For the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Arab Spring was a watershed event. It provided a range of immediate security concerns within its region and a set of broader issues related to stability throughout the Middle East. Moreover, it provided a proof for deep-seated and long-held fears within the UAE regarding the rise and role of political Islam. Consequently, Emirati policy during and after the Arab Spring was energised by deep and fundamental security concerns, hence the state’s energetic and unusual levels of security-orientated foreign policy engagement. Such activism was visible in Libya, the Horn of Africa, with the war in Yemen and Qatar’s blockade.
The results for the UAE have been mixed. The state bolstered its security, not least by promulgating a security-orientated nationalism. At the same time, friendly elites in nearby Bahrain benefitted from the staunch support of Emirati and other Gulf leaders. UAE’s allies further afield, such as General Haftar in Libya, prospered initially; but remain mired in civil strife. Initial Emirati operations in the war in Yemen were remarkably successful, evicting the Houthis from Aden and the south of Yemen before a counterinsurgency push stymied control by Al Qaeda in key towns. Equally, the Houthis remain the preeminent actor in Yemen. Also, we are now seeing missile attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia on a never before seen scale, a clear indication that Emirati and Saudi policies have failed on a critical metric. The blockade against Qatar launched by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt ultimately also failed and bolstered the cohesiveness of Qatar’s leadership. However, the UAE may argue that its quest to roll back Islamist politics has progressed strategically. States promulgating or adopting this approach, such as Qatar, Turkey, and Tunisia, have not been quelled, but such proselytisation does appear to have been deprioritised, for the moment at least.
Concern among Emirati elites based in Abu Dhabi has been rising for decades around expanding influence domestically and regionally of actors on the religious spectrum. While Islamists have often protested they “only” wanted to exert influence on social mores, the leaders of Abu Dhabi have long feared that they stealthily sought to expand the ambit of their influence. Moreover, it was and still remains a conviction among Emirati leaders that the mixing of religion and politics reliably leads to a range of bad outcomes. When the Arab Spring arrived, and long-entrenched autocrats wobbled and some toppled, Islamists often appeared edging towards power. For Abu Dhabi’s elite, this was positive proof that they were fifth columnists, waiting for an opportunity to strike. This galvanised the UAE into foreign policy activism as never before.
While Islamists have often protested they “only” wanted to exert influence on social mores, the leaders of Abu Dhabi have long feared that they stealthily sought to expand the ambit of their influence.
Domestically, they took a hard line on Islamist groups. Regionally too, the UAE supported nationalist-orientated actors as proxies to counter rising Islamist forces. In Libya, the UAE channelled financial, political, and military support to General Haftar, who was fighting a range of Islamist-orientated actors supported by, among others, Qatar. In the Horn of Africa, the UAE boosted its influence. In Somalia, where Turkey and Qatar long enjoyed notably close relations, the UAE directed support to areas outside the capital city, Mogadishu. Also, the UAE has established a significant military base in Assab, Eritrea.
The critical importance of this base became clear with the launching, in 2015, of the war in Yemen by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This conflict was energised by deep concerns about the power of the Houthis, an indigenous Zaydi political group from the north of Yemen that ventured further and further south, ultimately taking control of Yemen’s key cities. Zaydism is generally – but not entirely – thought of as being on the Shia Islam spectrum, which heightened concerns about their affinity with Iran. Whether such religious links played a critical role, there has long been an unusually close relationship between Iran and the Houthis. Though this relationship can be overstated, and the agency of the Houthis is sometimes wrongly denuded as if they were merely a cog of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), at the very least, Iran has been an essential source of technological know-how and weaponry. To the UAE and Saudi Arabia, such a group with links to Iran could not be allowed to take over Yemen. Such an eventuality would amount to the formation of a Hezbollah-type group on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) border.
A large multinational Arab coalition was formed, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm. In reality, however, most military action was undertaken by Saudi Arabia from the north and with the air war and the UAE from the south. The initial UAE amphibious operation to free Aden from Houthi control was complex and remarkably successful. Indeed, it counts as the most successful military operation of its type undertaken by Arab military forces in contemporary history. The Houthis were swiftly evicted from Aden, and the UAE then pivoted into a counterinsurgency operation to free key towns to the east of Aden from Al Qaeda control. These operations also seemed successful. However, anti-Houthi operations swiftly ground to a halt as the Emiratis progressed north into ever less friendly and difficult terrain. The Houthis remain entrenched in the state today, and a bloody and painful stalemate pervades, where Yemenis face a humanitarian catastrophe. Despite some noted Emirati successes, ultimately, the intervention precipitated a worsening of the security situation facing the state. In a marked deterioration, the Houthis have recently launched a range of drone and missile attacks directed at Abu Dhabi.
Balancing and Hedging
In a broader sense, the UAE is in the throes of reorientating itself on a geostrategic level. The US role in the Gulf region, which has been critical and dominant for so long, is arguably dwindling. This is not to say that the US will pack up and leave its many Gulf bases in the next few years. Equally, without the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the US pivot to Asia and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US gaze is increasingly elsewhere. The UAE knows this very well. While the state is careful not to jettison its close relations with the US, UAE leaders are expanding their relations. The UAE has long played to be a key spoke in China’s Belt and Road initiatives in the Gulf region. Moreover, the Chinese approach that allows for strong economic growth, excelling at technological innovation in a controlled and autocratic system, is deeply appealing to UAE leaders. The UAE siding with India and China abstaining from the US- and Albania-sponsored UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia for its blatant invasion of Ukraine is yet another example of the UAE not following a US line.
Ultimately, in the face of an ever-dangerous region that has produced a serious conflict every decade for the last half-a-century, the UAE has actively sought to secure itself, not relying on other states. This makes the UAE an unusual state in the Gulf, where the typical reaction is to rely on Uncle Sam to provide security. The UAE and Saudi-led conflict in Yemen calmed and exacerbated security concerns: the Houthis were weakened, but not enough, and critically their missile threat remains as (if not more) potent than ever. Looking forward, the UAE has sought to give itself space from the potential of the US realignment by bolstering its relations with key states like China. It has bet on itself by building meaningful domestic military capabilities and diversifying its international relations portfolio. Though the Gulf region remains dangerous, the UAE is well placed to meet its diverse and varied challenges.