice not only to reopen channels of communication with Teheran particularly with respect to maritime safety, but to make this initiative public.

Here again the change of position could appear surprising given the previous inflexibility of the UAE’s position vis-à-vis Iran. Nevertheless, it also revealed internal fragilities within the UAE: if the capital, Abu Dhabi, was capable of robust discourse, it was in the interests of the merchant city of Dubai to avoid any escalation in the waters of the Gulf. Dubai feared that precipitate action could compromise its image as a hub for finance and international tourism. Besides that, the city has historically accommodated a large Iranian diaspora and is still looked upon at this time of sanctions against Iran as the latter’s gateway to the global economy [12].

The Emiratis’ volte-face regarding the question of Iran can also be read as a distancing from the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s administration. The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, at first displayed a strong convergence of views with the former president, whose Middle East policies seemed to consolidate their interests.  However, the absence of any reaction from the US after the attacks by Iran first of all on an American drone on  20 June 2019 and then on a Saudi oil-field on 14 September in the same year gave rise to unease in the Gulf, where the decision-makers began to doubt Trump’s genuine desire to follow through with his policy of ‘maximum pressure’.

This review of the Emirates’ foreign policy continued over the following months and the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic did nothing to change its direction. The rhetoric of ‘little Sparta’ was done with, and Abu Dhabi now seemed to want to position itself in the role of a regional mediator.

In August 2020 the country caused some surprise when it signed the Abraham Accords recognising Israel and not long afterwards it announced the opening of an embassy in Tel Aviv. The existence of Israeli-Emirati relations had been an open secret for a decade but nothing had suggested an imminent normalisation between the two states. In the wake of these events Emirati diplomats tried to promote the idea that the accords would prevent an annexation of the West Bank by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – a statement that was difficult to prove and that hid the fact that the Palestinian question was absent from the deal. In reality the Abraham Accords are not so much a road map towards peace as simply an agreement on economic and defence cooperation.

Elsewhere too Abu Dhabi has been actively trying to prove itself a key player diplomatically. When tensions were mounting between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia around the contentious issue of the sharing of the waters of the Nile, revived by Addis Ababa’s construction of a dam, the UAE offered itself as a mediator [13]. The Emirates enjoy close relations with all three countries: they remain one of the main political and financial supporters of President Sisi’s regime in Cairo as well as the Transitional Military Council in Khartoum,  while their links with the Ethiopian government have been strengthened as a result of the UAE’s mediation role in the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018.

The UAE has adopted the same approach in South Asia, with meetings organised in Dubai in spring 2021 between Indian and Pakistani leaders. The Emiratis were able to use their closeness to the two governments: while historically Pakistan, and in particular its military, had enjoyed close relations with the UAE, Abu Dhabi has also strengthened its economic and military links with India since Narendra Modi’s arrival in power in New Delhi.

This diversification of partnerships, notably towards Asia, has also allowed the Emiratis to reduce their dependence on the western powers. This is in part behind the UAE’s 2009 decision to choose South Korea rather than the United States or France to develop its first nuclear power centre in Barakah[14].

Following the same logic, Abu Dhabi has taken the gamble of allying itself with China in its vaccine diplomacy against Covid-19, to consolidate its image as a player in regional cooperation. Not stopping there, the Emirates have entered into a partnership with the Chinese company Sinopharm for the clinical trials of its vaccine, and went on to announce in March 2021 the signing of a partnership with Beijing to set up a vaccine production site in the  emirate of Abu Dhabi which in the long term will allow for the distribution of vaccine doses to developing countries, particularly in Africa[15]. In other words, the UAE doesn’t only intend to play a key role in vaccine diplomacy but it has calculated that its best partner in this field is China.

This Emirati cooperation with China on vaccine development is part of a larger and continuous rapprochement between the two countries that has existed since President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UAE in 2018. The partnership touches on ever more sensitive issues that haven’t gone unnoticed in Washington, and more particularly in the Pentagon. As examples, the Chinese company Cosco now holds 90% of the container terminal in the port of Abu Dhabi, Huawei is in charge of the rollout and the management of the 5G network on Emirati territory and the Emirati army is equipping itself with Chinese Wing Loong-2 UAVs.

What is the future path for the UAE’s regional srategy ?

Since 2019, the UAE has reduced the scale of its military commitments abroad. It is also concentrating on a more pragmatic, even modest, diplomatic posture. For all that, this revision of Emirati politics is less about the abandonment of Abu Dhabi’s vision of the Middle East than its adapting to the setbacks it has undergone. The UAE may indeed have started to withdraw its forces from Yemen, but it remains influential on the ground through its direct support of southern secessionist groups.

Similarly, in January 2021 the Emiratis signed a reconciliation agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, putting an end to the blockade imposed on Qatar. The Emiratis seem to have been resigned to lifting the blockade in the face of ever growing pressure from Washington. Nevertheless, tensions between Abu Dhabi and Doha remain prominent in the local press and Qatari media, such as Al Jazeera, remain forbidden in the UAE.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey also constitutes a rival in a range of areas. Not only does the AKP embody the political Islam that Abu Dhabi rejects, but the deployment of Turkish troops in Qatar or Ankara’s military support for the Libyan government in Tripoli against Marshal Haftar’s forces continue to feed the climate of hostility between Turkey and the UAE.

In the longer term the major determinant in any reorientation of Abu Dhabi’s policies will be the path of its ever more complicated relations with Washington. The UAE’s regional politics over the last decade reflect the federation’s aspirations for a form of strategic autonomy. The western narrative around a ‘little Sparta’ tended to suggest a growth in the UAE’s military power as a regional ally able to contribute to operations in the area. However if Abu Dhabi’s interventions, direct or indirect, from Yemen to Libya are evidence of its leaders’ desire to defend their own interests on their own, they have also demonstrated that those interests are not always convergent with those of their western partners. Moreover, the gamble of the blockade imposed on Qatar may have weakened relations with Paris or Washington, who have both maintained a strict neutrality on the issue.

Emirati emancipation from western protection, and in particular from that of the United States, has its limits as the arrival of President Biden’s administration has brought to mind. The sale of F- 35 combat aircraft promised in the last days of the Trump administration remains uncertain. Suspended for a time, the contract is being assessed once again but the  rapprochement between the UAE and China is arousing concern amongst US decision makers about the transfer of the flower of American military aviation to Abu Dhabi [16].

In the long term Chinese expansion in the country and its critical infrastructures raises the question of compromising strategic exchanges between Abu Dhabi and the United States, and also France. At this point in time there is properly speaking no red line that has been publicly made clear to the Emirati authorities by Washington and the Emiratis still appear to be expectant, hoping to simultaneously gain the benefits of the American military presence and Chinese investments.

More generally the publicly displayed intention of the democratic team in Washington to reorient its military resources from the Middle East towards Asia asks a question of the viability of the Emirates’ posture without American protection. If the abilities of the Emirati armed forces are undeniable, they remain incomplete: their difficulties in controlling the ground in Yemen or in securing their own maritime area during the attacks on the tankers in spring 2019 were harsh reminders of this. As a result the years to come will be crucial in determining the direction of the Emirates’ current review of their regional policies.

The adoption of a more cautious approach to military interventionism and the strengthening of Abu Dhabi’s capacities for mediation in South Asia or in Africa have to be seen as positive. But a possible American withdrawal from the Gulf might also convince the UAE of the need to strengthen its links with rival powers, China or Russia, and this would carry the risk of seeing the country diverge more and more from its American and European partners in dealing with regional issues.


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