The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has witnessed foreign policy steps recently that many consider as turning points in its approaches to the outside world. The UAE National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visits to Turkey and Qatar in August has highlighted such a change. These visits represented a sudden breakthrough in the UAE’s relations with both countries, considered tense in recent years. So, what has led to this turning point? What are its underlying factors? What is its future?

Attributed factors

Several variables have played a significant role in the UAE reconsidering its foreign policy. The first factor has been the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout on regional economies.

The second factor is the arrival of a Democratic administration in the White House in January 2021. The new administration’s approach toward the region is different from the Trump administration. It was keen to calm down tension in the region, support settlements of regional conflicts, and reduce polarization. These approaches parallel more strategic US approaches related to reducing Washington’s military footprint in the region. Most importantly, all countries in the region perceive that they can no longer depend on the US to ensure balance, guaranteeing regional security and stability.

Third, most countries in the region understand that regional polarization, be it the Turkish-Qatari axis, the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian-Bahraini alliance, or the Iranian axis, has harmed regional stability and affected political and economic resources for all of these countries. Most importantly, these polarizations have reached a stalemate and no longer achieves objectives in the interest of all parties. Therefore, a push was made for reconciliation in the Gulf during the Al-Ula Summit in January 2021 and Turkish-Saudi, Turkish-Egyptian, Iranian-Emirati, and Iranian-Saudi bilateral dialogues.

A key variable that cannot be ignored is the signing of the Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel on September 15, 2020. The UAE sees this agreement as a new approach to conflicts in the Middle East based on dialogue and building on mutual interests and prosperity.

The new approaches

The first approach is to fix relations with divergent or competing countries in the region by agreeing on common issues and mutual interests, enhancing cooperation in these fields, and holding dialogue on contested issues and attempts to overcome the zero-sum game. This approach was evident in Sheikh Tahnoun’s visit to Ankara and his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 18, 2021. During the visit, Erdogan said that the UAE will “make serious investments in Turkey soon.” [1] The meeting was followed by a phone call between Erdogan and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces, on August 31, 2021.

Sheikh Tahnoun also visited Doha on August 26 and met with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. This was the first visit by any UAE official to Doha since the boycott of 2017. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, also met with the Emir of Qatar on the sidelines of the Baghdad Cooperation and Partnership Conference. After the meeting, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed tweeted: “Prince Tamim is a brother and a friend…the Qatari people are relatives…the Gulf destiny is one, it was and will remain.” [2]

The second approach relates to de-escalating regional tension and polarization by supporting efforts to stabilize the region and take initiatives for dialogue to resolve disputes in the region. The UAE supports dialogue between Turkey and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Iran. The UAE has also adopted a de-escalation policy with Iran by signing a memorandum to enhance cooperation in maritime security in August 2019.

The UAE has supported the Vienna talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. It has also sent positive signals to the government of President Ibrahim Raisi. A meeting between His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid was also held with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Abdollahian on the sidelines of the Baghdad Cooperation and Partnership Conference on August 28, 2021.

The third UAE foreign policy approach has been to preserve the partnership with Saudi Arabia on regional issues. The UAE is keen not to abandon this advanced relationship with Riyadh. It wants to continue the constructive dialogue, constant communication between the two countries’ leaderships, and consistent coordination on regional issues.  This approach was observed during the row in July when the UAE opposed the extension of the OPEC+ output deal, which kept Abu Dhabi’s former production baseline. The two countries were able to overcome the disagreement and reach a new deal. [3]

In light of the decisions taken by Riyadh last summer related to its economy, perceived by many observers as a threat to the UAE economy, it seems that the UAE’s decision-makers have understood the economic grounds behind such decisions. Abu Dhabi has not looked at these decisions as a threat but rather as new competition that would prompt the UAE to make more efforts to maintain its regional leadership. In this broader context came the UAE’s unprecedented decisions to grant citizenship and long-term residency to investors, scientists, talented individuals, and specialists residing in the country to enhance development and promote economic and investment environments. [4]

The fourth trend demonstrates that the country’s foreign policy should be driven by one main priority, i.e., the economy. The UAE’s diplomatic advisor, Dr. Anwar Gargash, reaffirmed this concept when he said: “The UAE is continuing to build bridges and consolidate relations and priorities of prosperity and development. It is the vehicle of our foreign policy.” [5] This goal is also mentioned in the document ‘Principles of the 50’ – announced by the UAE on September 5, 2021. The document is a roadmap of the country’s new political, economic, and social development era in its 50th anniversary year.

The third principle in the document states that the UAE’s foreign policy is a tool to serve larger national objectives, the most important of which is the country’s economic interests. It says that the goal of political engagements is to serve the economy. The document reaffirmed the first two foreign policy trends stating in the fifth principle that developing stable and positive political, economic, and social relations with countries in the region is one of the most important priorities of the UAE’s foreign policy. The tenth principle in this document says that calling for peace, harmony, negotiations, and dialogue to resolve political disputes is the basis of the UAE’s foreign policy. [6]

The future of the UAE foreign policy

“The UAE’s latest diplomatic and political action suggests that the country has entered a new political stage in which it seeks to build bridges and optimize common grounds and interests with friendly and brotherly countries to ensure regional stability in the coming decades,” said Dr. Anwar Gargash. [7] While some observers perceive the UAE’s latest diplomatic and political action as a retreat, it is unlikely to change the UAE policy goals. Instead, it would more reflect a shift in its orientations, means, and tools. At the same time, the country continues to support regional stability, focusing on economic reconstruction, and developing the economic model.

Although the UAE has sought to break the ice in its relations with regional rivals, particularly with Turkey and Qatar, and de-escalate tension with Iran, this does not reflect a total harmony of views with these countries on controversial issues. The UAE’s new foreign policy approach expands mutual interests with these countries, particularly on trade and economy, and cooperates on regional issues on which their views converge. The controversial issues can be managed through constructive dialogue while avoiding friction and military clashes.

Due to Washington’s strategic trend to disengage from the Middle East, and restructure its military footprint, the UAE has realized that regional countries are called upon more than ever to join forces – bilaterally and multilaterally – to enhance regional security and stability. The country has taken several initiatives keeping in mind its dynamics and its resilient foreign policy. Therefore, the UAE’s “political detour” appears not to be a temporary and tactical step but a strategic trend within a broader geostrategic context.

Endnotes

[1] Erdogan: The UAE will “make serious investments in Turkey soon,” Anadolu News Agency, Aug. 18, 2021. https://bit.ly/38PrWAs

[2] Mohammed bin Rashid meets Emir of Qatar in Baghdad, Al Bayan newspaper, Aug. 28, 2021. https://bit.ly/3l1aBdv    

[3] The UAE affirms its support for the new OPEC+ deal, thanks to Saudi Arabia. Russia Today, July 18, 2021.   https://bit.ly/3BOPX7g

[4] UAE adopts amendments to grant citizenship to investors and other professionals, including scientists and doctors. France 24, Jan. 30, 2021. https://bit.ly/2WYwLoD

[5] See https://bit.ly/3jOkAUe

[6] Shaping the UAE future…these are the 10 principles of the charter of the 50. Arabic. CNN, Sep. 5, 2021. https://cnn.it/3BOmBG8

[7] Advisor of UAE President comments on the phone call between Erdogan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Al Hurra.com, Aug. 31, 2021. https://arbne.ws/3nkbCQy

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