Thomas O. Falk
While already one of the most powerful nations in the region, the United Arab Emirates seems determined to establish an ever-bigger footprint for the years to come. Its hard and soft powers are the reason for its expanding clout.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the most active and meddling actors in the Middle East as has been exemplified in the civil war in Yemen, the Libyan conflict, and the blockade of Qatar, with the rapprochement with Turkey being the latest example.
The UAE has also been linked to the ousting of former elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and the political crisis in Tunisia, thus increasing the country’s foreign interference significantly.
The UAE’s military is the primary contributor to its region-wide impact. While it was still dependent on British protection when it gained its independence in December 1971, it has since become a military heavyweight in the region – arguably the most potent in the Arab world.
In Libya, Emirati fighter jets have supported the warlord and ex-general Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli since 2017. In Yemen, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in 2015 with special forces, warships, and thousands of mercenaries to drive pro-Iranian Houthi rebels out of the capital, Sanaa, and pursued its own support for the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist organization in the south.
Behind UAE’s power lies a new emphasis on the military, led by its de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Behind UAE’s power lies a new emphasis on the military, led by Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (aka MbZ), the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces and the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi. Unlike other countries in the region, MbZ ordered that high military ranks will no longer be filled based on tribal affiliation, but rather on meritocracy.
To strengthen the military, MbZ introduced conscription in 2014 to convey values such as discipline and team spirit and enhance national cohesion. Having trained as a fighter pilot at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in Great Britain, MbZ introduced Western, participatory, and practical training methods into the country’s armed forces.
The effort to reform the army has paid off in other ways, too. Unlike in the past, most combat troops and pilots today are Emirati, although there are still Western officers in the rankings up to the highest levels. Most trainers and technicians are foreigners, too. Many of the less prestigious jobs in logistics are conducted by mercenaries from Oman, Yemen, and Bangladesh. Still, the proportion of foreigners among the 64,000 soldiers in the UAE is significantly lower than it used to be.
The success of the armed forces is also attributed to their state-of-the-art equipment. Thanks to billions of dollars in oil sales, Abu Dhabi can afford the latest tanks, fighter jets, precision bombs, and missiles. Along with other Gulf states, the UAE is now among the best clients of Western weaponry and Israeli surveillance equipment.
Thanks to billions of dollars in oil sales, Abu Dhabi can afford the latest tanks, fighter jets, precision bombs, and missiles.
It took an unprecedented degree of a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen to lead to the Biden administration reconsidering its arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other military coalition members. By then, the leadership in Abu Dhabi had already recognized that the conflict with the Houthis had become a costly war of attrition and subsequently withdrew its ground troops from Yemen. Not only did the operation fail at ousting the Houthis from power, but it also achieved the opposite by increasing Iranian influence in Yemen.
The UAE, however, continues its involvement in Yemen with its Emirati-trained Giant Brigades, which has been driving the Houthis out of Shabwa Province and currently pushing north toward the strategic region of Marib.
The devastation in Yemen has exposed the Emirati armed forces’ limits. The 4,000 men deployed in Yemen were the best the Emirati military could muster. Those few thousand soldiers exhausted the UAE’s reserve staff. While the country has a population of almost 10 million, only 11 percent – roughly one million – of its population is Emirati. It raises the question of how the UAE is supposed to recruit additional and capable soldiers if the pool it enlists from is relatively infinitesimal.
MbZ has seemingly recognized these constraints and has been forced to reconsider its foreign ventures. The intervention in Libya, on behalf of Khalifa Haftar, also proved to be a failure when the Tripoli government, aided by Turkey, succeeded in deterring Haftar’s attack on the capital in 2020. Thanks to the support of Turkish drones and fighters, the government inflicted a fatal defeat on the warlord.
Lastly, the blockade against Qatar imposed by Abu Dhabi in June 2017 failed spectacularly, and rather than forcing its neighbor to distance itself from Iran and abandon its support for the political Islam groups, Doha drew closer to Turkey and Tehran during the embargo. In January 2021, the UAE and Saudi Arabia lifted the blockade on Qatar without it providing any significant concessions.
Unsurprisingly, the UAE began shifting its focus on diplomacy and political strategy and away from military interventionism. It now appears keen to reshape its image as a bridge-builder in regional politics and hedge its options if the US scales back regional security commitments in the Middle East and North Africa. The primary example of the country’s rebranding is its new rapprochement with Turkey.
The UAE is keen to reshape its image as a bridge-builder in regional politics.
Turkey, for its part, is striving to get out of the political and ideological box it has been trapped in since the beginning of the Arab uprisings. It also hopes to reduce the economic cost of its geopolitical activism in times of financial hardship at home.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Turkey was considered one of the key powers alongside Saudi Arabia, a reputation largely based on their dedicated support for religious movements with social revolutionary goals such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This led to its isolation in the Middle East in recent years.
Recently, the UAE allocated a $10 billion fund for investment in Turkey and signed various agreements and a memorandum of understanding with Ankara. How many of these deals will be realized is a question that has yet to be answered. Nevertheless, due to the devaluation of the Turkish lira, Turkish assets are currently much cheaper than they were a year ago, and the UAE investments are likely to yield significant returns down the road. Also, despite all the turmoil in Abu Dhabi-Ankara relations, the UAE is already Turkey’s largest trade partner in the Gulf, making the economic logic of these trades apparent.
Recently, the UAE allocated a $10 billion fund for investment in Turkey.
The Turkish-Emirati dialogue comes during a climate of general rapprochement in the Middle East. While it is unrealistic to expect the two countries to resolve all disagreements immediately, shared economic interests can encourage negotiations on many regional crises.
Geopolitically, their separate militaristic disillusionment of recent years has also united the UAE and Turkey. Both were overly confident in their aggressive foreign policy and have been on opposite sides in several conflicts, from Syria to Yemen to Libya. It is not predicted that these tensions will be resolved anytime soon. On the other hand, the political and economic burden caused by them has steadily increased.
Another factor leading to the UAE’s change of foreign policy strategy and its rapprochement with Turkey as a potential partner may have been the apparent withdrawal of the US from the region. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has sought to fill the resulting power vacuum with new allies, including Israel, which was without a doubt the biggest gamble for MbZ.
Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan too urgently needs to get out of the regional isolation he has maneuvered himself into. The UAE is very rich and has the resources to help Turkey with significant investments while also providing the country with short-term loans.
Finally, the rapprochement between MbZ and Erdogan reflects the changing situation in the Middle East, with the US again seeking to revive the Nuclear Talks with Tehran and bring back the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) shredded by former President Donald Trump in 2018. In the Emirati view, Iran is the greatest adversary due to its ongoing support of the Yemen Houthis responsible for the latest drone and missile attacks on Abu Dhabi.
In any case, the UAE has established itself as a significant player in the region and today undoubtedly understands how it can better utilize geopolitics and petrodollars instead of military force for its own greater benefit.
Thomas O. Falk is a London based freelance journalist, political analyst and commentator who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East. He has worked for Al Jazeera, The New Arab, il Giornale, and others.