Using Check-book Diplomacy, UAE Punches Way Above Its Weight

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Jumada' al-Ula' 28, 1443 2022-01-01

News & Analysis

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 11, Jumada' al-Ula', 1443)

Located on the western shores of the Persian Gulf, the tiny sheikhdom of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is punching way above its weight in regional politics. From its involvement in Syria, Libya, Yemen, the attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan to its hostility to the Islamic Republic are all signs of its megalomaniac overreach.

As if these were not enough troubles, it has also become a bosom-pal of the illegitimate Zionist entity whose prime minister Naftali Bennett visited on Abu Dhabi—the first ever by an Israeli ruler—and held a widely publicized meeting with crown prince Muhammad bin Zayed (MbZ) in his palace on December 13. The UAE had already signed, on December 4, a $19 billion arms deal with France during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit.

Recent developments, however, have forced a rethink in UAE policies. It had withdrawn its forces from Yemen in 2019, much to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and partner-in-crime, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). It is mending fences with Syria. The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Damascus to meet President Bashar al-Asad on November 9. This was the highest-level contact between the two countries in a decade.

The Emiratis had reopened their embassy in Damascus in December 2018. Now they have offered to invest in Syria’s shattered economy and help rebuild its infrastructure destroyed by 10 years of US-Saudi-Israeli-Turkish-sponsored war. Is this the Emiratis’ way of compensating for destroying Syria in which they and the Qataris were also involved?

Their two highest-profile contacts for reconciliation have been with Turkey and Iran. Hitherto, the UAE treated both as bitter rivals. Given its tiny size, this would be laughable but the Arabian potentates do not think clearly. They suffer from a feeling of self-importance.

Turkey and the UAE were both supporting terrorist groups in Syria but Ankara was also sheltering members of the Muslim Brotherhood whom the Emiratis consider an existential threat. In Libya, they backed rival factions. So, the UAE move to mend fences with Turkey cannot be taken lightly.

Even more serious was Turkey’s allegation of UAE involvement in the July 2016 Gulenist coup attempt. For Erdogan to forego that must have been a bitter pill to swallow. Turkey’s failing economy has a lot to do with it.

On November 24, UAE crown prince and de facto ruler MbZ visited Turkey and was received by Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan. This was a clear signal that while they may have political differences, the UAE wants to manage these in a pragmatic manner. Economic cooperation is seen as a way to bypass political roadblocks.

Given the UAE’s surplus cash and Turkey’s desperate need for investments in view of its rapidly falling lira and tanking economy, this was perhaps the perfect opportunity to make the move. True, there is a broader context that has forced the UAE to reach out to both Turkey and Iran. The political landscape has changed because of US retreat from the region, best exemplified by its defeat in Afghanistan. Further, the US is pivoting to the Asia-Pacific region to confront China. It has already signalled that it would no longer come to the rescue of Arabian regimes facing difficulties.

During his visit, MbZ agreed to invest some $10 billion in Turkey as well as acquire stake in a number of Turkish companies. The UAE is also eyeing to purchase military equipment from Turkey while it has put on hold talks to acquire US-built F-35s (cost $23 billion). Investing in Turkish companies may make good economic sense but the UAE is also driven by other considerations: geostrategic.

In an opinion piece in PoliticsToday, Mehmet Rakipoglu offered this perspective: “Another reason behind the UAE’s changing view of Turkey is that Abu Dhabi has long feared Turkish foreign policy’s translation into hard power. The UAE policymakers thought that by putting pressure on Turkey, Ankara could give up seeking its national interests in the region. Since 2016, however, every foreign policy move by Turkey has hit the target.”

Realism, not genuine change of heart is driving UAE policy. It is even more noticeable in the case of its changed tone toward Iran. The UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s visit to Tehran on December 6 reflected this. While the Islamic Republic has constantly urged dialogue and cooperation among countries of the region for lasting stability and security, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have shown hostility. Despite this, Iran has extended a hand of friendship.

In his meeting with Sheikh Tahnoon, Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani said, “Warm and friendly relations with neighbors as well as an exchange of economic, trade and investment capacities are the Islamic Republic of Iran’s main foreign policy priorities.” He also warned against the interventionist policies of extra-regional powers that have been the main source of instability in the region.

This was a clear reference to long-standing US meddling in the region now augmented by Zionist encroachments in what is referred to as “normalization”. That the Emiratis and Bahrainis have brought the Zionists to the doorsteps of the Islamic Republic is viewed in Tehran as an existential threat. The Emiratis’ headlong pursuit of embracing the Zionists—granting UAE citizenship to 5,000 Israelis and welcoming the self-confessed proud killer of Arabs (Palestinians) Naftali Bennett to Abu Dhabi—have caused alarm in Tehran. No amount of sugar-coating can hide these dangerous developments.

Not surprisingly, immediately after the UAE and Bahrain surrendered to the Zionists in a ceremony at the White House on September 15, 2020, Tehran warned that if it faced any attack as a consequence, the glass and concrete towers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi will come crashing down.

So, the question that must be asked is: how serious are the Emiratis in their approach towards Turkey and Iran, and will they mend the policies that have caused so much harm to Muslims in the region? Given their past behaviour, it would be prudent to deal with them with great caution.

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