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UAE security pact: Does US stand for 'Uncle Sucker'?

If reports of a new agreement with Abu Dhabi are true it will not only entrench us in the region but heap rewards on a bad regional actor.

Analysis | Middle East

The Biden administration is reportedly discussing a new agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that would include new U.S. strategic security guarantees for the client government in Abu Dhabi. 

If the reports are correct, this would mark another step in the wrong direction for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Coming on the heels of Secretary Blinken’s reported apology to Mohamed bin Zayed for the supposedly slow U.S. response to a Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi in March, a new security agreement with the UAE would be more proof that the administration’s “back to basics” approach to the region amounts to nothing more than catering to client states and making additional unnecessary commitments to them. 

While the security agreement in question would seem to fall far short of the formal treaty that the UAE might have preferred, it rewards the UAE with greater U.S. protection despite their government’s destructive regional behavior and their efforts to interfere in our domestic politics. If the U.S. provides security guarantees to the UAE, Biden will be repeating the errors of his predecessors by “reassuring” a bad regional actor at our own country’s expense.

The last few months are a cautionary tale of how regional client states take advantage of the U.S. and extract additional concessions by complaining about Washington’s alleged neglect. The United States already goes out of its way to provide protection to Abu Dhabi, and the Biden administration has literally rushed jets and ships to guard against further Houthi attacks. This was apparently not quick enough, and is reportedly why their representative abstained on the Security Council resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine. 

Mohamed bin Zayed also refused to take the president’s calls and snubbed the U.S. Centcom commander when he visited. The Biden administration’s response to this obstinacy has been to play the sycophant, as if the UAE were the senior partner in the relationship and our government needed their approval. This embarrassing display will likely continue as the president is expected to take part in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit later this month in Riyadh.

Advocates of a closer relationship with the UAE have carried out a pressure campaign against the administration over the last few months to get the U.S. to mend fences with Abu Dhabi, and the administration has hastened to oblige. Even though the U.S. is under no obligation to do anything for the UAE, the assumption among its supporters is that any rift in the relationship is Washington’s fault and that it is incumbent on our government to repair it. 

Unfortunately, far too many policymakers in our government share this view and act accordingly. If U.S. and UAE interests diverge, as they often do these days, it is not our government’s responsibility to subordinate American interests to fill in the gap.

Extending security guarantees to the UAE might make some sort of sense if the UAE had proven itself to be a useful and constructive partner in recent years, but the record shows just the opposite. Whether it has been backing its preferred warlord in Libya, carving out a sphere of influence in Yemen, handing out U.S.-made weapons to its proxies in violation of their agreements, or opposing the nuclear deal with Iran, the UAE has been working against U.S. interests and destabilizing other countries. 

Given this record, Gregg Carlstrom recently marveled that it was “remarkable that the UAE can spend a decade doing stuff contrary to America’s stated policies in the Middle East and still get even a symbolic defense pact.” Rarely has the old saw that U.S. stands for Uncle Sucker been more apt.

The UAE has been interested in obtaining a more formal security commitment from the United States for some time. Mohamed bin Zayed, who was recently elevated to president of the UAE following the death of his half-brother Khalifa, spoke to David Ignatius about his interest in a formal security pact last fall. 

Since then, the idea of giving both the UAE and Saudi Arabia firmer security guarantees has been making the rounds in Washington. At least when it comes to the UAE, that idea seems to have found a receptive audience in the Biden administration. The nuclear negotiations with Iran have become another occasion for the UAE to demand more from the U.S., as their government and Israel’s have been lobbying for additional guarantees in the event that the nuclear deal is revived.

The main argument against increasing the U.S. commitment to the UAE is that it is detrimental to American interests and would serve only to enable more recklessness from their government. The last time that the U.S. wanted to “reassure” its Gulf Arab clients of its support, it began aiding and abetting in the destruction of Yemen. Despite years of unstinting U.S. support for that atrocious war, the Saudi and Emirati governments still complain that the U.S. is unreliable. 

No matter what the U.S. has provided to these governments in the past, it is never enough to satisfy them. Whatever the Biden administration gives them now will just increase their appetite for more. The Trump years showed just how dangerous this pattern of indulging clients can be when the U.S. reneged on the nuclear deal and ramped up tensions with Iran in deference to its clients’ wishes. Biden risks similar dangers if he makes placating the Saudis and the UAE a priority during his presidency.

The last decade has provided plenty of evidence that Washington’s willingness to arm and support the UAE and other clients in the region produces only more instability and bloodshed. Continued U.S. backing for authoritarian clients in the region also implicates our government in their many abuses both within and outside their borders. Foreign policy often requires making unpalatable trade-offs, but in this case the U.S. doesn’t seem to get anything worthwhile in exchange for its reflexive support. 

Rather than adding another commitment to defend the UAE, the U.S. should be considering how it can downgrade the relationship and reduce its support as much as possible. Withdrawing recently deployed U.S. forces would be a good place to start.

Security guarantees for the UAE could drag the U.S. into new conflicts in the future. It would likely involve maintaining a much larger military footprint in the region than U.S. interests require. At a time when the U.S. has relatively few interests in the Middle East and when it needs to focus its attention elsewhere, a bigger commitment to the UAE is exactly what the U.S. doesn’t need and shouldn’t offer. 

At best, it is a waste of time and resources, and at worst it could ensnare the U.S. in another unnecessary war. It is easy to see how the UAE benefits from such an arrangement, but all that the U.S. gets from it is to be saddled with another unwelcome burden.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken offer condolences to United Arab Emirates' President and ruler of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan after the death of UAE's President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, May 16, 2022. United Arab Emirates Ministry of Presidential Affairs/Handout via REUTERS
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