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.
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.