Summing up the speeches of the conference participants, we can affirmatively state that the strategy on which the UAE builds its foreign policy is predetermined mainly by the rules of the game established by Abu Dhabi. These rules, willingly or unwillingly, are accepted by all countries in the region.
The markers and foreign policy approaches of the United Arab Emirates underwent a fundamental transformation almost immediately after the death in 2004 of the founding father of the Federation, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan. Under the leadership of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the country has significantly strengthened its image on the international and regional stage, becoming a center of global trade and politics. Together with the strengthening of the state’s image, the positions of Abu Dhabi and Dubai were also strengthened. This was the opinion of the participants of the ZOOM conference held on November 20, 2021 on the theme “The UAE: the secret of success and a place in the regional political discourse.”
According to Samer Ahmad, UN Goodwill Ambassador in Dubai, who took part in the conference, the traditional “friendly rivalry” between the seven emirates that make up the UAE has echoed throughout the entire political decision-making system practically from the moment of the formation of the state until 2008. This, in particular, was most evident in the practice of supporting various strategic initiatives, where the Great Emirs tried to outmaneuver each other. However, the global economic crisis of 2008 and the associated financial assistance to Abu Dhabi in the amount of $20 billion slightly diminished the ambitions of Dubai, which slightly slowed down the development of the entire state.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan initially determined the foreign policy of the Emirates, guided mainly by personal contacts with other leaders of the Arab states. This implied strict adherence to the principles of Arab identity and collective security. It is for this reason that the UAE began to actively support, for example, Palestinian resistance groups and even took part in the so-called “oil boycott” of 1973-1974. The situation changed dramatically with the conclusion in 2017 of the historic Al-Ul “Agreement of Solidarity and Stability”, which brought a new dynamic to the UAE’s foreign policy. Doha most likely learned a lesson by coming to terms with the role of “little brother” in comparison with other countries (United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt), and began to systematically expand its international and regional participation. At the same time, the Emirates, as Samer Ahmad noted, is consistently changing its approach to foreign policy, refusing full-scale participation in external conflicts in favor of solving internal problems.
Ornella Sukkar, a news anchor for the Emirati television channel 99 News Dubai, added that the change in the general rules of the game between the Gulf states is a direct consequence of fundamental and irreversible geopolitical transformations. The Emirates in their foreign policy began to focus on reducing regional tensions, including on the Yemeni scene, and normalizing dialogue with Tel Aviv.
From the explanations of Ornella Sukkar, made during the conference, it can be concluded that the civil war in Yemen was an important factor indicating a change in the UAE’s foreign policy. This change represents an overall process of sustaining a multidimensional and hyperactive foreign policy that exhibits offensive tendencies where possible in the national interest, as was clearly demonstrated in the March 2015 Decisive Storm and Restore Hope military campaigns. Meanwhile, Ornella Sukkar drew attention to the fact that the prioritization of national interests has turned the policy of the Emirates towards Yemen from “hobby” to “neutrality.” However, the change in policy does not mean a complete rejection of support for the South Transitional Council of Yemen and associated militias. Most likely, it can be argued that the neutrality of the UAE in Yemen testifies to the manifestation of the neutrality of the Emirates towards Saudi Arabia on the Yemeni scene.
Ornella Sukkar stressed that having defined for itself new outlines of foreign policy, the UAE has chosen its own path, not connected with anyone else. Maintaining positions in the Arab world is still a priority for the Great Emirs, but this is no longer an end in itself. The goal of the Emirates is stability and security in the region. And if this requires a limitation of the military presence in Yemen or an alliance with Israel, the Emirate agrees to take such steps, because they can create objective conditions for regional harmony.
According to Samer Ahmad, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic crisis, the UAE became the first state to fully establish itself in the opinion that for the overall survival of countries and political regimes it is necessary to abandon wars and internal conflicts, it is extremely important to live in peace and agreement with neighbors and invest, first of all, in the development of the social sphere. It is curious that even during his repeated official visits to Qatar, Sheikh Tahnun tried to convince his Qatari colleagues of this. Such a foreign policy approach, according to the UN Goodwill Ambassador in Dubai, is justified by the state pragmatism and social orientation of the Emirates, which do not want to be at odds with anyone and are ready to lend a helping hand to everyone who is interested in global peace and prosperity. It is not surprising that it was the Great Emirs who became the “pioneers” in the development of plans for global development in the post-coronavirus era. No other state leader can boast of this. In addition, even the UAE’s decision to cooperate with Israel represents a certain “look to the future.” The Emirates thus confirm that they no longer want to be bound by the remnants of the past, where Israel was perceived as an enemy. Be that as it may, now all the ways of the Middle East pass through Tel Aviv. This is the truth of life, which simply cannot be neglected. Recognition of this conclusion allowed the Emirates, at a minimum, to receive guarantees of their own security, and, at a maximum, not to be distracted by regional rivalry when it comes to global survival.
Speaking about the foreign policy strategy of the Emirates towards Israel, Ornella Sukkar explained that such a strategy is defined in the same way as about the general behavior of the country: to ensure peace until this peace is durable enough not to be a burden for regional and extra-regional players. Thus, wherever possible, peacekeeping foreign policy is supported by cooperation with all states. Be that as it may, the modern approach to the UAE’s foreign policy is the consistent involvement of the entire world community in a constructive dialogue.
Even the views of the Great Emirs on Iran and the United States are not an exception. In particular, Samer Ahmad agrees that the UAE is unable to focus its attention on solving internal problems without building in communication channels that will help it neutralize the negative impact of the US-Iranian confrontation. As high-level UN official and Ornella Sukkar are unanimous with him, the team of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is committed to making relations with Tehran and Washington a national priority in order to balance their impact on the regional agenda. At the moment, the UAE intends to benefit from forging a dialogue with the Ayatollah regime and the White House administration. Washington, in turn, assesses positively the special interest in the dialogue. For this reason, John Bolton, former US national security adviser John Bolton, sought to work with regional leaders such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia to support US efforts in an effort to secure support for the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. In this regard, the US remains “fully committed” to the proposed sale of the improved F-35 stealth fighters to the Emirates, despite the Joe Biden administration slowing down the deal. However, the UAE is also not against the strengthening of the alliance with Washington, especially after the “Abraham Agreement” opened a unique “window of opportunity” for this. Meanwhile, drawing closer to the United States, the Emirates can significantly spoil relations with the Turks, who are very jealous of the fact that the Americans have begun very willingly to arm the Emirates, often neglecting the strategic interests of Ankara.
From the point of view of the participants in the ZOOM conference, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the proclamation of a “Taliban state” continue to have a significant impact on the strategic agenda of the Middle East stakeholders in general. This situation is causing Arab countries (including Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) to show some concern. They share with Israel concerns about more potential Taliban action. In addition, the Great Emirs, in particular, do not want Taliban-backed armed groups to strengthen their presence closer to their borders, and the policy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan provoked the countries of the region to implement preventive measures to contain the Afghan threat.
A Taliban victory is likely to be greeted by Islamist movements in the Middle East and seen as a lifter of morale. This is a source of serious concern for the UAE, and even worse if non-state groups in the Gulf states find refuge in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. However, the strategic importance of Afghanistan to the UAE is rather limited, so the Emirates does not feel an urgent need to deal with the Taliban. However, the UAE’s economic position, as well as the influence it enjoys from all regional factions, may ultimately push the Great Emirs to play a larger role in the Taliban state.
Currently, the Emirates continues to be one of the powerful motivators of the Afghan scene. The political triumph of the Taliban is largely determined by the relative neutrality of the Arab states. In case of manifestation of frank disappointment in the “Taliban cause”, it will be rather difficult for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to implement its regional policy or look for investors among the countries of the Middle East.
Summing up the speeches of the conference participants, we can affirmatively state that the strategy on which the UAE builds its foreign policy is predetermined mainly by the rules of the game established by Abu Dhabi. These rules, willingly or unwillingly, are accepted by all countries in the region. As a result, the Emirates are able to act as a world mediator in particularly delicate events, such as, for example, the confrontation between Morocco and Algeria or the American-Iranian struggle. However, the success of this strategy hinges on its ability to tackle the disasters caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic crisis. In addition, Ankara in the foreseeable future can go for broke and use all the tools of available means, including military ones, to break the alliance between the Emirates and Washington. This behavior of the Turks is quite predictable, given their extremely jealous attitude towards the rapprochement of the positions of Abu Dhabi and the Joe Biden administration. “So you don’t get to anyone!” – a very typical behavior for Recep Erdogan in this situation, where not only his political ambitions are at stake, but also large arms contracts, which the United States had previously promised Ankara, but, having changed his mind, decided to conclude with the UAE. In this situation, the Great Emirs will have to carefully weigh the pros and cons and determine who is their real partner now – Turkey or the United States.