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Increased regional tensions highlight UAE's balancing act

Abu Dhabi's 'zero problems' foreign policy is being put to the test by the Ukraine war and Israel's quarrels with the Palestinians and Iran.

Analysis | Middle East

The world’s growing multipolarity is allowing the United Arab Emirates to work both sides of several conflicts, but the sustainability of this approach remains unclear.

In particular, by deepening its relations with Israel, the UAE has been able to deflect U.S. pressure to disengage from Iran, Russia, and other countries the United States seeks to isolate. Yet, as tensions between Israel and both Iran and the Palestinians mount, Abu Dhabi’s efforts to walk a middle path may become increasingly challenging.

Last week, the Biden administration appeared to explicitly support Israel’s increasingly confrontational conduct against Iran, a position that is likely to increase the risks of war between the two regional rivals.

Meanwhile, the far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emboldened Jewish settlers on the West Bank where they have carried out dozens of attacks against Palestinians, the most recent having taken place in and around Nablus. Despite last weekend’s U.S.-mediated emergency meeting in Jordan in which Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to deescalate the ongoing crisis, Netanyahu declared afterwards that the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank will continue unabated. 

This escalation in tensions between Israel and both Iran and Palestinians puts the UAE, which recently renewed diplomatic ties with Iran and has posed as a champion of Palestinian rights, in an increasingly difficult position. If conflict breaks out between Iran and Israel, the UAE and the U.S. military base it hosts could find themselves in the crosshairs of Tehran’s precision weaponry. At the same time and in the context of mounting Israeli violence against Palestinians, the UAE’s conspicuous leadership in engaging in ever-closer relations with the Jewish state over the last several years risks becoming problematic both domestically and across the Arab world where public opinion remains hostile to normalization with Israel. 

Nonetheless, Abu Dhabi seems determined, at least for now, to maintain ties with both Tel Aviv and Tehran, as well as with Moscow, Beijing, and Washington. Under the leadership of President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, or MBZ as he is often called, the UAE has committed itself to a “zero problem” foreign policy that prioritizes diplomacy and trade over confrontation. In an op-ed in the Saudi paper Asharq al-Awsat, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan used the slogan “Peace, Recovery, and Prosperity” to characterize the country’s current foreign policy.

After six years without formal diplomatic contact, the UAE returned its ambassador to Tehran just six months ago. Anwar Gargash, MBZ’s senior diplomatic advisor, said that the decision to return an ambassador to Tehran aligned with the UAE’s policy of pursuing peace, strengthening foreign relations, and pursuing its own path, regardless of external pressure. Majed Al-Raeesi, an Emirati political analyst and strategic communications expert, has consistently said that the UAE will pursue its own national interests and not succumb to Western pressures. 

Trade and other economic ties with Iran drive much of the UAE’s calculus. As Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a UAE national and Senior Fellow of the Middle East Initiative at the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School, wrote last summer, restoring UAE-Iran diplomatic relations, the possible signing of a nuclear deal, and more generally the lessening of regional tensions are “...all expected to increase trade volume between the UAE and Iran to more than $20bn annually.” 

This policy of regional outreach, which has also included recent rivals Turkey and Qatar, is a fairly new approach for the UAE. In the decade after the Arab Spring, Abu Dhabi often intervened directly — either through its substantial financial resources or through deployment of its own forces — to thwart democratic uprisings and prevent Islamist actors from taking or holding power. Of special concern to the UAE was the rise to power of Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia, which escalated Emirati fears that Islamists within its own borders would be emboldened. Similarly, the UAE sent troops into Bahrain to help its government quell uprisings there in 2011. The UAE also supported Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s 2019-2020 failed military campaign to seize control of Libya from the Turkish-backed and Islamist-affiliated Government of National Accord. Abu Dhabi also sent troops and mercenary forces to Yemen to combat the Iran-backed Houthi movement.

The UAE’s recent emphasis on rebuilding ties to former adversaries like Turkey and Iran reflects in part its success in thwarting the ambitions of Islamist actors around the region. Having defeated the perceived threat, MBZ appears to have concluded that expanding trade offers more profit than waging war, despite American qualms about some of the UAE’s trade partners. 

In just the last month, top U.S. Treasury officials visited Abu Dhabi to warn UAE officials against helping Iran and Russia evade or defy Washington’s sanctions against the two countries. Specifically, two UAE-based air transport firms have been targeted by Washington for collaborating with a sanctioned Iranian firm by transporting Iranian drones and personnel from Iran to Russia. The UAE has reportedly also been serving as a middleman for Chinese drones shipped to Russia for deployment in Ukraine. 

The UAE has had no qualms about working with Russia when it serves its interests. MBZ and Putin held bilateral meetings in October 2022, as part of the UAE’s strategy of keeping all avenues with potential partners open. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow had evaded Western sanctions by using Dubai’s gold market to exchange U.S. dollars and euros. The recent sighting in a Dubai marina of the superyacht Madame Gu, which is owned by sanctioned Russian magnate Andrei Skoch, offers yet another recent example of the UAE’s willingness to assist Russians in evading sanctions. 

The United States cannot complain too loudly, however, given the UAE’s willingness to take the lead in normalizing and developing close relations with Israel under the 2020 Abraham Accords. A memo circulated by the Emirati embassy in Washington in April 2022 highlighted its $6.5 billion trade with Israel, new agreements for bilateral energy and artificial intelligence cooperation, and its collaboration with Israel on humanitarian assistance. The UAE and the other signatories of the Abraham Accords are also currently expanding their agreements with Israel to include cybersecurity in order to “address shared threats, including nation state targeting of critical infrastructure and widespread ransomware attacks.” The Abraham Accords appear so far to have served Emirati interests well.

Although the UAE has condemned violence by the Israeli state against Palestinians in January, its ambassador to the United Nations also led the charge to scrap a draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution that demanded Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory.” And, while just last week, Gargash touted the UAE’s support for a separate U.N. Security Council presidential statement condemning the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements, his tweet neglected to mention that Abu Dhabi went along with U.S. efforts to prevent the condemnation from becoming a formal Security Council resolution — a more powerful legal instrument.

By agreeing to help block the Security Council resolution from being voted on (and forcing a likely U.S. veto), as well as pursuing a closer relationship with Israel more generally, the UAE feels able to insulate itself from U.S. pressure on other fronts, notably its engagement with U.S. adversaries like Russia and Iran. At the same time, by drafting and promoting a statement of condemnation, the UAE has so far been also able to insulate itself from pro-Palestinian domestic and regional public opinion. Its performance demonstrates how it can play both sides against the middle.

The UAE asserts that it seeks friendship with all nations, while pursuing its own geopolitical and economic interests.The UAE’s behavior in sometimes supporting U.S. policies and at other times thwarting them is likely to become more common in the geopolitical context of multipolarity. Meanwhile, as hostility escalates from Jerusalem to Tehran to Moscow, it remains to be seen how long the UAE will be able to maintain its “zero problems” foreign policy.

Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Vladimir Putin. Editorial credit: Salma Bashir Motiwala / Shutterstock.com
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