The UAE Revisits Its Foreign Policy Goals With New Tactics

9 MINS READAug 13, 2019 | 10:30 GMT
Col. Saeed Salmeen, the Emirati commander of the Saudi-backed coalition on Yemen's west coast frontline, is pictured at a military base in Khokha, 100 kilometers south of the flashpoint Red Sea port city of al-Hudaydah, on Jan. 21, 2019.

Col. Saeed Salmeen, the Emirati commander of the Saudi-backed coalition on Yemen's west coast frontline, is pictured at a military base in Khokha, 100 kilometers south of the flashpoint Red Sea port city of al-Hudaydah, on Jan. 21, 2019. As the Middle East heats up, the United Arab Emirates is taking a step back to achieve its goals from behind the scenes.

  • The Emiratis are repositioning themselves to decrease the likelihood that their actions will trigger a general war with Iran, even as they cannot control all the other factors that could ignite such a conflict.
  • The country's pullback from Yemen represents an adjustment to the diplomatic, political and military risks of its intervention, but Abu Dhabi will not abandon its overall strategy to either reduce Iran's influence in Yemen or combat Sunni extremists there.
  • Because it is highly dependent on the Trump administration's goodwill amid Congress' hostility, the United Arab Emirates will only have a finite window of opportunity to shore up its relationship with the United States.

The goals haven't changed, but the methods of achieving them have, at least as far as the United Arab Emirates is concerned regarding foreign policy. In recent weeks, Abu Dhabi has raised eyebrows by conducting a partial pullout from its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, while at the same time pursuing low-level maritime talks with Tehran to manage its relations with its great regional nemesis.

For some time, Abu Dhabi has been at the forefront of the anti-Iran campaign, lobbying for stronger sanctions to not only permanently end the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb but also roll back the Islamic republic's ballistic missile program and influence throughout the Middle East, which the United Arab Emirates views as a threat. In part, that campaign propelled the country into the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, but international pressure — particularly from a U.S. Congress that has threatened to hold up arms deals to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over their conduct in the war — highlights the diplomatic risks to the Arab alliance's relationships with the West. And now that Iran has begun to actively oppose U.S. sanctions just off UAE shores, Abu Dhabi has sought to change course from its assertive behavior to reduce the risks it faces and repair strained relationships. In this, the United Arab Emirates isn't abandoning its desire to cut Iran down to size or beat back the Houthis in Yemen, but it is pivoting to tactics that are less risky.

The Big Picture

The United Arab Emirates has been punching above its geopolitical weight in recent years, assuming a big role in the confrontation between Iran and the United States, intervening militarily in Yemen and helping blockade Qatar. But now the risks of that robust foreign policy are becoming too great for the small country to bear, and Abu Dhabi, the country's capital, is changing strategy — though not its end goals — to find the most effective use of its regional power. 

Controlling What They Can

The United Arab Emirates' strategic conundrum is decades-old: it is a small, exposed country trapped between much larger and, more often than not, domineering regional powers. To fend off local threats, the United Arab Emirates has relied on powerful external powers (the United Kingdom until 1971 and, since then, the United States) to defend against neighbors who might otherwise use their superior strength to influence or even take over the country. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the country's biggest threat has come from Iran. That's because Iran holds several strategically important islands the shah seized from the budding United Arab Emirates in 1971 and because a sizable number of Iranians and descendants of Iranians within the United Arab Emirates provide Tehran with an ample opportunity to spread influence in the country — to say nothing of Iran’s much larger military. 

While U.S. support has undergirded the United Arab Emirates for decades, the Gulf country knows it must demonstrate its strategic value and not become a liability to the superpower if it is to retain Washington's backing. On this front, however, the country must tread a fine line: Even as Abu Dhabi strives to remain useful to the Americans, it can ill-afford to become a springboard for U.S. regional action that would expose it to attack. 

Benefiting the Americans factors into much of the United Arab Emirates' Yemen decision. When the Emiratis announced their partial withdrawal, they stressed they would continue to fight al Qaeda and the Islamic State with the forces that remained so as to reassure Washington that they remained committed counterterrorism partners.

Even as Abu Dhabi strives to remain useful to the Americans, it can ill-afford to become a springboard for U.S. regional action that would expose it to attack. 

But that is not the only factor that played into the decision. By announcing the pullback from the front line with the Houthis, the United Arab Emirates also attempted to defuse some of the political pressure building against it in Washington, including, most recently, Congressional attempts to block arms sales to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in July. The hostility toward the capitals stems from concerns about Yemen's overall humanitarian situation; the conduct of the Saudi-led coalition in its intervention in Yemen (especially with regard to civilian casualties); the overlapping anger at Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and an interest by some in Congress to exercise greater legislative authority over U.S. foreign policy. By reducing the Emiratis' role in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates hopes it will be perceived as less responsible for a war that has become deeply unpopular in Congress — especially as only the friendliness of President Donald Trump and his vetoes have prevented a substantial change in U.S. policy toward the United Arab Emirates. But with Trump only in power until, at most, 2024, Abu Dhabi feels it must begin shoring up the relationship before its presidential protector exits the political stage.

Such a gambit, however, is unlikely to achieve complete success given that congressional demands for a large-scale change to the U.S. approach to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi appear to be long term. But by appearing receptive to the policy goals of some of those interests in Washington, the Emiratis can help shape the future relationship, rather than offer resistance that would antagonize Congress and shut Abu Dhabi out of policy conversations. 

But beyond the need to rebuild relations with the United States, the United Arab Emirates also has pressing domestic reasons to pull back from Yemen. For one, the decision brings home some troops and equipment that could become useful in a regional conflict, particularly if a conflagration became so large that the country found an opportunity to retake the Gulf islands that Iran occupied in 1971. More immediately, the decision also reduces the exposure of Emirati forces to harm. In the casualty-averse country — where military losses are impossible to conceal because of close ties of kinship among the population — this is an important factor the Emirati government must consider if it is to maintain public support. Ultimately, if a regional conflict erupts, the Emiratis will need their citizens ready to rally to the nation's defense, meaning they must take steps to ensure the population is not already war-weary.

Meanwhile, when it comes to Tehran and the U.S.-Iran confrontation, the United Arab Emirates is working to prevent its own actions from triggering a conflict — something the country did when it chose not to blame the Iranians for tanker attacks in Fujairah. For similar reasons, Abu Dhabi has maintained low-level communications with Tehran, signaling its intent to maintain workable, pragmatic cooperation on matters like fishing rights and anti-piracy operations to prevent an accidental confrontation between Emirati and Iranian ships. There is no guarantee that such actions will prevent Tehran from harassing more shipping in Emirati waters or Emirati-flagged vessels, but it does ensure that the country will not ignite the conflict.

Shifting the Strategy

The change in behavior reflects the United Arab Emirates' shifting views of the risks it faces, but not a fundamental change in strategies. The country is not forsaking efforts to increase its influence in Yemen, for example. Abu Dhabi's proxies, such as the Security Belt forces and the Southern Transitional Council, remain on the ground, and although they may suffer setbacks given the partial Emirati pullout, they will nevertheless continue to project Emirati influence in Yemen for some time to come. (At the same time, the pullout could result in the proxies feeling freer to pursue their own local, strategic goals — including independence for South Yemen — in spite of Abu Dhabi, which still nominally supports a unified country under U.N.-backed President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi.) 

The Emiratis aren't changing how they view the challenge of Iran; rather, the country is highlighting its opposition to a military solution to the problem.

Additionally, the Emiratis have not given up their hopes of pushing the Houthis from power; instead, they are shifting the strategy away from military confrontation toward U.N.-led talks in Sweden. The diplomatic track is less risky and, if it ultimately proves successful, would end the threat the rebels pose to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. And even if the diplomatic track falls apart (the process remains frail), the Emiratis are less likely to attract the international community's ire given that its lack of military forces on the ground will insulate it from accusations of sabotaging the process. In both cases, the United Arab Emirates can meet its strategic imperatives by minimizing the risk of its Yemen strategy to its foreign relationships and reducing the domestic cost of the intervention. 

Nor are the Emiratis changing how they view the challenge of Iran; rather, the country is highlighting its opposition to a military solution to the problem. Sanctions pressure that does not result in conflict is desirable for the Emiratis, at least for now, particularly as regional tensions are compounding problems Dubai's economy faces. While the Emiratis could avoid taking a strong public stance on military action in previous stages of the Iran-U.S. confrontation, Abu Dhabi is finding it must communicate this preference now that regional conflict is a real possibility.

Even so, the Emiratis are not a big enough player to prevent a regional conflict from pulling them in. An American or Israeli strike, further Iranian harassment and provocations, or the further development of Iran's nuclear program could trigger a cascade that is well beyond the country's control. Likewise, Abu Dhabi cannot entirely control the way its allies are changing their views of the country. In such a situation, the Emiratis will take a step back and do what they can with the tools at hand — and see where the chips fall after the region's larger powers make their own choices. 

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