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UAE's mastery of playing both sides against the middle has its limits

James M. Dorsey

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The United Arab Emirates has mastered playing both sides against the middle.

In the game’s latest iteration, the Gulf state earned significant brownie points in Washington this week by withdrawing a draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity.

Members of the Security Council sit during a meeting at the UN headquarters in New York. Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The replacement of the draft resolution, which if adopted would have been legally binding, with a non-binding statement by the Council’s president, backed by all members, including the United States, allowed the Biden administration to appear to be castigating Israel without creating a political storm.

Moreover, the UAE maneuver shielded President Joe Biden from potential allegations of hypocrisy as he focused attention on the first anniversary of the Ukraine war with his visit to Kyiv and in the United Nations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Joe Biden in Kyiv during Biden’s unannounced visit. Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

The UAE further helped Mr. Biden avoid deepening differences over Israel in his Democratic Party.

By tabling the resolution, in response to Israel’s authorisation of nine Jewish settler outposts in the occupied West Bank and planned mass construction of new homes in established settlements, the UAE put Mr. Biden in a Catch-22.

The United States would not have emerged from a Security Council vote smelling like roses, irrespective of whether it abstained or vetoed the resolution. Voting in favour was never an option.

A veto would have highlighted the question of why the US backs Ukraine against Russian occupation and is not as vigorous in opposing 56 years of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the longest occupation in post-World War Two history.

An abstention would have rattled Israel’s supporters and signaled that the Biden administration would seek to capitalise on mounting unease even among Israel’s staunchest backers about policies of the far-right government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu that threaten the independence of the country’s judiciary.

In a reflection of the unease, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, plans to visit Israel in the coming days, more because of concern about Mr.

Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul that this week passed its first reading in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, than Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

It wasn’t clear whether Mr. Schumer and his delegation would meet the Palestine Authority during their visit.

At the same time, the UAE was offering Mr. Biden a helping hand, and as the US president made his historic visit to Kyiv,The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese-made DJI drones were being sold to Russia via the UAE.

In a video posted in June on social media, one of many viewed by the Journal, a group of gun-toting, khaki-clad, pro-Russian volunteers in southern Ukraine said they were about to receive "heroic shuttles" -- a term for DJI drones -- from the UAE paid through Russia’s sanctioned state-owned Sberbank.

“The Mavic quadcopter drone made by China’s DJI has become a true symbol of modern warfare,” said Russian Army General Yuri Baluyevsky, who was cited in a Weibo post by Russia’s embassy in China. Photo: Shutterstock

Konstantin Kuznetsov, a gun dealer in Orenburg, Russia, who supplies the Russian military, said on social media that DJI drones were available in the UAE for 500,000 Russian rubles (US$6,800).

While the Chinese-manufactured drones are commercially available, the UAE is one the world's foremost surveillance states, in which it is unlikely that the sales to pro-Russian fighters would have gone unnoticed.

The disclosure of the drone sales came three weeks after a US Treasury Department official visited the UAE and other Middle Eastern nations to warn that they could lose US and European market access if they do business with entities subject to US sanctions.

Last month, the US sanctioned a UAE-based firm, Kratol Aviation, for support of the operations in Africa of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force linked to President Vladimir Putin that plays an important role in fighting in Ukraine.

The Journal report was the latest incident in which the UAE, like with the withdrawal of its Security Council resolution, has capitalized on its political capital in Washington, which was significantly boosted by its recognition of Israel in 2020, to pursue policies that diverge from the US approach.

The UAE’s expanding military cooperation with Israel further enhanced the Gulf state's political capital.

The UAE and Israel this week unveiled a jointly developed unmanned vessel that boasts advanced sensors and imaging systems for surveillance, reconnaissance, and the detection of mines.

Meanwhile, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed used this month’s devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey and northern Syria to further the Gulf state’s goal of returning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the international fold despite US opposition.

Earlier this month, Mr. Bin Zayed became the first senior Arab official to visit Damascus after the earthquake, his second trip to the Syrian capital in 16 months. He was followed within days by Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad meets with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, in Damascus Syria, in this handout released by SANA November 9, 2021. Photo: SANA/Handout via REUTERS

In a reversal of Saudi opposition to conciliatory moves toward Mr. Al-Assad, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said this weekend that Arab states agreed that isolating Syria because of its brutal conduct of the country’s civil war and ties to Iran was not working. Mr. Al-Saud advocated opening a dialogue with the Al-Assad regime.

Since Mr. Bin Zayed’s first trip to Damascus in November 2021, Mr. Al-Assad has visited the UAE and, this week, traveled to Oman.

Similarly, the UAE has so far flown under the radar in a European Parliament corruption scandal that implicates Qatar and Morocco in bribing deputies.

Belgian and Dutch media reports suggest that the UAE may also be implicated in the scandal and charged that it was not averse to using its financial muscle to persuade European parliament members to do its bidding.

Radoslaw Sikorski, a Polish assembly member, did not deny that he had received monies from and paid travel to the UAE but insisted that he had reported his ties to the Gulf state in line with European Parliament regulations.

So far, the UAE has successfully leveraged its political capital in Washington to hedge its bets to pursue an independent, at times opportunistic, foreign policy.

However, that may become increasingly tricky as the United States tightens its screws.

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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