The UAE strategy in the Gulf

The UAE strategy in the Gulf
Comment: The UAE has acted as a primary catalyst in the Gulf diplomatic crisis since its onset and appears particularly keen to see the rift continue, writes Khalil al-Anani.
6 min read
13 Jun, 2017
Details of Mohammed bin Zayed's visits to US after Trump assumed office are significant [AFP]
The current crisis in the Gulf is far more than a simple "dispute" about terrorism. As was made apparent in the raft of statements issued by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, its roots are instead to be found in the histories and geopolitical conflicts of the region.

Yet while this does not come as a complete surprise, the crucial role of the UAE in this crisis stands out. Whether in the initial planning or in maintaining the fallout, the UAE has acted as a primary catalyst in the conflict since its onset. It is a role that it seems particularly keen in continuing.

This new assertive role of the UAE as a primary player in the Gulf is one expected to be maintained for some time. Yet Abu Dhabi's role in becoming a key regional player through bold and unruly diplomacy is a new path with regards to the emirate's own recent history.

The small emirate remained an oasis of political calm for decades under the rule of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who followed a programme of quiet diplomacy from the establishment of his state from the 1970s until his death in 2004.

The same strategy was inherited and upheld by his son and successor Khalifa bin Zayed, until his debilitating stroke in 2014. Khalifa's younger brother, Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, then emerged as the de-facto ruler of the country. Yet Bin Zayed had already been at the helm of the emirate's domestic and foreign policy for almost a decade.

The activist policies of the UAE became most apparent only in the wake of the Arab Spring, which shook the emirate in two distinct ways.

The first was the wave of fear that flooded Abu Dhabi - and other authoritarian neighbours in the region - with blind panic and terror, over the possibility of changes to their rule and a toppling of the foundations upon which the Emirates were based. This was particularly cogent considering the presence of a semi-organised opposition represented by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Abu Dhabi's fears were only amplified when Qatar supported several of the Arab revolutions and further endorsed them through Al Jazeera, which gave a platform to Arab protesters and revolutionaries

The second effect of the Arab spring was to be seen in the collapse in the region's balance of power. Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Amman and Cairo had together been capitals of the "Axis of Moderation" as seen by the US, stalwarts standing in the face of Syria, Iran and non-state actors including Lebanon's Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas movement.

Abu Dhabi's fears were only amplified when Qatar supported several of the Arab revolutions and further endorsed them through Al Jazeera, which gave a platform to Arab protesters and revolutionaries.

Abu Dhabi's response was therefore to immediately try and contain the effects of the Arab Spring and seek all possible avenues to limit its repercussions.

The strategy subsequently deployed by the emirate focused firstly on the revolutions themselves. Egypt, as the most significant of the Arab Spring nations, was of particular interest. There the UAE played a distinct role and allied itself with reactionary forces within the country who it backed diplomatically, financially and within its own media arms.

The emirate's second strategy was to focus on neighbouring Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia to help align their policies with its own.

Finally, the UAE sought to isolate Turkey and Qatar, who had supported the Arab Spring nations.

Yet in order to ensure the success of this strategy, the UAE had to secure two critical aspects. First was securing US support, while second was an investment in new backers in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help it push through its decisions.

Abu Dhabi's first strategic goal was manifest in the emirate's planning, preparation and equipping of the 2013 coup in Egypt. The UAE pumped millions of dollars in Egypt to guarantee Cairo's political allegiance.

Mistakes made by the Muslim Brotherhood and other political forces, which failed to settle their own differences, were exploited by the UAE - and the void they left was ultimately filled by the return of military rule.

The UAE in particularly demonised the Egyptian revolution by backing and financing the formation of the Tamarod movement, set up to oppose President Mohamed Morsi. Thereafter, it backed and financed the new regime in its elimination of the revolution.

On its second strategic goal, Abu Dhabi succeeded in controlling - if even temporarily - the decision makers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Recent leaks have revealed the extent to which the UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba held influence in major political and diplomatic circles in the US

In Egypt, this was realised by the provision of a myriad of types of political, diplomatic, financial and economic support for the new Egyptian regime.

Recent leaks have revealed the extent to which the UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba held influence in major political and diplomatic circles in the US as well as in the country's media. Much of this was harnessed by Otaiba to support the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The leaks also revealed how Otaiba used all his power to buy political loyalty in preparation for the future and fateful battle with Qatar.

Meanwhile, the UAE's Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed took advantage of confusion surrounding to potential successors to King Salman bin Abdul Aziz in Saudi Arabia.

At the expense of Riyadh's current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Abu Dhabi succeeded in establishing influence over the second-in-line to the Saudi monarchy, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Abu Dhabi - albeit, again, even temporarily - ensured influence in the two largest countries of the Arab world - Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Nonetheless, all of this could only have been achieved by the UAE having obtained the blessing of the US - and, by extension, Israel.

The small but important details of Mohammed bin Zayed's impulsive visits to New York after Donald Trump assumed power earlier this year are of critical significance. Of particular interest are deals made by Bin Zayed with Trump's advisers, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Abu Dhabi then moved on to to the third part of its strategy - isolating Turkey and Qatar. After failing miserably against Turkey in the attempted coup last year, Abu Dhabi turned instead to Qatar. The manufacturing of the current crisis and the UAE's role in catalysing the region against Doha are the result.

It appears that Saudi Arabia has fallen into the trap by now backing Abu Dhabi in the deepening crisis, despite the continuation of the crisis being against Riyadh's interests.

Dr Khalil al-Anani is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute. He is a leading academic expert on Islamist movements, authoritarianism and democratisation in the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @khalilalanani

Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is a translation from our Arabic edition.