As tough neighbourhoods go, few would dispute that the Gulf region ranks high on the list. Three major interstate wars in as many decades (the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, the first Gulf war, and the Iraq war), great power competition and hegemony, the threat of nuclear proliferation (Iraq in the 1980s and now Iran), Islamic extremism (al Qa’eda attacks in Saudi Arabia), and state failure at their doorstep (Iraq, and more urgently, Yemen) have made local governments mindful of the need to use foreign policy to hedge against conflict, as unlikely as it seems.
Indeed, this regional context explains and shapes how the Gulf states define their interests and conduct their foreign policy. Their stability and success depend largely on how well they navigate these treacherous waters. Until recently, passivity and dependence on external actors for protection seemed a reasonable posture, but the threats have morphed considerably. External actors turned out to be more toxic and less competent, and the Gulf states have gained self-assurance in their own resources thanks to their new economic clout.
The focus is usually on Qatar’s hyperactive diplomacy or Saudi Arabia’s growing claim to Arab leadership. To be sure, the first has emerged as a mediator, albeit a controversial one, in places where traditional Arab diplomacy has failed. The second, an economic giant by Arab standards and an indisputable religious reference, remains a reluctant and cautious power.
And then there is the underreported yet similarly compelling story of Emirati diplomacy. That UAE policy is softly spoken should certainly not lead to its dismissal as just a variation of the irresolute diplomacy practised elsewhere in the Arab world. To the contrary, when measured in terms of its outcome, UAE diplomacy enjoys enviable success. Few countries in the Middle East can boast of having the same international standing or being so intensely courted by great powers. document.write(”);
The logic of UAE foreign policy is simple: it seeks greater integration in the global political and economic systems, in part to sustain its development and in part to advance its strategic interests. In exchange, the UAE expects these systems, and the key actors within them, to extend protection and recognition. But simplicity in purpose is balanced with sophistication in statecraft. The key has been to recognise that only by embracing globalisation and diversifying its international relationships can the UAE’s power and influence be leveraged. Indeed, the UAE understands it is no strategic giant. With a local population of less than a million, young institutions and a dynamic but still maturing economy, it needs to be creative in pursing its objectives. So, the reasoning goes, the denser the interactions between the UAE and its many partners are, the more they will accept and share the UAE’s objectives.
In that spirit, joint military exercises are conducted, large economic and infrastructure projects are granted to allied states, cultural and educational institutions are invited to settle here. When the UAE decided to make nuclear energy a key dimension of its development, it also saw an opportunity to polish its image as a responsible nation. The UAE nuclear programme, still in its infancy, is already considered a model for other nations interested in nuclear energy. Small states have always needed great power goodwill, but Abu Dhabi has taken strategic interdependence to a new level.
Indeed, the shift from conceptualisation to statecraft has taken only a few years. In all three Ds of national security (Diplomacy, Defence and Development), the UAE is doing better. Take the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, where the UAE deploys diplomatic muscle, development and humanitarian assistance and military resources all at once. The UAE is acutely aware of the moral imperative and strategic necessity of stabilising that volatile region, and has accordingly stepped up its role there. It was no surprise that a few weeks ago the Pakistani president met the US envoy in charge of the region in Abu Dhabi. The UAE’s co-ordination of the Friends of Pakistan group and its involvement in Afghanistan (250 Special Forces troops operating alongside Nato and over $500 million in bilateral aid) represent the most significant involvement in the region of all Arab states. This involvement allows the UAE to contribute to the strategic discussion, and by extension, to acquire credibility and leverage with Nato countries.
Likewise, when it came to recognising that Iraq’s new political realities were enduring, the UAE took the lead and dispatched the first Gulf ambassador to Baghdad. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi was one of the first and most senior Gulf officials to visit the Iraqi capital. With Iraq gradually re-entering the Arab arena and the US planning its draw down of forces, the UAE is well placed to influence this dual process.
A key UAE objective is to ensure that the process of engagement of Iran, as well as its outcome, does not ignore or compromise the UAE’s search for a settlement of the dispute over the three islands occupied by Iran in the Gulf. More importantly, the UAE wants to ensure that Iran is not given an unduly hegemonic regional role and that it ceases to be a security threat. To do so, the UAE needs to be active and relevant in western capitals where the rapprochement is being engineered. Judging by the access that the UAE Foreign Minister enjoyed during his visit to Washington last week and the upcoming opening of the French military base in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati views on Iran are being heard.
Of course, foreign policy activism comes with its share of frustration and scrutiny. Several countries have demanded that the UAE strengthen its exports control regime to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear and missile technology. This has proven a difficult balance for the UAE, which is a key trading partner of Iran. Yet, because a nuclear Iran is more of a concern to the UAE than it is to far away western nations, the UAE has been responsive to these concerns.
There are important issues in which the UAE is a peripheral player. The country has gone as far as possible to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative and sending its foreign minister on an unprecedented visit to the West Bank, but the UAE’s interest in peace in the Levant is ill-served by the continuing weakness of multilateral Arab diplomacy and timid US peacemaking efforts.
The UAE’s wishes may not always be heeded and its interests may not prevail all the time, but its foreign policy strategy has delivered more than just the right of sometimes being present in the room. It actually has a permanent seat at the table. The confidence of the country is rooted in the belief that it is giving every other actor a stake in its own success, that its foreign policy is fundamentally a win-win proposition.