by Samuel Ramani
The writer is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to The Washington Post and The Diplomat.
On July 26, 2017, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba declared that the triumph of secularism in the Arab world was the foundation for the long-term peace and stability in the Middle East. This pronouncement distinguished the UAE from Qatar, which has been isolated from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for its alignment with Islamist
Over the past six months, the UAE’s commitment to supporting secular forces in the Middle East has become the dominant driver of its foreign policy agenda. By attempting to isolate Qatar from the regional system, carrying out military operations in Yemen and urging Saudi Arabia to abandon its lingering Islamist allies, the UAE has developed a dual containment strategy aimed at reducing the influence of Sunni Islamist networks and Iran-backed Shiite militant groups. This dual containment strategy also seeks to complete the UAE’s transformation from being a
The UAE’s efforts to undercut Qatar’s influence over Middle East affairs are a crucial prong of its dual containment strategy, as Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed regards Qatar’s links to Islamist groups and robust diplomatic relations with Iran as threatening to regional stability. To force Qatar to suspend these activities, the UAE has used coercive diplomacy against Doha. The UAE has stringently enforced the GCC blockade against Qatar and attempted to destabilize the Qatari financial system by spreading negative information that undermines international investor confidence in Qatar’s economy.
With the exception of Qatar’s decision to suspend its military links with Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood faction al-Islah, the UAE’s coercive diplomacy strategy has been largely ineffective. In recent months, Qatar has expanded its trade links with Iran, withstood U.S. pressure to close its Taliban office in Doha, and continued providing assistance to Hamas-backed institutions in the Gaza Strip.
To counter these negative developments, the UAE has used its lobbying presence in the U.S. to convince Trump administration officials to label Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood factions as terrorist organizations, and pressure Qatar to suspend its Taliban links. Even though Qatar has successfully withstood the blockade and maintained close relations with Washington, UAE officials believe that concerted diplomatic pressure will neutralize the threat posed by Doha to its vision for a Middle East regional system ruled by secular authoritarian regimes.
The UAE views Yemen as another crucial theater to implement its foreign policy
The UAE provided military support for former President Ali Abdullah Saleh before his death in Dec. 2017, because Abu Dhabi viewed Saleh’s history of pragmatically balancing the interests of Yemen’s numerous sectarian groups as a useful experience for Yemen’s eventual political reconstruction. Since Saleh’s death, the UAE has attempted to unite Yemen around a secular nationalist coalition led by the country’s internationally recognized President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
To increase Abu Dhabi’s influence over conditions in Yemen and facilitate the return of secular authoritarian rule to Yemen, the UAE has used military force to carve out enclaves of territorial influence in Yemen. The UAE’s strong ties to south Yemeni nationalist movements and rapidly strengthening presence in Yemen’s oil-rich Hadhramaut region gives it an independent power projection base in Yemen, as Saudi Arabia predominantly carries out airstrikes on Yemen’s northern borders. The UAE’s enclave creation strategy has advanced its strategic
In addition to launching military strikes, the UAE has used diplomacy to convince Yemeni Islamists to accept a political settlement. On Dec. 13, Mohammed bin Zayed met with al-Islah chairman Mohammed Abdullah Al-Yidoumi to convince the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood to suspend its destabilizing activities and cooperate with the UAE against the common Houthi threat.
The UAE has also used clandestine diplomacy to encourage divisions within the Houthi rebel movement. These covert diplomatic initiatives achieved a major success on Jan. 8, when Sheikh Hamir Ebrahim, a prominent Houthi commander in western Yemen’s Hodeidah province, urged his forces to defect to the GCC coalition. As public support for the Houthis continues to wane, the UAE is hoping that similar defections will occur, strengthening the hand of its secular authoritarian coalition.
Even though the UAE’s unilateral efforts to isolate Qatar and undercut Islamist factions in Yemen are integral to the implementation of its dual containment strategy, Abu Dhabi has carefully combined these unilateral actions with close bilateral coordination with Saudi Arabia. The UAE regards Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s willingness to create a “moderate Islamic” Saudi state as a positive step, and Emirati officials have tried to convince their Saudi counterparts to extend this secularization rhetoric to the foreign policy sphere.
The UAE’s efforts to secularize Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and advance its dual containment strategy through bilateral cooperation have achieved notable successes. The UAE’s condemnations of Qatar’s links to Hamas were strongly supported in Saudi Arabia. This rhetorical support encouraged Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to cooperate closely on promoting the Oct. 2017 Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement. Although Saudi Arabia’s military alliance with al-Islah continues to frustrate UAE policymakers, Mohammed bin Salman participated in Mohammed bin Zayed’s Dec. 13 talks with senior al-Islah leaders on restoring political stability in Yemen.
Even though the UAE’s foreign policy orientation is less overtly sectarian than Saudi Arabia’s, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have reached common ground on opposing Iran’s belligerent activities in the Middle East. In recent months, the Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance has drawn attention to the security threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile
Despite this rising collaboration, the UAE is more willing than Saudi Arabia to engage diplomatically with moderate Shiite factions and remains opposed to Riyadh’s policy of indiscriminately arming Sunni militants against pro-Iran forces. Nevertheless, sufficient common ground has been reached between the UAE and Saudi Arabia to allow for the implementation of a synthesized dual containment strategy.Since the outbreak of the Qatar crisis in June 2017, the UAE has implemented unilateral and multilateral initiatives to contain the influence of Iranian military proxies and Islamist groups in the Middle East. By embracing a staunchly secular vision for the Middle East regional system, the UAE has devised a foreign policy strategy that is independent
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.