The Emiratis Bit Off More Than They Could Chew

The UAE decided it would be a leader in shaping the Middle East. Now it’s made a dramatic U-turn.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, May 15, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, May 15, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Six years ago, the United Arab Emirates began to assert itself as a major military and political actor in the Middle East. The successful coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in July 2013 provided an opening for the UAE to take a decisive lead in shaping events throughout the region—an opening it was happy to use.

This July, the Emiratis’ strategy hit a decisive wall. First, the country announced its withdrawal from the Yemen war, which it had launched together with Saudi Arabia in 2015, to focus exclusively on stabilization and counterterrorism. Emirati officials also began sounding conciliatory tones toward Iran. The government conspicuously stopped short of accusing Tehran of being behind the attack on four tankers off the UAE coast, despite statements from the United States and Saudi Arabia blaming Iran for the attacks. The UAE and Iran also held rare high-level meetings to discuss the demarcation of maritime borders. All this happened at a time when Washington was maximizing pressure against Tehran and rallying its allies to do the same. These changes also ran counter to the priorities of Abu Dhabi’s closest ally, Riyadh, which has been left to fight a war it doesn’t have the ability to win on its own.

The UAE has not offered a clear explanation for its surprising geopolitical U-turns, but they likely stem from an assessment of its strategy over the past six years. First, the UAE’s assertiveness had the effect of diminishing its political standing and reputation in the United States. Second, even on its own terms, the strategy has been far harder to carry out than the Emiratis imagined.

The policy shift seems to have been triggered by the U.S. Senate’s vote to end America’s involvement in the war in Yemen this spring. The resolution passed 54 to 46 with bipartisan support, despite the White House’s opposition. The rethinking in Abu Dhabi was further reinforced by several recent regional setbacks for the UAE.

Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the Emiratis knew that the move by Congress would not be taken lightly in Abu Dhabi, which has always prioritized staying in Washington’s good graces. For example, the reason for the UAE’s formal abandonment of its backing for Syrian rebels in the fall of 2016 was a congressional bill that permitted U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments for acts of terrorism, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. According to a top Emirati official involved in the pullout, the fear was that the UAE could be held accountable by U.S. courts for potential acts of terrorism carried out by allied rebels.

The UAE has always been responsive to U.S. public opinion and institutional criticism, but another factor prevented it from taking a stance earlier: its alliance with Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, senior Emirati officials and sources close to them still thought they could weather the storm related to the Yemeni war and other erratic Saudi Arabian behavior, including the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last October. The UAE was reluctant to abandon the Saudis, for fear they would pursue their national interests in ways averse to the Emiratis, including mending ties with adversaries such as Turkey and Qatar. That remains the single worst-case diplomatic scenario from the perspective of the UAE.

By the same token, the Emiratis consider their close alliance with Saudi Arabia since 2015, against the Muslim Brotherhood and countries such as Turkey and Qatar, as their greatest strategic gain in recent years. Abu Dhabi did not adopt all of Riyadh’s positions; in Syria, for example, the UAE was the first of the erstwhile backers of the opposition to reestablish diplomatic ties with the regime, even as Saudi Arabia supported the U.S. policy of increasing economic pressure on Damascus to prevent it from taking over eastern Syria.

But despite such divergences, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh maintained a close relationship, worked together to redraw the political and military map of the region, and avoided any public display of friction.

The UAE is now trying to restore its reputation in Washington and other Western capitals by portraying itself as a small country seeking stability and prosperity through soft power and economic engagement, which is thus opposed to wars of all kinds in the Middle East. This narrative is contradicted by its actions over the past six years as the Emiratis tried—and failed—to reverse the effects of the Arab Spring by any means necessary.

In that sense, the Emiratis’ policy shift isn’t only motivated by an effort to restore its reputation—it is also fueled by self-inflicted policy failures. The Emiratis seem to be frustrated by their inability to replicate their successful support for the coup that removed the democratically elected president of Egypt in 2013. For the UAE, the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood president and the subsequent crackdown on the Islamist organization was a sweeping success. It was the beginning of a downhill slide for Islamists throughout the region, a reversal of their rise after the Arab uprisings in 2011. But the UAE had limited success elsewhere since then, particularly in Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia.

In April, for example, Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan warlord and a close ally of the UAE, launched an offensive to capture Tripoli, the capital controlled by an internationally recognized government. The effort was seen as a gamble backed by Abu Dhabi to expel Islamists from the capital and assert an autocratic leader in Libya. That gamble backfired, and the months-long campaign has so far been a fiasco. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Saudis even tried to persuade the Emiratis to work with the Islamist-dominated Islah party, an effort that led to humiliating meetings between leaders of the party and the UAE’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, who has made it his life mission to crush the Muslim Brotherhood everywhere.

Even the Emirates’ closest allies—Egypt and Saudi Arabia—have become liabilities. Post-coup Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has proved to be excessively dependent on Gulf funds without any ability to reciprocate. He opposed contributing forces to the Yemen war and later refused to sign up for the “Arab NATO,” the proposal for military cooperation that would be most likely led by either Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, failed to sell himself as a reformer in the West, and the killing of Khashoggi proved to be debilitating for the reputation of anybody associated with him. Finally, by unabashedly backing U.S. President Donald Trump, the Saudis and the Emiratis made themselves a partisan issue in the United States.

The UAE’s new posture may not put an end to its support for proxies in the region, but it could change the dynamics of its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Together, they thought they could create a new regional order in their autocratic image, but that dream seems over. The two seem still determined to paper over real differences for now. But that may not be possible in Yemen, where the UAE’s withdrawal may persuade Saudi Arabia to adopt policies that are even more aggressive—and contrary to Emirati interests. More than any other issue in the region, the Yemen war brought the two countries together. Now, it may force them apart.

Hassan Hassan is the director of the Non-State Actors in Fragile Environments Program at the Center for Global Policy and a co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Follow him on Twitter at: @hxhassan.