The foreign policy of the United Arab Emirates offers a curious case study for scholars of international relations: a small state with a tiny population and historically little presence on the world stage, but with outsized – and seemingly ever-expanding – ambitions. Over the past decade, while consolidating its status as a regional financial center and international business hub, the UAE has quietly become a rising military power in the Middle East.
Since the watershed of the Arab Spring, the UAE has pursued an increasingly assertive and interventionist foreign policy, the effects of which are most evident in the Red Sea basin and Horn of Africa. Here, the UAE has sought to become a major political actor, maintaining a formidable military presence, handing out lavish economic aid and taking on the role of kingmaker and peace broker. Today, the UAE operates ports in four of the seven countries bordering the Red Sea (Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia), and military bases in Yemen, Eritrea and Somaliland.
The UAE has been ratcheting up its economic activities in the Red Sea basin as well. In 2000, Dubai government-owned, Dubai-based port operator DP World won a 20-year concession to operate the Port of Djibouti. Its efforts in Egypt began around a decade ago when it took over the operation, development and management of Ain Sokhna Port, crucial for being the closest port to the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Last year, it signed an agreement with the Suez Canal Authority to establish a company that would develop an area of 95 kilometers in the Ain Sokhna area. In Saudi Arabia, DP World operates the South Container Terminal at the Jeddah Islamic Port, and in 2017 it won a contract to develop the entire port, in support of Saudi Vision 2030 and the $500 billion NEOM mega project.
These port deals were won through negotiation, but elsewhere the UAE has employed more forceful measures. The UAE has used its heavy involvement in the Yemen conflict (as part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels) to expand its geopolitical power in the region. In 2015, UAE-backed forces seized the port of Aden – once the British Empire’s busiest port – from the Houthis. In 2016, the UAE captured the ports of Mukalla and Ash-Shihr, about 300 and 375 miles east of Aden, respectively, as well as two strategically-located islands in the Bab el-Mandab Strait. Emirati troops secured the Red Sea port of Mokha in 2017, and are now engaged in an amphibious assault on Hodeidah, the only major Yemeni port not yet under Emirati control.
But why has the UAE shifted from being a buyer of security to a supplier of it? It could be argued that the UAE’s foray into East Africa is due to the importance of the Red Sea as a vital artery for the transportation of the country’s hydrocarbon exports. Through its two narrow chokepoints – the Suez Canal in the north and the Bab el-Mandab Strait in the south – around 3.9 and 4.8 million oil barrels, respectively, flowed every day in 2016. Control of seaports, moreover, helps in opening markets, generating economic opportunities and, in times of conflict, projecting military power.
The Emirati leadership’s obsession with the threat of Islamism certainly plays a role. Not only does the ruling elite (particularly Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s de facto ruler) harbor a deep sense of enmity toward militant Islamists, it perceives them as an existential threat to its domestic authority. The UAE has likely been propelled to adopt a policy of direct intervention because a number of militant Islamist groups are currently active in East Africa, including the Bosaso-based Al-Ittihad al-Islami group, the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement, the Justice and Equality Movement and Al-Takfir wal-Hijra group in Sudan, and Al-Shabab in Somalia.
Yet, there’s more to it than that. The passing on of leadership in 2004 from Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the state, to his heirs, Khalifa and Mohammed, seems to be the real dynamic behind policy change. While Zayed favored dialogue, quiet diplomacy and non-entanglement in the quarrels of other states, his successors are more proactive and daring. Awash with cash and ambition, they have sought to turn the country into a regional power with outstanding military might, a little Sparta on the Persian Gulf.
Several regional developments have emboldened the Emiratis. These include the vacuum created by the debilitation of the Arab world’s heavyweights; the formation of a crescent of instability in Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemen; the ossification of the Gulf Cooperation Council; the shift in American geostrategic priorities; the UAE’s entanglement in the Yemeni conflict; and the rivalry with Iran. Still, in the oil-rich Gulf states, decision-making processes are highly personalized, leaders replace institutions, and ego-centered dynamics shape much of the political output. So without the change at the helm of the UAE, old perceptions and policies would have probably remained unchanged. Bent on punching above its weight, the UAE has under the new bold leadership become, as one researcher pointed out, “a small state with a big ego.” Its long arms have not only reached into the poorer states of East Africa, but also into Syria, Libya, Egypt and other Middle Eastern states.
Arab politics is undergoing massive changes. After decades of fixating on big states, researchers of the international relations of the Middle East ought to keep a close eye on small states, such as Qatar and the UAE, who are no longer young, vulnerable and inward-looking. While the big Arab states are becoming slow to think and act, these smaller states are dynamic, agile and highly influential. The UAE’s security policies in particular will continue to have a huge impact on developments in nearly all of the region’s hot spots, including Yemen, Libya, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Its success last month in effecting a rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, who had been engaged in hot and cold war for two decades, is the latest proof of that influence. A new regional order is on the rise.