Why the UAE seeks stronger ties with Iran

Why the UAE seeks stronger ties with Iran

Comment: As the UAE moves out of Saudi Arabia's shadow, its developing ties with Iran are not as surprising as some might suggest, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
5 min read
10 Aug, 2020
Zarif described the call with UAE foreign minister as "very substantive, frank and friendly" [Twitter]
The Emirati foreign minister called his Iranian counterpart last week, in a further sign of the UAE and Iran's fledgling relations as Abu Dhabi seeks to step out of Saudi Arabia's shadow. They discussed cooperation over the coronavirus pandemic while consolidating their ties. 

"Just had a very substantive, frank and friendly video conversation with UAE FM [Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan]", Zarif wrote on Twitter.

"We agreed to continue dialogue on the theme of hope - especially as the region faces tough challenges, and tougher choices ahead," he added.

According to UAE state news agency WAM, both exchanged greetings for the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday and discussed efforts to control the Covid-19 pandemic in the region.

Bin Zayed emphasised "enhancing international cooperation, solidarity and synergy between all countries" to tackle the virus.

This direct communication between the foreign ministers comes after Abu Dhabi sought stronger ties with Tehran in March, sending multiple coronavirus aid shipments. At the time, Iran was suffering from the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, and cooperation between the two countries has since grown.

Some analysts portray this as a surprising shift between Iranian and Emirati relations, presenting them as, until recently, hostile foes. Often this comes down to misconceptions that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are still identical allies on the regional stage, which is no longer the case. Under the surface, Abu Dhabi perceives Tehran as a pragmatic regional partner, having been more receptive to stronger ties since the middle of 2019.

Under the surface, Abu Dhabi perceives Tehran as a pragmatic regional partner

Their relations did sour after 2016, when Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia activists and the subsequent storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Abu Dhabi also followed the traditional Saudi line of Tehran of being a malign regional actor since the GCC's formation in Abu Dhabi in 1981, largely to counter the newly born Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

The Iran-linked Aramco oil attacks last September exposed Riyadh's vulnerabilities, and prompted the UAE to seek an alliance with Iran, in part for its own security. The US' killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January also risked greater regional tensions. 

Growing regional alignment

Beyond security concerns, however, the UAE seeks other geopolitical gains. One key alignment is in Syria, as Abu Dhabi has increasingly viewed Bashar al-Assad's regime as a crucial regional partner to counteract its nemesis, Turkey, and Islamist opposition movements. Moreover, Tehran views Abu Dhabi as a crucial ally, having propped up the Assad regime with militias since 2013 against the Syrian opposition. While a post-war Syria could see jostling for influence between Tehran and Abu Dhabi, both currently prioritise shoring up Assad's regime.

Moreover, and in a break from its alignment with Saudi Arabia, the UAE has shown receptivity towards the Houthi rebels which now mostly control northern Yemen. Emirati foreign affairs minister Anwar Gargash said last November that peace talks "must take account of the legitimate aspirations of all parts of Yemeni society. That includes the Houthis".

While the UAE joined the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in March 2015, it has little concern over the future of northern Yemen, as long as it can control Yemen's southern ports through empowering its client faction, the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC).

With Riyadh gradually losing influence in Yemen, and still reluctant to accept a Houthi victory, this could lead to Abu Dhabi seeking diplomacy with the Iran-backed Houthis to secure its presence in the South, and ties with Tehran would be crucial here.

Read more: The UAE is gradually eclipsing Saudi Arabia in Yemen

As a result of their growing communication, Iranian General Rahim Safavi said in June "our relationship with the UAE has improved and Abu Dhabi's attitudes towards us have changed." That Safavi then criticised Saudi Arabia, saying "Riyadh must admit the failure of its war in Yemen and adopt a new policy… What is happening in Yemen is the futile military chaos that Saudi Arabia bears firstly," shows how the UAE has overcome Riyadh's restrictions.

Though a close regional ally of the US, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed has sought to distance the UAE from Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign, unfreezing $700 million worth of Iranian assets last October. And after Washington blamed Tehran for the oil tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz in May 2019, the UAE avoided pointing the finger at Iran.

The UAE is also preparing for a Trump defeat in the upcoming US presidential elections, should this alter Washington's harsh stance on Iran. Previously more dependent on US patronage, Abu Dhabi no longer views Washington as a reliable ally. It has therefore looked eastward, hoping to establish alliances with Russia and China, as well as Iran.

Ironic concerns

The UAE's shift is also revealing in terms of its alleged concern for regional stability. After all, the UAE joined the anti-Qatar blockade in the June 2017 Gulf crisis, accusing it of ties with Iran. Though moving closer to Tehran, itself, Abu Dhabi still opposes any reunion with Doha, showing its own hostility to Qatar was never about Iran. Rather, it aimed to punish Doha for its foreign policy independence elsewhere.

Furthermore, as Abu Dhabi pursues rapprochement with Tehran, Anwar Gargash on August 1 criticised Turkey for "meddling in Arab affairs," again using rhetoric referring to Turkey's past Ottoman rule over Arab countries. However, Turkey's current assertive foreign policy has placed it on opposite sides to the UAE on various regional issues, including Libya, Syria and Egypt, triggering Abu Dhabi's hostility.

Courting Iran is another step in the UAE transcending Saudi Arabia and the US' restrictive stances

While the UAE denounces Turkey for its role in various countries, Iran has also received criticism for its interference in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, attempting to establish its own influence in these countries. Yet compared to Ankara, Abu Dhabi considers Tehran a lesser threat to its own hegemonic interests.

This shows the UAE is more concerned about neutralising those who endanger its own regional vision. In the meantime, it is willing to pragmatically operate to maximise its own power in a post-coronavirus world. And courting Iran is another step in its transcending of Saudi Arabia and the US' restrictive stances, and becoming a more independent regional actor.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.