The UAE Takes Center Stage Amid Climate Talks, Gaza War

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

A new article in the Winter 2023 issue examines the central drivers of Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy, from curbing political Islam to containing Iran and expanding economic power.

The United Arab Emirates flexed its muscles this week as Dubai hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference—where the oil executive leading the summit angered activists with his defense of fossil-fuel production—and Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Abu Dhabi for talks before heading off to Saudi Arabia and then meeting Iran’s president in Moscow.

The UAE has also sought to exert its hard power across the Arabian Peninsula, waging a proxy war in Yemen to combat the Iran-backed Houthis and funding anti-Islamist groups in Syria and Libya. A new article in Middle East Policy’s Winter 2023 issue argues that there are four main drivers behind Abu Dhabi’s foreign-policy decision making: combating political Islam, containing Iran, controlling regional waterways, and increasing its economic prosperity.

The advent of the Arab Spring saw a rise in political Islamism via the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE viewed as a major internal and external threat to its security and stability, authors Sherko Kirmanj and Ranj Tofik explain. Throughout the 2010s, the government cracked down on Brotherhood activity, jailing its members and placing the group on its terror watchlist. Abu Dhabi has been aided by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has worked to distance the kingdom from political Islam.

The two Gulf states have also worked together to push back against Iran’s expanding influence in the region, where Yemen has been the key battleground. Saudi and the UAE have supported groups fighting the Houthis since 2015. 

Despite the indirect, hard-power conflict—and tying the control of Iran to economic prosperity—Abu Dhabi and Tehran actually maintain relations: The UAE is Iran’s second-largest trading partner after China, accounting for about 31 percent of Iran’s imports in 2020, the experts say. Paradoxically, they write, “the UAE has been Iran’s lifeline” as Tehran tries to evade international sanctions. The ideal situation for the Emirates is “a relatively weak Iran, a state unable to pose a threat but in need of economic relations.”

The fourth key driver is control of waterways. The Emiratis have sought to increase control over the passages surrounding the Arabia Peninsula. As the Strait of Hormuz is susceptible to attack or blockade, Abu Dhabi has looked toward the Horn of Africa as a vital commercial lifeline. “Maritime concerns have driven the UAE’s participation in the war in Yemen,” argue Kirmanj, who holds positions at universities in the United Kingdom and Iraqi Kurdistan, and Tofik of the University of Warsaw. The UAE’s effort “has allowed it to control the ports of southern Yemen, from Mukalla in the east to Aden in the west, a zone that could be transformed into a strong economic hub.”

Major Emirati logistics companies now exercise control over ports in Yemen and Somaliland and have invested in shipping in Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia. 

The effort to expand beyond its borders has aided Abu Dhabi’s goal of economic prosperity as it diversifies revenue sources away from oil. This has been largely successful, the authors report: In 2021, 72 percent of the UAE’s gross domestic product came from non-oil sources.

“The UAE’s foreign policy is pragmatic and goal-driven,” the authors assert. As the small Gulf state continues to wield its power, it will have to navigate a balance between its own push for prosperity and the limitations of the regional landscape.

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Sherko Kirmanj and Ranj Tofik’s Middle East Policy article, “The UAE’s Foreign Policy Drivers:

  • Despite its size, the United Arab Emirates has become an important player in regional politics.
    • This includes the 2017 blockade of Qatar and the recent normalization of Syria.
    • As its economic strength has increased, it has become more independent from the United States.
  • There are four main motivations behind its foreign policy:
    • Combating political Islam
      • The UAE sees Islamist groups as major internal and external threats to its security and stability.
      • The Muslim Brotherhood was suppressed through government legislation during the 1980s and 90s.
      • After the Brotherhood’s resurgence in Egypt during the Arab Spring, the UAE jailed members and put the group on the terrorism watchlist.
      • Anti-Islamist sentiment drove the Emirati involvement in civil wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya.
    • Containing Iran’s influence
      • The UAE seeks a relatively weak Iran that is unable to pose a physical threat and needs economic ties.
      • One key dispute revolves around Iran’s occupation of three islands in the Gulf that the UAE views as its sovereign territory.
      • Since 2015, Abu Dhabi has supported groups fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
      • Despite these conflicts, the UAE is actually Iran’s second-largest trading partner, after China. In 2020, it accounted for about 31 percent of Iran’s imports.
    • Dominating the region’s waterways
      • The Arabia Peninsula is surrounded by some of the world’s most important maritime passages, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Red Sea.
      • The UAE has increased its influence in states that border these passages, such as Yemen, Somaliland, and Eritrea, and it has been developing ports to expand its reach.
      • One of the world’s biggest logistics companies, AD Ports Group, is based in Abu Dhabi. Its revenue was nearly $11 billion in 2021. 
      • The country also has the largest and most sophisticated facility in the region, Jebel Ali Port in Dubai, which accounts for nearly 25 percent of the city’s GDP.
      • The UAE’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war was driven in part by its desire to exercise control over the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the Port of Aden.
    • Increasing its economic prosperity
      • The UAE’s economic heft, centered in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is its most important strength.
      • The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranked the UAE 14th in 2021.
      • It has sought to diversify: In 2021, 72 percent of its GDP came from non-oil sources. 
        • The country relies on foreign investment and cheap labor.
      • Social openness through economic liberalization is key, as foreign businessmen and workers are culturally and religiously diverse.

You can read The UAE’s Foreign Policy Drivers” by Sherko Kirmanj and Ranj Tofik in the Winter 2023 issue of Middle East Policy. 


(Banner Image: COP28 / Mahmoud Khaled)

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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