The UAE has broken away from a tradition of neutrality and has become increasingly assertive in its foreign policy endeavours in recent years, joining both the Saudi-led campaign in southern Yemen against Iranian-backed Shi’a Houthi rebels, launching an independent campaign in north-eastern Yemen against Sunni Al Qaeda affiliates, and joining the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq. Are these bold new strategic objectives are worth the risk to the tranquility of the Gulf nation?
The UAE remains one of the Arab World’s most stable states, which has left it largely insulated from the effects of the 2011 Arab Spring and has shielded its population from the growing terrorism threat in the region. This stability is surprising given the demographics of the nation; roughly 85% of the population is comprised of non-citizen immigrants, with only the remainder actually possessing citizenship and full rights. In order to lure in workers from around the globe, the Emirates promises a land of no income tax, year-round sunshine, and higher salaries than most would find at home. One additional element contributes to the UAE’s lure to multinational corporations, expatriates and holidaymakers alike; a perception of unquestionable security within one of the world’s most insecure regions.
This lure has resulted in an oasis of Western and South Asian culture on the Arabian Peninsula, where bikini-thronged beaches sit next to Western-style luxury malls, nightclubs and hotels. While the wealthy and proud local Emirati population has displayed a remarkable tolerance to a growing culture that sits at odds with the traditional strain of predominantly Sunni Islam, the reality is that the UAE’s diplomatic neutrality has historically played the largest role in keeping this Gulf paradise safe from harm.
Under this strategy of neutrality, Abu Dhabi maintained good relations with both Iran and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states, and presented itself as a business outpost with little in the way of expeditionary foreign policy ambition. Despite tensions with Iran over disputed islands in the Gulf, trading relations between the two persisted through sanctions placed against the Islamic Republic, which in turn maintained a peaceful situation between the two. Even during the height of the sanctions, the ports of Jebel Ali and Deira maintained a steady flow of little-regulated informal Dhow traffic between the two nations.
U.S. Marine General James Mattis has even been credited with referring to this new-UAE as “Little Sparta”, in reference to the close ties between the Gulf state and the Pentagon, and the reliability of the UAE in its willingness to cooperate in security activities in the region.
This neutrality no longer exists. When the 2011 Arab Spring reached Bahrain, the UAE dispatched troops to the Gulf island in support of the Saudi Arabian and Bahraini efforts to quell an uprising that GCC leaders perceived as a plot by Tehran to destabilize the Gulf. More recently, in January 2016, the UAE downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran following a similar move by Saudi Arabia over concerns that Tehran was interfering in internal affairs of Gulf states.
The United Arab Emirates has also now leveraged its wast national wealth, generated through oil and trade revenues, to create a well-equipped modern military that represents the world’s fourth largest arms importer. U.S. Marine General James Mattis has even been credited with referring to this new-UAE as “Little Sparta”, in reference to the close ties between the Gulf state and the Pentagon, and the reliability of the UAE in its willingness to cooperate in security activities in the region.
In 2015, the UAE followed Saudi Arabia into Yemen in support of the collapsing government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. What was intended to be a short but decisive campaign has turned into two years of bitter fighting, with the Emirates being reminded of the realities of war early on when 52 UAE servicemen were killed by a Soviet-era missile strike on an ammunition depot in Marib in September 2015. In response to the attack, Abu Dhabi vowed strong retaliation and following three days of statewide mourning, UAEAF jets carried out what Yemeni officials have described as “the heaviest air strikes that Sana’a has endured”.
The UAE has repeatedly been poised to engage its modern air force elsewhere across the region. In 2011, the UAE joined the international coalition against the forces of Colonel Gadhafi in Libya. Since 2014, Emirati warplanes have struck IS positions across Syria and northern Iraq, and the UAE is suspected of having carried out air strikes on Islamist militias in Libya from bases in Egypt in August 2014.
While the UAE had deployed troops to Afghanistan as part of the ISAF mission as early as 2007, this was a relatively low key and humanitarian-focused expedition, and as such had little impact on the security situation of the Emirates. These recent deployments, however, are much more widely publicised and regionally controversial.
This robust foreign policy is not without reason; the GCC fears that the recent Iran nuclear agreement will lead to a rapprochement in U.S.-Iran relations, which they worry will come at the expense of the GCC’s strategic value to Washington. Gulf leaders are also nervous of Iran’s newfound access to $100 billion in previously-sanctioned accounts, enhancing Tehran’s ability to provide support to its regional proxies.
Despite the perceived necessity, this hawkish foreign policy can only increase the risks to the UAE in comparison with the previously-neutral stance. The UAE now finds itself fighting wars against both Shi’a and Sunni opponents, and may potentially find itself exposed to the risk of extremist attacks or proxy-sponsored domestic unrest. While the security forces of the UAE remain capable and well-funded, complacency given the lack of a major terrorist event may create vulnerabilities open for exploitation by extremist groups of both Islamic branches seeking to conduct retaliatory strikes against the UAE.
While the UAE has long remained paranoid of extremist recruitment taking place within the Emirates’ large foreign labourer camps, and monitored them accordingly, the GCC’s declining economy has led to reports of mass layoffs and unpaid wages in such camps, which in turn could generate significant economically-focused unrest and aid potential jihadi recruitment. In addition to this, the informal Dhow-trade between the UAE’s ports and regional neighbours such as Iran and Yemen creates porosity in the nation’s border security, which could be exploited by such groups to infiltrate materiel or personnel.
A large-scale terrorist event would cause dramatic damage to the UAE’s tourism economy, which remains one of the few profitable industries following the 2015 oil price decline, and could prompt an exodus of expatriate workers from the country, causing further economic discomfort. While the UAE has not suffered from the oil price decline as much as other regional states, the economy has not been as healthy in 2016 as in previous years. Despite only having relatively small hydrocarbons reserves and a somewhat diversified economy, much of the economy remains reliant on providing services and logistical support to the UAE’s more hydrocarbons-reliant neighboring states. As these neighbors have seen their economies decline, the UAE has experienced contraction as a secondary-effect.
The UAE must ask itself whether its ambition of being a high-stakes geopolitical power is more than just another Gulf vanity project.
In addition to these threats, rumours abound that the UAE is closely liasing with Israel to procure defense equipment, and in 2015 Tel Aviv opened its first diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi. This in turn will further anger extremist Islamists, who view Israel as much an enemy as they do the United States.
Politically, the UAE is expected to remain stable and the foreign policy courses set out in 2016 will almost certainly continue into 2017. Despite regional uncertainties surrounding the U.S. election of Donald Trump, the UAE is likely to continue to enjoy support from the United States given the close business ties between the President-elect and the UAE’s second city of Dubai. Although Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the country’s president, has remained out of the public eye throughout 2016 amid rumours of ill health and potentially having already passed away in 2014, the country has remained under the de facto leadership of his brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan since Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014.
The UAE’s leadership must now ask itself how valuable its new strategic objectives are in the face of such risks to the Gulf paradise. Is it an acceptable risk to expose Emirati troops to Houthi insurgents in Yemen, and to potentially risk a terror attack in Dubai or Abu Dhabi by Salafi hardliners. For years, extremist groups have viewed the Gulf monarchies as outposts for Western sinfulness. The UAE must now ask itself whether its ambition of being a high-stakes geopolitical power is more than just another Gulf vanity project.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence officer turned private sector Geopolitical Intelligence Analyst who specialises in the Middle East and North Africa region.