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ISPI MED This Week | The UAE’s Return to a Diplomacy-First Foreign Policy

The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we turn the spotlight on the Emirates, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its foundation at a time of vibrant diplomatic dynamism at both the regional and international levels. Nonetheless, despite this new emphasis on promoting dialogue, several vital economic and security challenges are likely to at the top of the country’s agenda.

On December 14th, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, hosted Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, in the first-ever Israeli high-level visit to the UAE. This historic meeting conveys the latest outcome of the gradual consolidation of bilateral relations between the two countries, which began in 2020 with the “Abraham Accords” and progressively evolved into shared economic and security cooperation initiatives. Thus, more importantly, the visit represents just one indicator of the degree to which diplomatic engagement has moved to the forefront of Abu Dhabi’s regional policies —further epitomised by the ongoing Expo Dubai. Over the last few months, the UAE has indeed taken steps to enhance bilateral relations with traditional partners and, at the same time, engage — rather than confront — traditional regional competitors (such as Turkey and Iran). Yet, despite recent overtures, this diplomacy-first foreign policy goes hand in hand with several challenges that are likely to once again reach the top of Abu Dhabi’s agenda. Bennett’s visit thus signals  Israel’s concerns over the Emirates’ rapprochement with Iran — denoted by the UAE’s National Security Advisor’s rare visit to the Islamic Republic — and Abu Dhabi’s leading role in the Arab normalisation with Damascus. To maintain this ambitious foreign policy posture, the UAE also finds itself having to reconcile the development of economic ties with China with the preservation of its privileged alliance with the US and the European partners (chiefly France, which Abu Dhabi has just signed a significant arms supply agreement with).

Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the UAE’S renewed regional diplomatic engagement.

 

Bennett in Abu Dhabi: It’s all about timing

The timing of the Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s visit to the UAE is not accidental as there are two main reasons pushing him towards this unexpected visit at this specific time. First, the Vienna talks between Iran and the superpowers around a new nuclear agreement; second, the Israeli concerns from the UAE rapprochement to Iran. PM Bennett went to the UAE to strengthen their bond and show closeness between the two countries in front of the international community. The second motivation was that Bennett — in the aftermath of a family-related reputational faux pas — needed an international event to change the narrative around him and present himself as a significant contributor to the UAE-Israel relationship, previously formulated by his rival, former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Roie Yellinek, Non-Resident Scholar, Middle East Institute

 

The growing ties with Israel could spur tension in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia and the UAE describe their relationship as a deep strategic partnership rooted in similar objectives towards regional stability and prosperity. While they remain aligned on many issues, particularly related to their stances on political Islam and ambitious plans for economic diversification, there could be more significant divergence as the UAE becomes closer to Israel. In fact, reports emerged last month about Saudi efforts to pressure the UAE to abandon the massive energy and water deal it recently signed with Jordan and Israel and work instead with Saudi Arabia. The fact that the UAE went ahead with the deal may indicate prioritisation of enhancing ties with Israel at the moment and, in so doing, becoming a greater regional power, which could potentially spur tension with Saudi Arabia.

Courtney Freer, Visiting Fellow, Middle East Centre, LSE

 

“The interplay between diplomacy and economy”

For the UAE, this is not the season for open rivalries and zero-sum politics: the federation has refocused on diplomacy, as rapprochements (with Qatar) and de-escalation processes (with Syria, Iran, and Turkey) suggest. What’s at stake is the protection of the regional role the UAE has acquired after 2011 through a combination of political and military assertiveness. The UAE’s foreign policy is now primarily driven by the economy. Here, Expo Dubai epitomises the recalibrated image the federation aims to convey: a land of dialogue among different cultures and business-oriented connectivity: something that emphasises the “Dubai factor” in the UAE whilst concealing Abu Dhabi’s military side. It is worth noting that both the Emirati-Israeli-Jordanian agreement on renewable energies and the major deals with France (including Rafale fighter jets) were signed at the Expo to embody the interplay between diplomacy and the economy.

Eleonora Ardemagni, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI

 

The Emirati strategy in normalising relations with Syria

It’s hard to say what drives Syrian-Emirati relations. Secretive family elites run both countries. Formal channels won’t tell the whole story. Sure, they didn’t have an ambassador for a while, but Bashar’s sister lives on and off in Abu Dhabi. What to make of that?

The Emiratis now seem to think they can wean Assad off Iran—not fully, not even close, but a little bit—while countering Turkey. It’s also part of a recent general rebalancing of Emirati foreign policy, tuning things down and finding a new footing.

More fundamentally, though, it’s about Assad having won the war. If you’re a US or European president, it’s easy to be very principled about conflicts very far away. But if you’re an Arab ruler, Syria is in your neighbourhood. So, at some point, the Emiratis decided that if Assad won’t go away, they’re better off working with him.

Aron Lund, Researcher, Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI); and Fellow, The Century Foundation

 

A turning point in Turkish-Emirati ties

The November meeting between UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, the first in nearly a decade, marked a turning point in bilateral relations after a long rift that saw the two countries on the opposite sides of major regional crises. Mutual economic interests have been the main driver of this rapprochement. While Abu Dhabi is increasingly betting on economic diplomacy to foster its post-pandemic recovery, Ankara is looking for new investments and economic partners at a delicate time for its economy and fragile currency. The number of cooperation agreements signed between the two countries, a $10 billion fund allocated by the UAE for strategic investments in Turkey and talks about a possible swap agreement between central banks to build Turkish reserves and support a falling lira confirm the prevailing economic nature of the bilateral reconciliation. Although some bilateral knots persist at the political level within a changing region, both the UAE and Turkey share an interest in downscaling regional competition. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent visit to the UAE, which precedes Erdogan’s one in February, shows how committed both parties are in advancing down the path undertaken.

Valeria Talbot, Co-Head, MENA Centre, ISPI

 

A pivotal (yet challenging) partnership

The UAE has deployed significant efforts over the past few years to develop relations with China in a wide range of sectors, from energy and trade to new technologies, health, and security, too. At a time when it is seeking to diversify its relations away from its traditional Western partners, and when the global economic centre of gravity is increasingly shifting to Asia, Abu Dhabi sees this relationship with China as an important investment for the future. This fast-developing partnership has, however, raised concerns in the US, which started putting growing pressures on the UAE over its cooperation with Huawei for 5G networks, and more recently over rumours of a Chinese base in the UAE. While the relationship with the US remains crucial, the UAE refuses to be forced to choose, and its recent threat to pull out of the F35 deal reflects this posturing.

Camille Lons, Research Associate, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

 

Cultivating the relationship with Paris

The record sale of 80 Rafale fighter jets to the UAE is a reminder of the enduring French influence in Abu Dhabi. Emmanuel Macron builds on the legacy of his predecessors who, for several decades, cultivated these ties through arms sales (France remains the second arms supplier to the UAE), defense agreements, and the 2008 opening of a military base in the UAE. Both countries also share similar regional views around Egypt, Libya, or the Iranian nuclear crisis, to name a few. Finally, the deal reflects frustration from both countries vis-à-vis Washington: France was blindsided by the AUKUS alliance and the subsequent cancellation of its submarine contract with Australia, while UAE-US negotiations over the sale of the F-35 have been dragging on for months.

Jean-Loup Samaan, Associate Research Fellow, Turkey and Middle East Program, IFRI

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