By Philippe Henri Gunet

In a region in upheaval, ravaged by wars, each country is trying to defend its interests. One of the most active but also the most discreet is the United Arab Emirates, guided mainly by its project – economically liberal, politically authoritarian. Spotlight on this little-known actor with researcher Stéphane Lacroix.

Philippe Gunet. – We often talk about Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but very little about the other monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet among them, doesn’t the United Arab Emirates ( UAE ) deserve more attention  ?

Stéphane Lacroix. – French politicians have extremely strong links with the UAE , in particular the current executive and in particular the Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Minister of Defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian. It is also a country where France is established militarily, with a naval base, which is rare in the region.

However, it is a country that does not attract attention for many reasons. What constantly gives rise to controversy over Arabia and Qatar is the question of Islam. Islam willingly presented as radical, whether it is the Salafism of some or support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE , positioning itself in another camp, does not appear sulphurous and does not seem to pose a problem. And this is paradoxical, because the UAE has a very interventionist policy and is probably the most proactive country in the region today. This however goes completely under the radar of the media. It’s a bit of a mystery, really.

PG – How can we define the UAE’s foreign policy , which is therefore not neutral  ? What are the major features  ?

SL – It is not at all a neutral element. The Emirates have long chosen their side. Unlike a number of their neighbors, their project, both political and economic, is simple and fairly coherent. It is old and worn by relatively efficient means. One of the reasons Western politicians like the UAE is its reputation for efficiency: when they commit to doing something, they do it, both politically and militarily.

On the political level, it is a question of creating in the Middle East an authoritarian zone of stability with regimes in their image, and of guarding against any risk of revolution or any form of dissent. The UAE had a very bad experience of the Arab Spring. From the start, they were fierce opponents of all their dynamics. More precisely, the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as the most capable of reaping the dividends of the Arab Spring as we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, were their real obsession . It’s a red line for Abu Dhabi. It characterizes his political project.

Economically, it is about making the Middle East a kind of big market, where the Emirates could do business and export the neoliberal model that they have been practicing for a long time.

In these two projects, we find the internal dynamic that exists between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two heavyweight emirates among the seven in the UAE federation . Abu Dhabi in fact represents political and military power – ”  little Sparta  ” as it has been called – while Dubai is the power of business and commerce.

PG – You spoke about the difficult relationship between Abu Dhabi and the Muslim Brotherhood. What is its origin  ?

SL – From the 1960s, just like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, the UAE welcomed a large number of Muslim Brotherhood. It was the era of the Arab Cold War between the Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser on one side and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies on the other. In the context of this conflict, the Muslim Brotherhood was seen as allies by these monarchies. From political refugees, they had indeed become contributors to their state building and modernization. They were therefore rather well regarded, including in the Emirates.

The first trauma took place in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, with an effect on the UAE . An Islamist dispute has developed in Saudi Arabia following King Fahd’s appeal to American troops in the context of the Gulf War caused by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. This protest was led by a local Islamist movement, Saudi, which had extensions in the UAE and elsewhere. For the authorities of these countries, the Brothers are the inspirers of this Islamist dissidence, and it is therefore their presence that produced it.

Consequently, the way certain countries of the region look at the Muslim Brotherhood has changed dramatically. Paradoxically, however, this change will be less radical in Saudi Arabia than in the UAE , while it was at home that this dispute arose. In Saudi Arabia, at that time and until 2015, we are still in a complex game, we have to spare each other, we are in this game of very horizontal balance which means that there are few changes. radicals in foreign or domestic policy. In contrast, in the UAE, the relationship between power and the Muslim Brotherhood begins to change. 

From the end of the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood of the Emirates and their local Al-Islah association came under increasing pressure, in parallel with the rise in power of Mohamed Ben Zayed Al-Nahyane, the one we call MBZ , crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the strong man of the federation. The latter seems to nurture a personal hatred towards them, the causes of which are not well explained and immediately designates them as enemies.

PG – What examples can we give of the consequences in foreign policy of Abu Dhabi’s posture towards the Muslim Brotherhood   ?

SL – Before 2011 UAEcleaning their homes, attacking Al-Islah activities. From 2011, they embarked on a sort of regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. It begins in Egypt, where Abu Dhabi plays an important role, with Riyadh, in the overthrow by the Egyptian army of President Mohamed Morsi in early July 2013. It continues in Libya, where the Emirates will side with General Khalifa Haftar and support it militarily in its war against the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, including with bombardments of their air force. In Tunisia, to counter Rached Ghannouchi’s brotherist Ennahda party, which came to power in 2011, they support Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounès party, before blaming it in 2017 for not having chosen between them and Qatar.

Abu Dhabi will also get involved in Yemen, which is becoming a major issue, but not for the same reasons as Saudi Arabia. The two monarchies pursue somewhat different objectives there. Officially, they are waging war on the Houthis together and wanting to reestablish legitimate government. In truth, the UAE’s goal is above all to make Yemen a zone without Muslim Brotherhood. They will systematically support anti-Brotherhood forces, even if it means supporting from time to time militias of Salafist obedience which have a fierce hatred of them. Their strategy thus differs from that of Riyadh, which is ready to make alliances on a case-by-case basis with the Muslim Brotherhood, and this is the case in Yemen, despite an officially anti-Brotherhood rhetoric. On this issue, if Saudi Arabia knows how to be pragmatic,

In Yemen, the divergence between the two monarchies also concerns ”  the day after  “. They don’t agree on the model. The UAE ended up deciding in favor of southern independence, which they believe is the best option, because it allows them to control this entire region of South Yemen dominated by the separatist movement they support. At the beginning of February 2018, this movement launched an offensive in Aden against the forces of the legal government supported by Saudi Arabia. UAE-backed militias fought on the ground with Saudi-backed militias. Abu Dhabi’s central idea is that separatists are anti-Muslim Brotherhood and supportive of UAE interests, and that a secession of South Yemen would allow them to constitute there a kind of Emirati protectorate, free from the Muslim Brotherhood.

PG – In the current crisis between Qatar and the UAE allied with Saudi Arabia, it is the links between Qatar and the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood that have mainly motivated the UAE  ?

SL – Political Islam is indeed the major determinant of everything the UAE does in the region, their number one priority. With regard to Qatar, it has become a casus belli. Although allies against Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE do not have exactly the same goals again. Arabia is above all obsessed with Iran and what it calls ”  Iranian expansionism. ” “. In the Abu Dhabi-Riyadh axis, each makes concessions, aligns itself with the priorities of the other, hoping that it will align with its own priorities. The war in Yemen, where the Emirates will claim to be Saudi Arabia’s staunch allies, is above all a Saudi war. It is a war by Saudi Arabia against what it sees as an extension of Iranian influence on its southern border: the Houthis.

The Emirati follow the Saudis in Yemen, align themselves with their priorities by putting theirs aside, at first. For the Emirati, the Houthis are not a major issue: they are far from their borders and do not threaten them. In return, they get to drag Saudi Arabia into their conflict with Qatar. In the crisis around Qatar , the real rivalry is not Saudi-Qatari, but Emiro-Qatari.

Qatar and UAE are very similar to each other, but in the 1990s they made some drastically different choices. Qatar uses the Muslim Brotherhood networks as a relay for its foreign policy. Official Islam is of Salafo-Wahhabi obedience as in Saudi Arabia, but the Islam that this emirate supports internationally is rather that of the Muslim Brotherhood. This has been the whole Qatari strategy since the 1990s. The UAE has made the strictly opposite choice of war, first latent, then declared, on political Islam. Saudi Arabia, despite having strained relations with Qatar, certainly would not have started this conflict in June 2017 without the UAE .

PG – Until today, we spoke of the Gulf Cooperation Council ( CCG ), this political unit created in 1981 between all the monarchies of the peninsula in response to the threat posed by the Iranian revolution of 1979. Can we say today, between the crisis in Qatar and the formation of this axis between Saudi Arabia and the UAE , that the GCC is dead  ?

SL – The CCG has never been so bad. It is not divided in two, but in three. On the one hand Qatar, which is alone, on the other the Saudi-Emirati axis, to which we can add Bahrain which aligns itself with the positions of Saudi Arabia, including on the subject of Qatar. In the middle, Kuwait and Oman, who try not to choose and who offer themselves as mediators. But they themselves are terrified of what is happening. If Qatar gives in, many Kuwaitis fear being the next target of the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi tandem, to bring them into line. Kuwait, with its specificities – the existence of a political pluralism, of an elected Parliament where the Muslim Brotherhood sits among others – is not a democracy, but what comes closest to it within theCCG , and could feel threatened if the Saudi-Emirati axis imposed its authoritarian model.

PG – We are seeing this tandem between Saudi Arabia and the UAE . What about the one between Mohamed Ben Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, but a strong man who currently rules the UAE , and Mohamed Ben Salman, this young prince who has practically all power in Saudi Arabia  ? And is this relationship able to last over time  ?

SL– The relationship between Mohamed Ben Salman and Mohamed Ben Zayed is extremely strong. Ben Zayed takes the place of the mentor. He is about twenty years older than Ben Salman and is a bit the one who got him into politics. It is in particular through Ben Zayed’s networks that Ben Salman has built up his international stature. Here is a young man with whom he gets along, who has almost the same projects as him and sees the world in the same way. This is a unique opportunity for the Emirates to make a solid alliance with Saudi Arabia, with which ties have not always been good. Mohamed Ben Zayed also realizes the limits of his own foreign policy. When you are the Emirates, which is a small country, and you have both political and economic ambitions which are those of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it pays to make an alliance with a country much bigger than you. On the part of the UAE, this relationship will be built within a framework of well-understood interests. The UAE will follow the Saudis in Yemen: this is the founding moment of this new relationship, an investment in the future that Mohamed Ben Zayed is making by showing his loyalty to Saudi Arabia.

Mohamed Ben Zayed will bet on the promotion to Westerners – Europeans and especially Americans – of this young Saudi prince in search of international legitimacy. In 2015, Ben Salman indeed has a strong competitor in the kingdom, in the person of Mohamed Ben Nayef, Minister of the Interior and Crown Prince at the time, the man of counter-terrorism, and who is very well regarded. Westerners, especially Washington, which prefers him to Mohamed Ben Salman. It is also he who will build his relationship with Donald Trump, with whom he already had close ties before his election, and of whom he was one of the great supporters. He works closely with Erik Prince, the former boss of the Blackwater Mercenary Company, who is one of his advisers, and whose sister, Betsy DeVos, is Secretary of Education in Donald Trump’s government. All of these links played a central role in building the alliance between Mohamed Ben Salman and Donald Trump. The UAE understand the importance of their alliance with the Saudis for their strategy. My feeling is that they want to make it last.

PG – Does this UAE action and policy contribute to the stability of the region, or is it rather a factor of fracture  ?

SL – For the UAE, there is only authoritarian stability. The only model they believe in is a kind of pre-Arab Spring model, with dictators, strong men like Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, whom they support at arm’s length. They include economic liberalism for doing business, as well as Israel. For them, there is indeed no problem in involving Tel Aviv in all this dynamic, since normalization with this country would translate into the economic dividends they call for.

We note, however, that to achieve this result, the UAE is waging a lot of war. They do it in Libya, in Yemen. They also help support regimes guilty of massive abuses, such as in Egypt where, among others, a thousand Morsi supporters were killed in a single day by Egyptian police in August 2013 after Sisi’s coup.

The UAE model, moreover, presupposes that a region-wide, economically liberal, authoritarian situation would be viable. It may be viable on the scale of the Emirates, a small country a bit on the Singaporean model to which it constantly refers. But I don’t imagine it could work across a whole complex and fragmented region that includes large countries like Egypt, or even Saudi Arabia. Mohamed Ben Salman would specifically like to import the UAE model of neoliberal authoritarianism into Arabia. However, if we have learned one lesson from the Arab Spring, it is that the imposition of such a model risks ultimately generating more instability than stability.

PG – And Iran, seen from Abu Dhabi  ?

SL – The UAE are contributing to the campaign that the Saudis are waging against Iran, which is intensifying today. The Saudis want to push their American and Israeli partners into conflict with Iran. In my opinion, the Emirati people are not convinced by this option. Iran, again, is not their priority. But because of their alliance with the Saudis, from which they derive other benefits, they are part of this effort.

This element, too, contributes to rather destabilize the region.


Philippe Henri Gunet – Air division general (2nd section).

Stephane Lacroix – Doctorate in political science (Sciences Po). Currently associate professor at Sciences Po’s School of International Affairs (PSIA) and researcher at the International Research Center (CERI).


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