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US interests in the Middle East don’t run through Abu Dhabi

Joe Biden said the US is going to ‘stop embracing dictators and thugs.’ He can start with the UAE.

Analysis | Middle East

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, or MBZ as he is known, is often lauded as a model leader in a complicated and turbulent region and his country spends lavishly throughout the corridors of power in Washington, DC to portray itself as a pillar of stability and progress. But the actions of the United Arab Emirates these past four years reveal a different, more troubling reality. Enabled by former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, MBZ’s harmful conduct in the region demonstrates the true nature of the UAE’s foreign policy, one that undermines U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

President Biden promised to review the U.S.’s relationship with authoritarian regimes like the UAE. He will have to withstand the onslaught of UAE, Israel, and defense industry lobbyists — a process already well under way — and paid think tank experts in order to reverse Trump’s course. But just reversing Trump’s egregious missteps won't be enough, the new administration must finally put an end to U.S. arms sales to and diplomatic support for the UAE, which have helped create humanitarian crises and regional instability.

In Libya, the UAE acted in contravention of U.S. policy and persistently violated a U.N. arms embargo by funding and arming the renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar in his campaign against the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli. Not only did the UAE supply Haftar’s forces during his assault on Tripoli, but it also reportedly financed private mercenaries from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group in Libya.

The UAE also set up its own military base in the country, and deployed drone aircraft to carry out unlawful airstrikes killing scores of civilians. The Libyan conflict continues in large part because of the intervention of foreign parties such as the UAE and Russia. The country is in shambles, with thousands of Libyans killed and displaced, and many others risking their lives seeking asylum in Europe.

The UAE’s role in Yemen has been even more grim. There, despite its declared troop withdrawal, the UAE remains a party to the intractable war causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, leaving millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation. The UAE, in concert with Saudi Arabia, laid siege to Yemen in an effort to combat Houthi forces it alleged, without evidence, were backed by Iran.

In its misguided efforts, the UAE carried out deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as well as hospitals, schools, universities, and residential areas, reducing them to rubble. It also operated secret detention centers with credibly documented reports of torture and murder of detainees. And it supported mercenaries accused of funneling U.S.-made arms and materiel to al-Qaida-linked militias in Yemen. Moreover, figures close to MBZ have been implicated in a campaign to assassinate Yemeni political leaders. Ironically, while claiming the purpose of its war was to restore President Hadi to power, the UAE is now supporting Southern separatists in a war against Hadi in the only part of the country where he has authority.

Even farther away, the UAE’s complicity in China’s mass detention and oppression of Uighur Muslims — which also undermines U.S. interests and standing — isn’t as widely known. To curry favor with President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party, the UAE has justified and supported China’s human rights abuses its Uighur population, including the forced incarceration and reeducation of over one million Uighurs in government-run internment camps. UAE authorities even aided in deporting Uighurs to China, only for them to face harsh consequences upon their return. The Trump administration rightfully condemned these practices and should have urged its Muslim partners, such as the UAE, to do the same.

The UAE’s destabilizing and harmful actions accelerated throughout the Trump presidency, which had been willfully negligent in allowing MBZ and his close ally, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, to dictate U.S. policy in the Middle East. Trump and MBZ surrounded themselves with figures of ill repute and centralized policymaking on their and their enablers’ interests and whims.
MBZ actively groomed and promoted MBS, then deputy crown prince, to ensure his support from U.S. policymakers and business executives. Soon after, MBS engineered the arrest and demotion of Mohamed bin Nayef — then crown prince with deep ties to U.S. intelligence — the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the arrests of hundreds of activists and business leaders.

The cast of crooked American characters allied with MBZ is no less sordid. Among them are George Nader — a convicted pedophile, who served as a back channel, along with Blackwater founder Erik Prince, for the incoming Trump administration, Vladimir Putin and MBZ — and then-Deputy RNC finance chairman Elliott Broidy, who was embroiled in myriad scandals and convicted of corruption. Trump pardoned Broidy on his last day in office.

Instead of pressuring MBZ, Trump consistently enabled the UAE’s worst policies and, on his last day in office, delivered a farewell gift of weapons and money for the constitutional monarchy, including a deal for the sale of 50 F-35 fighter jets and a lifting of tariffs on aluminum imports from the UAE.

There is now an opportunity for change. At campaign event on October 28, Biden said, “We’re going to stop the embrace of dictators and thugs, which this president has done, and once again embrace our allies.”

That statement should be applied to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Continuing to enable MBZ’s worst impulses comes at the expense of humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, ongoing war in Libya, and meddling and interference against U.S. efforts to diplomatically constrain Iran’s nuclear program. 

The United States has strong interests in a peaceful and secure Middle East
, an end to U.S. support of human rights abusing governments, maintaining open shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, protection from another 9/11-type attack, and avoiding another disastrous war of choice.

Biden should move to end arms sales to the UAE, the principal fuel for its disastrous interventions, and end diplomatic support for the reckless policies of an unaccountable leader. The Biden administration must learn from the mistakes of the last 20 years that the false tradeoff between security and human rights is a self-defeating compromise that makes the United States less secure and enables humanitarian disasters in the Middle East.

President Donald Trump meet with His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, May 15, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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