Keeping track of the power struggles and shifting alliances in the Middle East is no simple task, even for the most well informed. One of the leading experts on the Middle East, Steven A. Cook, recently returned from the Gulf and explains that Abu Dhabi, long in the background, is now emerging as one of the most important players in the region. The consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East, the war on extremism, and the Iranian nuclear crisis are profound. Subscribers should be advised to follow developments in the Emirates closely.
Back in the mid-2000‘s, Dubai was all the rage. Investors, powerbrokers, jet-setters, Iranian, Israeli and American spies, and virtually everyone else roamed the city as Palm Island was taking shape, the world’s tallest building was under construction, ex-pats enjoyed its indoor ski slope, and travelers took notice as its national airline gave new meaning to exclusivity.. The setting for two big budget Hollywood films, a major stop on the PGA, and with a well-known party scene, Dubai developed a reputation as “Vegas on the Gulf.”
It’s all relative, though, and Dubai’s good press took a hit with the global financial meltdown when its building binge imploded. Like a more pragmatic and responsible older brother, Abu Dhabi—located ninety minutes down the road to the southwest and the capital city of the confederation of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates—came to the rescue and bailed out a badly over-extended Dubai government in 2009 with an infusion of $10 billion. And also like a stern older sibling intent on teaching a lesson, Abu Dhabi exacted a pound of flesh, seeing to it that the crown jewel 2,722-foot tall Burj-al-Dubai was renamed to the Burj al-Khalifah for the Sheikh who is the President of the UAE and Emir of Abu Dhabi. Dubai is still flashy and maintains a certain go-go vibe, but the power dynamic in the Emirates and the Middle East has shifted. Abu Dhabi is now where all the action is.
Abu Dhabi’s leaders have long seemed content to have a low-key role in the Middle East, playing the junior partner to bigger and more influential regional powers. Although they were part of a Middle Eastern political order that made it relatively easier and less expensive for the United States to exercise its power in the Arab world, the Emiratis were neither drivers of regional crises nor central to their resolution. In more than two decades of intensive American diplomatic engagement and military intervention in the Middle East, American officials often went to Cairo, Riyadh, Amman, and Doha to elicit Arab support for war and peace, but rarely Abu Dhabi. The Emiratis did not seem to mind. They were part of the “logistical tails” of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as members of various coalitions of the willing, but Sheikh Khalifah and his predecessor lived behind the scenes. That all changed on February 11, 2011, when the Egyptian armed forces pushed Hosni Mubarak from power after almost three weeks of popular protests.
The demonstration of people power in Egypt and, in quick succession, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman, might have been hailed in the West as the “Arab Spring,” but in Abu Dhabi it was regarded with a deep sense of foreboding. The changes in the regional political order that the uprisings presaged, combined with the willingness of the United States and Europe to accommodate the emergence of Islamist political power, roused Abu Dhabi’s leadership from their previously passive approach to region. Although much of the commentary on the Arab world assumes that Riyadh has led the regional counterrevolution that has brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power in Egypt, isolated the Qataris, put the Muslim Brotherhood on the run, and led the way in a military response to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremists in the Middle East, the Saudis are actually playing a secondary role to Abu Dhabi. In an extraordinary change from past practice, the UAE has become the most influential player in the Middle East, using its vast financial resources and military power in an effort to shape events in the Arab world.
Much of this has to do with the rise of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan—known universally as “MBZ”—the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the commander in chief of the UAE’s armed forces. Sheikh Khalifah suffered a stroke last January and despite protestations that he is just fine, it is widely believed that MBZ is behind the Emirates’ foreign policy activism. There is very little room for nuance in the way Abu Dhabi views the present challenges and crises buffeting the Middle East. At the root of these problems are bad governance, sectarianism, and, in particular, the rise of Islamist forces unleashed as a consequence of the Arab uprisings. This view of the world was best articulated recently not by MBZ, but rather by Dr. Anwar Gargash, the influential Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, at the first annual Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, when he declared:
Over the past few years, the UAE has repeatedly warned about the growing threat extremist actors and ideologies pose to our region. While some of our allies thought that we were being too alarmist, the rise of Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] confirms the magnitude of the threat. Instead of becoming moderated through engagement, so called “moderate Islamists” are increasingly being drafted into the ranks of radical groups. This demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish between “moderate” and “radical” forms of ideological extremism.
…We need to acknowledge that these actors and their radical ideologies by their nature, cannot be moderated, manipulated, or contained. They are fundamentally opposed to the tolerant values and moderate agenda that unites [sic] us in the UAE with many of our international partners. To check them, we need to maintain a common front. We cannot fight extremism in one place while attempting to appease it in another for the sake of political expediency.
The resulting Emirati policy response has been unprecedented. Pilots from the UAE’s air force are taking part in operations against Daesh in Iraq and Syria as well as somewhat more mysterious attacks on extremists groups along the Egyptian-Libyan frontier. Moreover, due to the fighting in the Gaza Strip this summer between Israel and Hamas, the fact that Emirati forces were providing assistance to the Egyptian military battling a variety of extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula went overlooked. This kind of coordination could not have happened without the cooperation of the Israel Defense Forces, which points to another important aspect of Abu Dhabi’s approach to regional threats and challenges—alignment with Israel.
The fight against extremism is part of a broader geo-strategic approach to the region that requires Abu Dhabi and its partners in Riyadh to turn back the tide of the Arab revolutions, most importantly in Egypt. For the Emiratis, losing Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood meant losing Egypt in the all-important struggle with Iran. This is not to suggest that the Muslim Brothers were aligned with Tehran, but a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt represented a major blow to a regional alliance that had previously been effective in countering Iran. At the same time, the Emiratis do not expect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt to be able to provide tangible resources to thwart Iran’s malign influence. Rather, Egypt possesses history, population, culture, and knowledge—important attributes that the Gulf states do not have—that, from the perspective of the Emiratis collectively, constitute the strategic depth of the Arab world. The Emiratis believe that without Egypt, the Arab world is just a group of small, relatively weak countries. Thus, getting Egypt right is paramount.
Given the Emirati (and Saudi) view that Egypt is critical to their own stability and well-being, Abu Dhabi has been vociferous in its support for Sisi’s July 2013 coup d’état that brought down the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Rumors abound in Egypt that money from the Emirates somehow played a role in the events that led up to that dramatic outcome. In the difficult aftermath, the Emiratis, Saudis, and Kuwaitis refloated the Egyptian economy with at least $20 billion and counting. This money is an economic lifeline for Egypt, which was nearing a solvency crisis before the military’s intervention, but is also something much more. The billions that have poured in from the Gulf have shaped the trajectory of politics in Egypt and the region. With its support for Egypt’s coup and subsequent political process, the Emirates has staked out its position at the center of counterrevolutionary forces in the Middle East.
“In an extraordinary change from past practice, the UAE has become the most influential player in the Middle East, using its vast financial resources and military power in an effort to shape events in the Arab world.”
The Emiratis now sit in a highly influential position among the Egyptians, Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Israelis, all of whom have an abiding interest in rolling back Islamists (and their supporters in Qatar and Turkey) and Iran. Danger lurks for Abu Dhabi, however. In response to their unreserved efforts to confront and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, ISIS, and al-Qaeda as well as check the Iranians and their allies, the Emiratis have made many enemies. The relative openness of the Emirates makes them vulnerable to attack. In addition, Abu Dhabi’s virtual alignment with Israel carries with it a set of political and security risks. The January 2010 assassination on Mahmoud al-Mabhouh—a founder of Hamas’ military wing—in a Dubai hotel room was not only a cause for embarrassment, but threatened to bring Israel’s war with Hamas to Emirati soil. Most importantly, however, Abu Dhabi’s Egypt project is far from secure. Over the last four years, Egypt’s politics have turned in extraordinarily unexpected ways. Like the Qataris who faced a fierce backlash after their support for Mohammed Morsi, the Emirates are wagering on Sisi’s staying power. The percentages may be in his favor, but recent history suggests there is more risk than the numbers suggest.
There is a sense among the Emiratis that Abu Dhabi has had enough. It has watched developments in the Middle East with something just short of horror, expecting the United States to step in and confront the threats to regional stability. Instead, Sheikh Khalifah and MBZ have discovered that Washington has a different approach to the problems buffeting the Arab world—engagement, negotiation, and an effort to prod regional actors to do more. The Emiratis have gotten the message that the United States is not coming to the rescue and have taken matters into their own hands. The risk is, of course, that in their effort to shape regional events, Abu Dhabi has gotten in way over its head and will end up simply trying to throw money at problems as the Qataris did in 2011-2013, a path that did not end well for Doha. But for better or worse, the days of Abu Dhabi being a sleepy regional backwater are definitively over. Washington and the world should pay heed.
Steven A. Cook is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.