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The UAE walks an ever-tightening geopolitical tightrope

James M. Dorsey



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The United Arab Emirates walks a geopolitical tightrope, juggling big power rivalries and mounting regional instability fuelled by the Gaza war.


This week’s visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin is Exhibit A.


UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Abu Dhabi [Abdulla Al Bedwawi. Photo: UAE Presidential Court/Reuters


Mr. Putin’s movements beyond the confines of Russia are restricted. Signatories of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court are obliged to arrest Mr. Putin against whom the court has issued a Ukraine-related international arrest warrant.


Visiting the UAE and Saudi Arabia was a safe bet. Neither country is a signatory to the Rome Statute.


Even so, Mr. Putin’s visit puts the UAE at odds with its foremost security partner, the United States, that wants its allies to implement Western sanctions against Russia for its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.


The UAE, like other Gulf countries, has done everything but.


Trade between Russia and the UAE increased by nearly 68% on the year to US$9 billion in 2022, according to Russian state news agency Tass. Russian exports to the UAE comprised US$8.5 billion of that total.


Some one million Russians visited the UAE last year.


Similarly, the United States has pressured the UAE to halt alleged arms supplies to the rebel Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan that has been fighting the country’s armed forces since April. The UAE denied supporting the RSF.


RSF celebrate in Gouz Abudloaa after the capture of migrants trying to cross into libya, surrounded by Toyota vehicles mounted with machine guns. Photo: Rashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images


The UAE, despite US designation of Emirati companies for violating sanctions against Russia, has so far successfully leveraged its value to the United States and Europe to ensure that it doesn’t rupture relations.


The UAE has earned brownie points in Washington with its recognition of Israel in 2020 along with Bahrain and Morocco, rejection of calls to break off diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in protest against the Gaza war, condemnation of the October 7 Hamas attack, and its support of the United States in Afghanistan.


The UAE is quietly positioning its Palestinian protégé, Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial Gaza-born former Al-Fatah security chief in the Strip opposed to Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as a potential compromise Gaza administrator once the guns fall silent.


In this file photo, former Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 3, 2011. Photo: AP


Of all the options for governing Gaza in the immediate aftermath of the war being discussed in world capitals few seem politically viable, making Israeli reoccupation a realistic possibility. With the United States and much of the international community ruling out Israeli reoccupation, Mr. Dahlan could emerge as an alternative.


Mr. Dahlan’s close associate, Samir al-Mashharawi, together with former Palestine Authority foreign minister Nasser Al-Qudwa, a proponent of political reform, met in Qatar this week with Hamas exile leaders Khaled Mishaal and Ismail Haniyeh.


Arab media reported that the discussion was intended to “come up with a political initiative based on a ceasefire and provide our people with some hope that matches the price paid by the victims.”


This week, signalling its intention to keep relations on an even keel, the Biden administration approved the $85 million sale of 18 AN/TPQ-50 radar systems to the UAE. The system is a counter-battery radar designed to identify and track incoming indirect fire, including rockets, artillery, and mortars.

AN/TPQ-50 radar systems. Photo: U.S. Army


“The UAE is a vital US partner for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East,” the Pentagon said in a statement, adding the “sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of an important regional partner.”


Beyond oil, trade, and Ukraine, Gaza figured high on Mr. Putin’s agenda. Arab media reports suggested that the UAE sought Russian assistance in moving Iranian militias in Syria away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in an effort to prevent a regional expansion of the Gulf war.


In October, the UAE warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to intervene in the war or allow attacks on Israel from Syrian soil. Preventing an expansion of the war is a key US and Emirati interest.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the capital, Damascus.Syrian Presidency Press Office / AFP - Getty Images file


The UAE played a key role in returning Syria to the Arab and Muslim fold after a decade-long suspension of Syrian membership of the Arab League because of its conduct of the civil war that was little different from the way Israel wages war in Gaza.


Mr. Assad’s participation in last month’s Arab and Muslim summit calling for a ceasefire displayed the same hypocrisy Western countries exercise in their different approaches to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.


Although not publicly mentioned, UAE concerns about increased Russian-Iranian military cooperation and UAE restrictions on the re-export to Russia of sensitive goods used for military purposes in Ukraine were certain to have come up in Mr. Putin’s discussions.


Mr. Putin will have been relieved that the UAE had yet to implement the restrictions even though it promised to do so in September when US, British, and European officials visited Abu Dhabi to voice concern about the Gulf country’s links to Russia.


The UAE said after the visit that it was considering introducing export licenses on certain technologies, including semiconductors.


The UAE insists that it restricts, as a matter of policy, the export and re-export of identified dual-use products to conflict zones and has a legal export control framework in place through which it continuously monitors dual-use exports.


Like in the case of Sudan, the UAE appears to implement policies towards conflict zones selectively.


Even so, the UAE’s top artificial intelligence company, G42, acknowledged this week that balancing relations with the United States and China was no longer an option. G42 is controlled by the UAE’s secretive national security adviser, Tahnoon bin Zayed.


“For better or worse, as a commercial company, we are in a position where we have to make a choice. We cannot work with both sides. We can’t,” G42 CEO Peng Xiao told the Financial Times.


Mr. Xiao, who renounced his US citizenship to become an Emirati national, said the company was phasing out Chinese hardware to ensure access to US-made chips.


US national security advisor Jake Sullivan cautioned Mr. Bin Zayed earlier this year about US concerns about G42’s close cooperation with Chinese companies, including Huawei, the telecommunications giant under US sanctions.


US officials warned their UAE counterparts that G42 could be sanctioned. Huawei provided G42 with servers and data centre networking gear.


Even so, a US Congressional Research Service report cautioned earlier this year that “the degree to which the UAE may leverage its ‘soft power’ in ways that are beneficial to US interests remains to be seen.”


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.


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