Like other Persian Gulf monarchies looking to fill the US vacuum in their region, the UAE is striking up new relationships elsewhere.
In what is essentially a hegemonic battle between Washington and Moscow in a third country, the conflict in Ukraine has been called the worst European war since 1945. But the US has been unable to garner the military, diplomatic, and economic support it has come to expect from some of its allies. In this crisis, some of Washington’s closest friends have decided to take a pass.
The UAE is a key US strategic partner in the Persian Gulf region, and yet it abstained from voting in a critical US-led draft UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution condemning Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine. The move came as a shock to observers, even though the Gulf state did subsequently back a resolution at the UN General Assembly on 2 March.
“Our voting will always reflect our foreign policy: diplomacy, de-escalation, focusing on dialogue, focusing on the cessation of hostilities. That’s our foreign policy principle as well,” said Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, the UAE ambassador to the United Nations.
The UAE’s initial abstention should not seem so extraordinary. In the recent past, Emiratis have witnessed Washington’s reluctance to support them during moments of crisis, such as the unprecedented retaliatory strikes against Abu Dhabi by Yemen’s Ansarallah forces earlier this year.
Shifting away from the US
The US showed its lack of willingness to actively defend the security of Persian Gulf monarchies as early as September 2019, when Ansarallah launched a sophisticated drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s ARAMCO oil facilities.
Riyadh expected then president Donald Trump to rally behind the country, but when asked whether further support to the kingdom would be provided, he responded: “No, I haven’t promised the Saudis that … We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out.”
This incident also served to raise questions in the UAE over US commitment and ability to continue as the guarantor of security in the Persian Gulf. Abu Dhabi also recognizes that President Biden has shifted his foreign policy priorities to East Asia – specifically focusing on curtailing China’s ascendency – as well as to the Russian sphere of influence.
This gradual ebbing of US interest has created a security vacuum in West Asia, opening the door to rival powers China and Russia.
Consequently, the UAE has quietly sought to diversify its security resources as part of a new national strategy. It has divided these priorities into two phases: “relying on security diversification” and “de-escalating tensions with neighbors.” Interestingly, the US appears to have lost its influential position in these rapidly developing security re-arrangements.
The UAE has shifted its attention to engaging rising powers and economies elsewhere, many of which are distanced from Washington’s geopolitical imperatives and worldview. And, in some cases, these interests have notably been more aligned with Russia’s priorities. In Libya, for example, Abu Dhabi and Moscow have supported General Khalifa Haftar, while in Ethiopia, the Emiratis have coordinated with Russia.
Recent events in Syria illustrate Abu Dhabi’s new interests more clearly. An important Russian strategic ally, Syria managed to thwart the western and Gulf-backed war on its country with critical military assistance from Russia and Iran.
In 2011, the UAE severed diplomatic ties with Damascus and actively began support for foreign and Syrian opposition militants in the decade-long conflict. As the war turned against their favor, the Emiratis made a notable shift to revise their Syria policy in 2018. They have since remained at the forefront of normalization efforts with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, reinforcing speculation about Syria’s eventual return to the Arab League.
During a November visit to Damascus, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed emphasized the “UAE supports all efforts made to end the Syrian crisis, consolidate stability in the country, and meet the aspirations of the brotherly Syrian people.”
The US firmly disapproved of the high-level reconciliation effort by its UAE ally. “We are concerned by reports of this meeting and the signal it sends,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a regular press briefing. “As we’ve said before, this administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad, who is a brutal dictator.”
Yemen is another source of antagonism between the UAE and the US. The Ansarallah drone and ballistic missile attacks on Abu Dhabi in January exposed the UAE’s carefully crafted image as a safe country for tourism and foreign investment, demonstrating, instead, how quickly these assets could be compromised.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the UAE asked the US to reinstate Yemen’s Houthis onto its list of terrorist organizations, but the Biden administration responded only by sending limited military support.
This snub may have unintended consequences for Washington: according to a report on Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal, leaders of both oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the UAE declined calls with Biden during the ongoing military crisis in Ukraine, in which the need to secure alternate non-Russian energy sources has become crucial for western powers.
Then, on 28 February, Russia cast a surprise vote in favor of a UNSC resolution to renew an arms embargo and sanctions against the Ansarallah movement – and consolidated, for Emirati officials, a growing view of Moscow as a reliable partner. The move prompted denials by both countries that they had privately negotiated a vote swap at the UNSC, in light of the UAE abstention on Ukraine.
Just days earlier, the foreign ministers of both countries had held a phone call in which they discussed a “strategic partnership” between Russia and the UAE.
Abu Dhabi is also increasingly seeking diversification in its military purchases away from dependence on US weapons sales, restrictions, and rapid policy fluctuations.
In September 2021, the US withdrew its most advanced missile defense system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia amid ongoing attacks from Yemen.
This sense of abandonment by its old ally has also been keenly felt in Abu Dhabi. After the September 2020 signing of the controversial Abraham Accords which normalized UAE and Bahraini relations with Israel, Trump agreed to sell fifth-generation fighter jets to Abu Dhabi as a reward. But Biden altered the terms for the sale of F-35 military aircraft, a move that angered the Emiratis and led to their suspension of the $23 billion contract.
Instead, the UAE placed an order for 80 Rafale fighter jets, strengthening economic and diplomatic ties with France through a $19.20 billion arms deal. The weapons order from France was a further indication of the Emirati strategy of diversifying its economic, military, and diplomatic relations.
In recent years, Persian Gulf monarchies have become more open to adopting the “look East” policy and re-strengthening ties with major Asia powerhouses like China, Russia, and India.
With the global turmoil in global oil and energy markets and the US foreign policy shift from West Asia to China and Russia, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, as in the case of the UAE, have come to realize that they must invest in Asia, and resist pressures from Washington to take sides.
As noted earlier, just one day before Russia’s military incursion into eastern Ukraine, Abu Dhabi and Moscow were on the phone discussing enhancements in “cooperation across various fields.”
Trade between Russia and the UAE reached around $4 billion last year, and more than 4,000 offices in the UAE have been opened by Russian companies. In November, the UAE and Russia signed a declaration of intent to form a task force to strengthen cooperation in the energy sector, particularly in clean energy.
The UAE’s Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology is also collaborating with Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade to develop hydrogen fuel technology to achieve a carbon-neutral industrial sector.
The blossoming Emirati-Russian relationship has US officials concerned. On 24 February – the eve of the UN Security Council vote – US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken asked his Emirati counterpart to secure Abu Dhabi’s approval and cast a vote in Washington’s favor.
The next day, the UAE (which currently holds a non-permanent seat in the UNSC) instead joined India and China in abstaining on the resolution to condemn Russia.
The UAE “believes that taking sides would only lead to more violence,” tweeted Anwar Gargash, the influential diplomatic adviser to UAE President Khalifa Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, after the voting concluded.
UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba acknowledged that the relationship between Abu Dhabi and Washington was going through “a stress test,” but expressed confidence both would “come out of it.”
The UAE at a crossroads
Although the UAE has pursued an independent policy in the Ukraine crisis, continuing on this path will not be an easy task. Emirati officials know that neither Russia nor China are willing or able to completely fill the US vacuum, as things stand today, and that they need to strike a balance between the two sides.
This balancing act has its pitfalls. On Wednesday, Al-Otaiba told the Financial Times: “We favor production increases and will be encouraging OPEC to consider higher production levels.”
His statement may have come under intense US pressure to open up Gulf spigots, drive down oil prices, and increase supply of non-Russian energy sources.
Oil prices plummeted dramatically after the comment by the Emirati ambassador to Washington. But, by the next day, the UAE backtracked with a statement from Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei which reinforced his country’s commitment to OPEC+ (OPEC plus Russia) decisions not to raise production significantly.
At any rate, an Emirati bump in oil production would not have significantly impacted supply dynamics. The UAE has just about one million barrels a day of so-called spare capacity, while the Saudis have about two million barrels of spare capacity a day. Without the help of Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi alone would not be able to compensate for the drop in oil supply.
OPEC’s secretary-general warned this week that there was “no capacity in the world at the moment that can replace seven million barrels [a day] of exports” from Russia. Therefore, even with the help of Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely that prices will be adjusted in line with US desires.
“We no longer need a green light from America or any other western capital to decide on our national interest,” said Emirati political science Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, according to the Financial Times.
“We are not with or against – that is the position,” Abdulla explained. “If America is upset, it will just have to level with that.”