For some time, Mohammed bin Zayed – Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates – has stood out as one of the main supporters of the anti-Iranian stance adopted by President Trump, as well as a key ally of Saudi Arabia in the fight against Tehran, especially in the Yemeni civil war.
But recently something has changed between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia regarding the war in Yemen, and with Washington in reference to Iran. The escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf has worried the Emirates, which, although intent on maintaining strong regional and international alliances – in particular with the United States – have launched a new strategy in the region, necessary to avoid it becoming a theatre of war between Washington and Tehran, and thus safeguarding its national interests.
Barring minor adjustments, the basic objectives of the UAE would remain the same: to reduce the power of Iran and defeat the Houthis in Yemen. To change would be the methods to implement these objectives, in light of two facts which have arisen: the decision of Congress to end US involvement in the Yemen war – despite the veto posed by Mr Trump – and the growing threat from Iran.
A new strategy
Part of this new Emirati strategy would be to avoid a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran, offering itself as mediator in the tensions that are raging in the Persian Gulf. In July, the Emirates sent a delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime and regional security.
Additionally, unlike the United States and Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi has not directly accused Iran of being responsible for the incidents in June in which oil tankers off the Gulf country were attacked, pushing instead to reduce tensions through a diplomatic solution.
Another fundamental aspect is the reduction of the Emirati military presence in Yemen. In July, Abu Dhabi withdrew some troops from the governorate of Aden (located in the south of the country), and from the coastal area. Among the reasons for this is certainly international scepticism of the violence to which both sides resorted in the war in Yemen and which caused numerous civilian casualties, and also the need to gather troops in the event of the outbreak of war in the region.
Here, the Emirati strategy is very clear. The objective in Yemen remains the same and will be carried out thanks to the presence of the Emirates’ proxies – the Security Belt paramilitary forces and the Southern Transitional Council – giving precedence to diplomatic routes, which require fewer economic and military resources and improve their reputation within the international community, instead of direct intervention.
Something is changing towards Israel too. Formally, Israel and the United Arab Emirates do not have diplomatic relations; in recent years, however, the two countries are increasingly tightening links, driven by their common concerns about Iran.
In July, Israeli foreign minister Yisrael Katz visited the Gulf country, and in August the Wall Street Journal revealed that, in recent months, the United States has organized a series of secret meetings between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to strengthen anti-Iranian diplomatic, military and intelligence cooperation.
According to a recent investigation, in the last decade, the Emirates have been working to tie up an $846 million deal with Israeli entrepreneurs to buy so-called “spy planes” from Israel in order to monitor Tehran’s actions.
The reasons for the change
According to Yoel Guzansky, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, at least three reasons would have led the Emirates to review their regional strategy.
Above all, Abu Dhabi needs to exit the Yemeni civil war, which is proving to be a drain on resources and which risks leaving an indelible stain on the country’s reputation, especially in the eyes of the United States.
Furthermore, the Emirates need to concentrate diplomatic and military efforts on Iran, with the dual objective of guaranteeing the security of the Gulf and reassuring foreign investors, which Abu Dhabi greatly relies on.
Finally, according to Guzansky, Mr Trump has proved to be an unstable ally for the Middle Eastern powers, more intent on pursuing internal political interests than in working with allies, including on matters of security. The change of the UAE’s position, therefore, is due to the awareness that the US is no longer the reliable guarantor of security that it once was, and to the Gulf Country’s need to independently guarantee its own economic interests.