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Punching Above Its Weight: what is behind the United Arab Emirates’ widening regional activism.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas. His research examines political, economic, and security trends in the Middle East and, in particular, the Gulf Cooperation Council states’ changing position within the global order.

He is the author of many books, including The First World War in the Middle East (Hurst, 2014), Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (Oxford University Press, 2014), The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics, and Policymaking (Routledge, 2016), and Qatar and the Gulf Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2016). Diwan interviewed Ulrichsen in late June to get his perspective on the regional involvement of the United Arab Emirates, its causes and possible consequences.

Michael Young: Why has the United Arab Emirates (UAE) emerged as a major player in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, when it had been less involved in the broader region in the past?

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen: The emergence of the UAE as a major player in regional and even international affairs predates the Arab Spring. It began taking shape in the 1990s and 2000s, partly due to a generational leadership transition as Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum in Dubai and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi became more prominent in decisionmaking after the deaths of their fathers in 1990 and 2004, respectively. Mohammed bin Rashed and Mohammed bin Zayed were both seen as ambitious modernizers, and while they differed somewhat in their approach to development in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they shared an ability and willingness to think big.

In his response to the regional upheaval of 2011, Mohammed bin Zayed realigned Emirati relations with Saudi Arabia, which had been a persistent source of tension in the first decade of the century. He took the lead in trying to contain and then to roll back the threat to regional stability that he perceived as coming from Islamists and anti-status quo movements. Again, this greater assertiveness was not new, as the UAE had participated alongside U.S. and NATO forces in the Balkans in the 1990s and Afghanistan in the 2000s. However, what was different after 2011 was the scale and intensity of the UAE’s policies and the Emiratis’ willingness to act unilaterally to secure their own perceived interests.

MY: How have the dynamics within the UAE played into this, in particular relations between Abu Dhabi and the other emirates?

KCU: The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, but Abu Dhabi is both the largest and the emirate with 95 percent of the federation’s oil reserves. A persistent strain since the creation of the UAE in 1971 was between advocates of giving greater power to the federal government and those who wanted individual emirates to retain power. This was a source of friction between Abu Dhabi and the other emirates, especially Dubai, for many years. It caused occasional tensions that undermined a unified Emirati stance on regional and foreign policy issues, such as during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, when some emirates supported Iraq, while others sided with Iran. In the mid-2000s, frustration with the Foreign Ministry in Abu Dhabi, a federal body, led Dubai to consider opening international trade offices, which would have added to Dubai’s policymaking autonomy at the time.

However, the impact of the financial crisis in 2008–2009 hit Dubai hard and necessitated a $20 billion bailout from Abu Dhabi. In October 2010, the last of the founding rulers from the creation of the UAE, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qassimi of Ras al-Khaimah, died. At around the same time, Mohammed bin Zayed became the de facto decisionmaker in Abu Dhabi as his brother, Abu Dhabi ruler and UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa, gradually withdrew from public life because of ill health. Dubai’s eclipse meant that Abu Dhabi, led in an increasingly assertive way by Mohammed bin Zayed (who has no federal-level position) was gradually able to centralize decisionmaking authority at a UAE-wide level in Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, Sheikh Saqr had long been sympathetic to Emirati Islamists, and his death removed the protection that Ras al-Khaimah had been able to provide them. This meant there was little constraint once Mohammed bin Zayed decided in 2011 to adopt a zero-sum approach to Islamists both at home and regionally.

MY: The UAE’s policies in Yemen and Syria appear to clash with those of Saudi Arabia, traditionally the major Arab power in the Gulf. How would you assess the ties between the UAE and Riyadh today?

KCU: Ties between the UAE and Riyadh today remain solid at the level of the crown princes—that is between Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The two are the co-chairs of the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council, a bilateral initiative formed initially in 2016, but revived in 2018, with seemingly no role for Mohammed bin Rashed of Dubai, despite his federal level position as prime minister and vice president of the UAE. The Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council is testament to the manner in which the bilateral relationship is focused on the line between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh as a new center of gravity in Gulf politics, with questions about where that leaves the other six emirates, as well as the four other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

That said, there are tensions in Yemen over the UAE’s support for the Southern Transitional Council (STC), whose leadership remains in Abu Dhabi, especially since the STC declared self-rule in April. There had already been severe tensions between the STC and the Saudi-based Yemeni government of President ‘Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi over the nonimplementation of the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement, which had aimed to bring an end to fighting between rival Saudi- and Emirati-backed groups in Yemen. Emirati and Saudi objectives (and threat perceptions) in Yemen have differed almost from the start of the coalition’s intervention in 2015. However, they were manageable for as long as they effectively partitioned Yemen into spheres of influence and a political process took a back seat to the war. With the UAE’s withdrawal from direct involvement in Yemen in 2019—a move not necessarily coordinated fully with Riyadh—and a political process beginning to appear a more likely prospect, it is harder to paper over such competing approaches.

Syria is a challenge more for the UAE’s political relationship with the United States than with Saudi Arabia.

MY: Why has the UAE been so opposed to Muslim Brotherhood influence in the region in recent years, when this was not always true?

KCU: In the 1970s, there were powerful figures in the UAE who were sympathetic to and supportive of Islah, the local movement in the UAE aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. These included the ruler of Dubai, for a time, and the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, who provided a “safe space” for Emirati Islamists until his death, just three months before the Arab Spring.

The leaders’ opposition, especially in Abu Dhabi, to the Muslim Brotherhood began to manifest itself in the 1990s, after warnings from then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and intensified in 2003 after Mohammed bin Zayed held a series of meetings with Islah leaders in an unsuccessful attempt to get them to renounce political activity. Mohammed bin Zayed has come to view the Muslim Brotherhood, its local offshoots, and political Islam more generally as an acute threat to national and regional stability. He believes that they are intent on challenging the political status quo and fears they would command significant popular support if they were tested in elections—as was seen in post-Arab Spring Tunisia and Egypt. A zero-sum mentality has taken root in which there is a binary choice between stability and instability, with virtually nothing in between.

MY: The UAE has suffered a setback in Libya with the recent reversals of Marshal Khalifa Haftar. How will this affect its policies there?

KCU: Haftar’s failure to take Tripoli is a significant blow to the UAE, and the significant escalation in Turkish military involvement means that the UAE risks getting drawn into a widening conflict should it seek to counter Turkey in partnership with Egypt and Russia. Moreover, Haftar’s failure has probably dealt a fatal blow to Emirati and Egyptian efforts to lobby the international community, especially the Trump White House, to recognize the trajectory of events “on the ground” and acknowledge Haftar’s ascendancy. The UAE may need to exercise caution if Egypt responds by intervening militarily. Such an escalation could increase pressure on the UAE to choose between an internationally-supported effort to resolve Libya’s conflict and an externally-backed insurgent seeking to achieve political gains by force. This could put a strain on the bilateral Emirati-Egyptian relationship that has been so durable since the ousting of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Similarly, if Russian Wagner Group mercenaries take on a larger and more visible role in Libya in support of Haftar, this would be likely to trigger significant political pushback from the United States.

MY: What are the risk factors of the UAE pursuing an activist policy throughout the region?

KCU: There are several risk factors that spring immediately to mind. One is that the UAE has created enemies for itself across the region who might one day cause blowback, especially if power plays do not work out—as in Libya and potentially also in Yemen too. The large-scale Turkish intervention in Libya may suck the UAE deeper into a conflict that is probably unwinnable and could become a significant drain on its resources.

Another is that, after having given so much prominence to portraying Qatar as interfering in other countries’ internal affairs and threatening regional stability, the UAE finds itself acutely vulnerable to the same charge, backed up with ample evidence. Both in Libya and in Yemen, the sight of Emirati support for separatist or nonstate actors ranged against internationally recognized governments is jarring when set against the rhetoric deployed against Doha since 2017, in a rift the Trump administration and the U.S. military have made clear they want ended. This could cause additional tension if it is Abu Dhabi that comes to be seen as the holdout against a resolution of a dispute in which, in Washington’s eyes, there are no winners or losers, only partners set against each other.

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