The United Arab Emirates has been pursuing a very active foreign policy to combat political Islam in all its forms. The Muslim Brotherhood is its main target, and the Federation has therefore found itself at odds with Qatar – but also Saudi Arabia.
The United Arab Emirates have taken a more pragmatic approach in foreign policy and security matters than their Saudi neighbors. Indeed, despite keeping a prominent role within the regional trade and security bloc of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Emirates have often adopted policies that have contradicted its regional partners in flagrant manner.
As noted earlier, the UAE supported anti-Islamist militias in Libya’s post Qadhafi and ongoing civil war. But, in 2014, unbeknownst to the United States – at least that’s what the U.S. declared – the UAE once again used an Egyptian airbase to deploy its fighter jets on a mission targeting Islamist militias in Libya. While, the UAE is deeply concerned about the rise of Islamism, the attack in Libya served more to deliver a message to Qatar than to weaken ‘Jihadists’ in Libya.
There is ample reason to speculate that the UAE – one of the richest countries in the Arab world and an island of tranquility in a tumultuous region – was targeting Qatar more than it was the Libyan militias. Qatar has actively encouraged the Arab Spring revolts, often meaning it has helped arm and finance Muslim Brotherhood offshoots.
In 2014, it so happens that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, threatening a series of measures unless Qatar cut ties with Brotherhood. The UAE has tightened its internal security, even applying stricter controls on social media, to control its fears that the Muslim Brotherhood might seek to destabilize foothold in the UAE itself through the existing Brotherhood organization known as al-Islah. Al-Islah had been tolerated since its early formation in the 1960’s by young Brotherhood members fleeing the Egypt of Jamal Abdel Nasser. In 2013, Abu Dhabi paled almost 100 al-Islah members. The trial brought unprecedented negative attention to Abu Dhabi from human rights advocates, who accused the UAE of having failed to comply with international judicial standards.
In fact, for a long time, the Emirates are no longer the island of peace and prosperity they appear to be. Internal and regional security has become an ever growing concern as Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Doha have engaged in a major arms race. In 2012, the UAE became the world’s fourth-largest arms importer in 2012, importing armament largely from the United States, the United Kingdom and France.
Growing Contrast Between the UAE and Saudi Arabia
Among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have held the most media attention in recent years due to their proxy role in the Syrian war, ostentatiously backing the rebellion against the government of Bashar al-Asad. By comparison, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) federation has adopted a more neutral role. In Syria, unlike Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE did back some of the opposition groups to the Asad regime, but it refused to support the Islamists. Given the latter’s preponderance, the UAE now favors a political solution involving the Russians and the Americans; naturally, the UAE understand that such a solution would also please Iran.
Abu Dhabi has not gone so far as openly backing al-Asad as has, for instance, President al-Sissi of Egypt, but it only backs opposition elements now known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group dominated by the Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Workers’ Party Of Kurdistan (PKK). The UAE also participates in the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition, supplying its F-16 jets to attack IS targets in Syria.
Less hegemonic than Saudi Arabia and, more subtle than Qatar, the Emirates’ main concern has been to prevent the emergence of fundamentalism and Islamic politics, especially since 2011. The other difference between the foreign policy of the UAE and its more ‘extrovert’ Saudi and Qatari neighbors involves relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the 1980’s, Saudis, Kuwaitis and most Gulf States encouraged then President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in the war against the Islamic Republic. In contrast, the United Arab Emirates maintained a more even hand. It offered aid to Iraq and its naval bases to the British and French navies. But, it also played a more active role in pushing for mediation with Iran. In the Gulf War of January-February 1991, the UAE offered support for the multinational force assembled to attack Iraq.
As for Iran, the UAE has had disputes with Tehran over control of three islands in the Strait of Hormuz. But, Abu Dhabi, unlike its neighbors and despite all the treaties signed with various Western states, has not authorized any major power to build and occupy permanent military bases in their territories.
In Egypt, Abu Dhabi (and Riyadh) strongly supported in 2013 the coup d’état of Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi against President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brother backed by Qatar and Turkey, elected in 2012 during the first presidential election of the post-Mubarak era. Similarly, the UAE cut off support for Tunisia after the Muslim Brotherhood relate ‘al-Nahda’ Party won elections there. The UAE had been Tunisia’s second largest trading partner after Libya before the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011.
In Yemen, the Emiratis have joined the military coalition created by Saudi Arabia in 2015 to fight the Houthis rebels who have risen up against the regime of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Yet, Abu Dhabi does not approve the Saudis’ support for what is in effect the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, al-Islah, whose tribal militias fight the Houthis alongside troops loyal to the president. Similarly, the Emiratis and the Saudis disagree about the nature of the power structure or the leaders to be promoted for the post-war future in Yemen.
In Libya, the United Arab Emirates are particularly distinguished and find themselves in a position of indirect armed confrontation with Qatar. The latter has supported and supplied armaments to the militias close to the Muslim Brothers, especially those of the city of Misrata. Abu Dhabi went as far as attacking some of those very militias in 2014, using its aircraft operating from Egypt. In Libya, while the UN has backed a coalition government in the capital Tripoli, the UAE supports its most powerful opponent, Gen. Haftar, in the name of fighting any form of Islamism.
The UAE’s stance in Libya and its backing of Haftar also reflects the fact it has much better relations with Russia than any other Gulf State. In 2016, the UAE attended and co-sponsored a conference in Grozny, Chechnya, bringing together Sunni Islamic scholars to effectively denounce ‘Salafism’ – the radical form of Islam typified by the Wahhabi doctrines practiced in Saudi Arabia and shared by Islamic State. The Conference accused the Salafists of propagating a heretical form of Islam. The fact that the UAE, a fellow member of the GCC, would take such a hostile stance against the Saudis showed the extent to which Abu Dhabi fears radical Islam and the measures they are prepared to take, even if it drives a wedge between itself and Riyadh.