Gulf politics are on a rough edge. The effect of the global decline of the US has had a strong impact on the Gulf.
Following Saudi Arabia’s shift closer to Russia and China, and Qatar’s developing closer ties to Turkey and Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is now also giving signals of a shift away from its loyal ally Washington. To put it in solid terms;
1. Economic relations between the UAE and China are strengthening
UAE-China relations, which have been described by Ni Jian, the Chinese Ambassador to the Emirates, as “as deep as the ocean”, range in various areas from energy sector (China being the largest purchaser of the Emirati oil), to technology (the UAE is currently in a process of reaching an agreement with the Chinese company Huawei sanctioned by the US, to build 5G infrastructure over the country), and even agriculture (on Chinese-owned plantations near the Nazwa Desert, 50 kilometers away from Dubai, supply the food for many major cities in the UAE as well as the Emirates Airlines).
According to a Wall Street Journal report on November 19, the UAE and China are also planning to cooperate militarily. According to the report, the Chinese are planning to build a military base in the strategic Port of Khalifa, 30 miles north of Abu Dhabi. Although the local Emirati news sources deny such plans, it is still worth noting that the WSJ ventured to publish such a report.
2. Deepening relations between the UAE and Iran
It is a well-known, but not frequently mentioned fact, that Iran has managed to go around the American embargo through the United Arab Emirates. It is likely that the United States aims to at least control the routes that Iran uses when breaking the embargo.
On the other hand, UAE-Iran relations have not been very pleasant until now compared to their cooperation in trade relations. The two countries are on different sides in many conflicts throughout the region, particularly in the regions of Persian Gulf, Syria and Yemen. Likewise, the UAE’s developing relations with Israel is a source of distrust from Iran.
However, recent diplomatic traffic suggests that despite all the issues between Tehran and Abu Dhabi, there is a mutual will to get things back on track.
Dr. Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE President Zayed Al-Nahyan, explained this mutual will with the following statement; “We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s behavior in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, despite this we have taken steps to de-escalate tensions as we have no interest in a confrontation. The whole region would pay the price of such a confrontation for decades to come. (…) It will be a slow process, but we hope that over time we can build together greater confidence between us and start to make progress towards a more sustainable and mutually beneficial status quo.”
And it is clear that these developing relations between the UAE and Iran are causing discomfort in Washington. On the other hand, the issue of how the UAE administration will achieve a balance between Iran and Israel, is a topic of debate that will certainly come up in the coming days.
3. Normalization with the Syrian government
The UAE has been one of the countries that has publicly backed the Syrian opposition since the beginning of the war in Syria back in 2011.
The situation changed after the Syrian Army regained control over much of the country. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit to Damascus on November 9 also suggests a change in policies.
Mutual evaluations of the political and trade relations between these two countries in this meeting has been reported by the press.
Although some sources reported that the UAE’s reconciliation with Syria is a part of a politics of balancing Turkish and the Iranian influence in post-war Syria, alongside the Emirati claim of regional leadership, this visit still caused discomfort for Washington.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated that “they are concerned” about the meeting that took place between Assad and Al-Nahyan.
4. Re-establishment of relations with Turkey
Turkey and the UAE have taken opposing sides in many clash zones in the Middle East, such as Egypt (the 2013 overthrow of Mohammed Morsi) and the Libyan crisis.
The ties between these two countries were completely cut off after the UAE’s support for the July 2016 CIA-FETO coup attempt.
However, the UAE has also added Turkey to its recent diplomatic reconciliation campaign.
On August 18, UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan visited Turkish President Erdogan.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan is also expected to visit Ankara on November 24.
When these diplomatic efforts are taken all together, it is clear that the UAE is attempting to normalize its relations with Turkey, another country that has recently experienced tension with the United States.
Why is the UAE seeking an alternative to the United States?
Regional sources point to three different, yet complementary, points of contention between the United States and the UAE;
Although many rumors have been circulating, regional sources point to these 3 key factors;
1. Like the rest of the world, the UAE’s administration is also aware that the United States is in a global decline, and thus wants to maintain its claim to regional leadership in the near future, and is therefore currently shifting towards a multipolar foreign policy approach.
2. There are comments that Abu Dhabi’s administration is seeking alternatives especially after Israeli has rejected the UAE’s pipeline project offer. Hence, the UAE is currently trying to negotiate with Turkey and Iran to find an alternative energy route.
3. The most solid of these assessments concerns a dispute between the US administration and the UAE regarding Belarus. The United States is allegedly calling on Abu Dhabi to end its investments in Belarus through Saudi Arabia, who is considered the region’s “leader of the pack”. However, this call from the US has not been accepted by the UAE yet. A company belonging to the Emirati Royal Family that does business in Belarus being added to a US sanctions list, and Belarusian President Lukashenko’s proposal of the UAE as the mediator in the refugee crisis with Europe are some clues that point to this.
When we consider all these developments in the Gulf centered around the UAE, we can see that the vacuum left by the recession of the United States is already filled with new alliances, relations and policies, just like in the rest of the world.
As the centrifugal effect of US’ decline continues, new opportunities for regional cooperation in West Asia will continue to emerge.