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Russia and the UAE: reversing US ideational leadership in the Middle East

What is being forged on the ashes of America’s legacy in the region is an ideational partnership between two countries run by strongmen.

Analysis | Middle East

When the reign of Muammar Gaddafi came to an end after 42 years amidst what was seen as a U.S.-backed revolution in 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked at Libya in shock and fear over what he regarded as the result of subversive civil-societal activism that could overthrow resilient authoritarians. Putin’s phobia of the “Color Revolution” that a decade ago started to sweep across the Middle East was shared by one man, who in 2011 was still a little known entity among Middle East analysts and whom today some describe “the most powerful Arab ruler”: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, or MbZ.

A decade on from the Arab revolutions, the United Arab Emirates has emerged as the most powerful counterrevolutionary force and Russia’s most trusted ally in the region — just at a time when the United States is in a process of transforming its regional engagement from direct interference to remote control. The intensifying partnership between the Kremlin and the Crown Prince is thereby neither coincidental nor based on geopolitics — it is founded on growing ideational synergies that fill a void left by America’s widely absent or incoherent moral leadership.

While Washington started to withdraw from the Middle East and North Africa already in the Obama era, at least there remained a semblance of U.S. moral leadership in the beginning of the Arab Spring. Yet, when the burden of transformation in the region throughout the “Arab Winter” became too much to bear as revolutionaries were usurped by counterrevolutionaries, Washington delegated its regional policy to local powers — most notably the UAE, whose counterrevolutionary project for the region remains irreconcilable with America’s self-image of the “shining city on a hill.”

In place of American exceptionalism has grown a narrative of Emirati exceptionalism promoting a revisionist socio-political model of “authoritarian stability” allowing the city state of Abu Dhabi to punch above its weight forging alliances and networks with powers and individuals that oppose values of pluralism, civil liberalism and social justice.

In Libya today, the UAE’s networks and close strategic and operational cooperation with the Kremlin have side-lined American leadership. In absence of a clear strategy or narrative in Washington, MbZ and Putin put their ideational millions against the old regional order. Despite recent operational gains by Turkey, Putin and MbZ still own the narrative in Libya carefully constructed by Abu Dhabi around the bogeyman of the “terrorist,” the Islamist and the activist — a narrative intended to work as a panacea against the “disease” of civil-societal mobilization and revolution.

Both Putin and MbZ regard civil society as inherently subversive and freedom of thought and expression as strategic threats to regime security unless controlled by the state. Both understood that existing grievances that had mobilized liberal first movers against the ancien régimes had to be channelled towards strawmen and scarecrows to absolve failing regimes for their responsibility for bad governance. Now, it is the Islamists and the revolutionaries they frame as the root cause of all evil in this conflict-ridden region. The will for socio-political reform that had also confronted the Kremlin at home had to be substituted with hypernationalism and patriotism; religion as the opioid of the masses needed to be replaced by secular apathy. In essence both Putin and MbZ see the state as a sacrosanct institution where submission to the political leadership is more important than devotion to God. In fact, the idea of the political strongman as deity is not too farfetched when looking at the quietist Salafists, the Madkhalis, who operate alongside Russia and the UAE in Libya: they blindly submit to any political authority as they view revolt and insurgency as impermissible.

At the core of the ideational synergy between Moscow and Abu Dhabi is a desire to return back to a pre-revolutionary state in the Arab world, where nepotistic strongmanship founded on military “deep states” determines the fate of the voiceless many, where civil-societal discourse is confined to the four walls of the private house, and where any form of mobilization in the public sphere unfold to the tune of the regime, not the public. Numbing the public sphere is the attempt to replace the transformational desires of liberals and Islamists alike with cynical revisionism.

A decade after the public sphere in the Arab world awoke, most in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria not only see their achievements from back then reversed but overturned as less social justice is met with less pluralism and less civil liberties. In Libya, Putin and MbZ have built up a military-based police state in the East around Khalifa Haftar. In Egypt, the UAE and Russia support human rights-defying strongman Sissi as an anchor for stability after years of revolutionary uncertainty. In Yemen, Abu Dhabi is systematically building up the Southern Transitional Council, a group of secessionists running torture camps for the Emirates while actively usurping the U.N.-backed government – most recently with the support of Russia who have built ties with the STC. In recent months, the UAE have extended their hand to Syria’s Assad – Russia’s oldest surviving client in the region. Paving the way for normalization, Abu Dhabi views Assad as a partner in the fight against "terrorism" and Islamism, with Putin arranging for Syrian regime loyalists to fight as mercenaries in support of Emirati operations in Libya.

What is being forged on the ashes of America’s legacy in the region is an ideational partnership between two countries run by strongmen who do not only share common interests but more importantly common values and ideologies that run counter to those promoted by the United States for decades. From Abu Dhabi’s point of view, this partnership with Moscow might therefore be more sustainable than its relations with Washington, where ideational differences and normative conditionalities are just as disruptive as frequently rotating leadership. The United States has thereby been an unreliable and unpredictable partner for the Emirates in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The values the United States once embodied in the region have fallen victim to cynical orientalism cloaked in capitulating isolationism. The same illiberal liberals in Washington who propagate bigoted narratives about the region’s inability to embrace “liberalism,” are those who now surrender to the Emirati narrative of “authoritarian stability,” while hypocritically outraged when Russia provides a helping hand. It was always naïve to think in Washington that when delegating Middle Eastern policy to the UAE in places such as Libya or Yemen, an empowered Abu Dhabi would bear the burden of conflict sharing American values and opposing America’s antagonists.

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