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Washington’s Blank Check for the United Arab Emirates Must End

The UAE’s bad behavior harms U.S. interests in the Middle East and at home.

By , a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University specializing in Middle East geopolitics and political Islam.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan sits at a table smiling.
Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan attends a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington on Oct. 13. Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The United Arab Emirates, nicknamed “Little Sparta” by former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis due to Abu Dhabi’s disproportionate military capabilities relative to its small geographic size, is repeatedly highlighted as one of the United States’ most critical partners in the Middle East. According to this perspective, Abu Dhabi is a vital ally for deterring Iran, countering terrorism, and promoting regional stability.

Recently, the UAE has come to be considered an essential component of Washington’s desire to “offshore” its regional burdens in the Middle East as it pivots to Asia. Although the UAE may at times engage in regional interventions or commit human rights abuses, this point of view argues that such actions are not harmful to U.S. interests and the Emirates remains a symbol of stability and progress in a turbulent neighborhood.

The Biden administration appears to have assumed this position, approving the $23 billion weapons sale (which includes F-35 aircraft) to Abu Dhabi that was initiated under the Trump administration and hailing the UAE as a “major security [partner]” of the United States. After recently being elected to the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term beginning in January 2022, it would appear “Little Sparta” is now ready to help the United States advance its mutual interests on a more global stage.

The United Arab Emirates, nicknamed “Little Sparta” by former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis due to Abu Dhabi’s disproportionate military capabilities relative to its small geographic size, is repeatedly highlighted as one of the United States’ most critical partners in the Middle East. According to this perspective, Abu Dhabi is a vital ally for deterring Iran, countering terrorism, and promoting regional stability.

Recently, the UAE has come to be considered an essential component of Washington’s desire to “offshore” its regional burdens in the Middle East as it pivots to Asia. Although the UAE may at times engage in regional interventions or commit human rights abuses, this point of view argues that such actions are not harmful to U.S. interests and the Emirates remains a symbol of stability and progress in a turbulent neighborhood.

The Biden administration appears to have assumed this position, approving the $23 billion weapons sale (which includes F-35 aircraft) to Abu Dhabi that was initiated under the Trump administration and hailing the UAE as a “major security [partner]” of the United States. After recently being elected to the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term beginning in January 2022, it would appear “Little Sparta” is now ready to help the United States advance its mutual interests on a more global stage.

But this approach is deeply flawed. Despite the optimism presented by adherents to such a perspective, overlooking the UAE’s rogue behavior has been detrimental to U.S. interests not only within the Middle East but at home as well.

The policies advanced by the Emirates in the Middle East have been inherently destabilizing, exacerbating many of the region’s ongoing civil wars, violating international laws, and actively subverting attempts for democratic change. Coupled with these regional endeavors are the UAE’s repeated attempts to interfere in U.S. domestic politics at the highest levels and surveil diplomats and government officials around the world.

The United States needs to reassess those “allies” it seeks to offshore its interests to in the Middle East before pivoting to other theaters, and must hold accountable those who seek to illegally interfere in U.S. domestic politics. To do so, Washington’s blank check for the United Arab Emirates must end.

U.S. policy in the Middle East has for decades been dominated by what is referred to as the “myth of authoritarian stability.” This term refers to the flawed belief that Middle East autocrats “can protect American interests by imposing political and social order on disempowered citizens.” However, as Nader Hashemi, director of the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies, argues, the inverse is true: These authoritarian regimes “are key sources of regional instability, both in terms of the nature of their rule and the policies they have pursued.”

The United Arab Emirates is the epitome of this myth: Lack of accountability at home and a blank check from the United States have encouraged actions that are inherently destabilizing and anathema to U.S. interests.

Awash with advanced U.S. weapons, the UAE has emerged as one of the region’s most interventionist states, pursuing policies that have prolonged the region’s civil wars, created humanitarian crises, crushed democratic aspirations, and fueled the underlying grievances that lead to unrest. In Egypt, the UAE was instrumental in supporting the 2013 coup that overthrew then-democratically elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and installed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as ruler, providing a windfall of economic assistance following the coup.

In Syria, the Emirates has demonstrated its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by expressing support for Russia’s military intervention in 2015, participating with Moscow in “counterterrorism operations,” reopening its embassy in Damascus in 2018, and urging the Arab League and broader international community to take Assad back, whom Abu Dhabi praised for his “wise leadership.”

In Libya, Abu Dhabi has provided extensive economic and military support for the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, carrying out airstrikes and drone strikes as well as providing Haftar with weaponry in violation of the U.N. arms embargo. The Emiratis have also been accused of using Sudanese mercenaries to buttress Haftar’s forces, financing Russian Wagner Group mercenaries fighting for Haftar, and itself engaging in alleged war crimes in Libya.

In Yemen, the UAE has been a direct party to creating and perpetuating one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters that has claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people with millions of people on the brink of starvation. The UAE has engaged in war crimes, torture, recruited child soldiers, and directed assassination campaigns using ex-U.S. soldiers as mercenaries. U.S. weapons possessed by the UAE have also reportedly been transferred to al Qaeda-linked fighters and other hard-line Salafi militias. Despite the UAE claiming to have withdrawn in 2019, Abu Dhabi still provides weapons and support to abusive local militias, has continued air operations in support of such militias, and continues to illegally occupy parts of Yemen.

Recently, the UAE expressed its support for the coup in Tunisia, and it is presumed that Abu Dhabi is satisfied with the coup in Sudan considering its strong ties to the military.

The UAE’s regional and international actions also serve to damage the United States’ global reputation and make U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise of pursuing a U.S. foreign policy centered on human rights appear rather hypocritical.

In addition to its poor human rights record at home and contribution to the humanitarian crises in the region, the UAE has justified and supported China’s persecution of its Uyghur Muslim population. Condemned as “acts of genocide” by the Biden administration, China’s persecution of its Uyghur community has benefited from Abu Dhabi arresting and deporting exiled Uyghurs back to China at Beijing’s request. It was reported in August that the UAE hosts a Chinese-run secret detention facility in Dubai used to target, detain, and deport Uyghurs.

But it is not just U.S. interests abroad the UAE has undermined. Abu Dhabi has sought to directly interfere in domestic U.S. politics in what should be considered a direct assault on U.S. democracy.

Earlier this year, Thomas Barrack, the chairperson of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, was indicted for acting as an unregistered foreign agent who attempted to influence the Trump administration’s foreign-policy positions. U.S. prosecutors allege Barrack was directed by Emirati officials at the highest levels—including by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan—and Barrack pushed UAE-preferred candidates for cabinet-level positions in the new administration, including for secretary of state, secretary of defense, and CIA director.

Additionally, in September, three former U.S. intelligence operatives admitted to working as cyber spies for the United Arab Emirates and hacking into various computer networks in the United States. The Emirates have long relied on former Western intelligence operatives to aid their surveillance efforts of U.N. diplomats, FIFA personnel, human rights activists, journalists, political dissidents, and U.S. citizens.

Officials affiliated with the UAE are also discussed in the Mueller report, the official report investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One individual in particular was a central focus of the report: George Nader, an emissary for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and bin Zayed, who had high-level contacts with U.S., Russian, and Middle East officials.

One incident in particular, reported by the New York Times, highlights well the extent to which Nader sought to infiltrate Trump’s inner circle. According to the New York Times, shortly before the 2016 election, three individuals gathered at Trump Tower to meet with Donald Trump Jr., then-candidate Trump’s eldest son. The three individuals were Nader; Joel Zamel, an Australian Israeli specialist in social media manipulation; and Erik Prince, former head of the private security contractor Blackwater. Nader reportedly “told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president,” and Zamil offered his company’s services, which “specialized in collecting information and shaping opinion through social media.”

The plan involved, according to the New York Times, “using thousands of fake social media accounts to promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy on platforms like Facebook.” Although it is unknown whether the plan was actually executed, the UAE has been accused multiple times by Facebook and Twitter of engaging in sophisticated disinformation campaigns. The emissary mentioned above, Nader, was later indicted for illegally funneling money into then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

It is time for Washington to end its blank check for “Little Sparta” and formally recognize the role it has played in helping destabilize the Middle East, undermine democratic advances in the region, and its efforts to illegally interfere in U.S. domestic politics. The most immediate way to do so is by ending U.S. arms sales to the Emirates, which are used to prolong regional conflicts, commit human rights abuses, and advance policies that are not in the United States’ interest.

Although such actions may jeopardize the future of the United States’ air base at Al Dhafra, this opportunity should be seized to reconsider the extensive U.S. military presence in the region, which has itself been destabilizing. Reassessing the United States’ relationship with the UAE should serve as a catalyst for a more fundamental reexamination of Washington’s broader strategy in the Middle East underpinned by the flawed myth of authoritarian stability.

Jon Hoffman is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University specializing in Middle East geopolitics and political Islam. Twitter: @Hoffman8Jon

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