By James M. Dorsey
Emiratis celebrated their failure to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations Security Council as the end of an era in which the Gulf state took its foreign policy cues from the United States. However, the Emiratis may be celebrating prematurely.
As the UAE took over from Russia this month as chairman of the Council, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist whose views often reflect thinking in official Emirati circles, said the UAE’s abstention in the UN votes "was consistent with the new UAE foreign policy activism, which stems from being confident of its decisions and its approach to global and regional politics."
Mr. Abdulla went on to say that "finally we are independent enough, competent enough to take this kind of position, which is consistent with our own way of doing things. Maybe it doesn't resonate too well in Washington, but that's the way things are going to be from now on."
Time will tell. It wouldn't be the first time that the UAE has made risky geopolitical bets that have backfired, such as its interventions in Yemen alongside Saudi Arabia and Libya. The interventions were part of a broader regional effort to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four autocrats, and to counter Islamists.
The Ukraine crisis could force Middle Eastern countries like the UAE to rethink their newly found positions in a twist of irony. The crisis is likely to demonstrate that they can only hedge so much to compensate for a perceived lessening of the United States’ commitment to their security and because of their significant economic ties to China.
In a double whammy, the Ukraine crisis potentially could spark tough security and alliance choices and another round of popular protest in what would be the second decade of defiance and dissent, sparked in part by grain shortages and rising food prices.
Even if protest in the UAE, one of the region’s wealthiest countries, is unlikely, Middle Eastern autocrats could well discover that like Ukrainians putting their lives on the line to stop the Russians, Middle Easterners can only be intimidated that much.
Recent protests in Jordan and Tunisia and the fact that the 2010s were bookended by protest and the toppling of leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen in 2011 and Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan in 2019/2020, illustrates the point.
Drought and reduced agricultural output that persuaded people to move from the countryside into cities is believed to be part of the fuel that drove anti-government protests in Syria in 2011, which sucked the country into a decade-long devastating and bloody war. Rising grain prices provoked riots in Egypt as far back as 1977. The Ukraine crisis could force Egypt to again risk a hike in bread prices.
Countries like Syria, Libya, Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt, the world's largest wheat buyer, rely on Russia and Ukraine for at least half of their wheat imports. However, those imports have been jeopardized by the closure of Ukrainian ports and the harsh sanctions imposed by the United States, Europe, and others on Russia.
Wheat prices rose this week to their highest levels since 2009. The hike came on the back of last year’s 27 per cent increase caused by supply chain problems and poor weather that has hit domestic crops in Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt.
In contrast to the United States, the UAE and Russia may see eye to eye on their perceived need to prevent or roll back popular uprisings like the Arab revolts or colored revolutions in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former communist world. Yet, that will not do much for the UAE's regional security needs if the Gulf state and the United States increasingly go different ways.
To be sure, strains in the US-UAE relationship have been evident for some time. For example, the UAE in December suspended talks on the acquisition of US-built F-35 jets, widely seen as the world‘s most advanced fighter plane.
Last month, the UAE announced that it was buying a dozen Chinese L15 training and light combat aircraft almost to the day that Russian troops crossed into Ukraine.
As the United States and Europe tighten the noose around Moscow’s neck, the UAE may find that diversifying economic relations is one thing, diversifying alliances another.
If Russian armed forces emerged a winner from propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, they've already wasted that reputation in Ukraine in less than a week of fighting. That is unlikely to change irrespective of the outcome of a battle for the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, particularly if Russia is dragged into fighting a long-drawn-out insurgency.
In addition, Russian military planning in Ukraine miscalculated, and advances were bogged down not only by Ukrainian resistance but also by equipment failures.
The UAE may pride itself on its courage to chart its course. The question is whether it can afford to stray too far away from what has become a problematic ally, the United States, given that the alternatives are Russia, a poorly performing international pariah, or China, a reluctant bear that is not yet up to the task of playing security guarantor and will ultimately demand its pound of flesh.
"If there is this post-American world, post-America Gulf, correspondingly there will be more of China. Less of America probably translates into also more of China, in the region and throughout, by the way,” said Mr. Abdulla, the political scientist.
Ultimately, he may be right. The UAE abstention in the Security Council ensured that Russia did not veto the extension of a Yemen arms embargo to include the Houthi rebels.
Even so, the issue of a rebalancing of global power is an issue of timing, of when rather than if. It’s not today, that’s for sure. But it's today that the UAE and other Middle Eastern states need to hedge their bets in ways that help them fend off immediate threats.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer