The Rise of the United Arab Emirates

By harnessing national confidence, proactively dealing with regional security concerns and exercising geopolitical cooperation, the UAE is positioning itself as a regional powerhouse.

An H-2A rocket carrying the Hope Probe, developed by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the Mars explore, lifts off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, July 20, 2020. Reuters.

In a span of less than fifty years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has transformed itself from being a small rentier state ruled by the United Kingdom into a modern society running a highly diversified economy and a key regional power with a vast network of global friends and partners. 

 As the country prepares to celebrate its fiftieth year of independence on December 2, 2021, the once disunited and marginal state is now recognized as a rising middle power and the second biggest Arab economy. 

Political analysts call a middle power a state with sufficient ability to shape regional and global events. This is certainly true in the UAE’s case.

The nation has a formidable military which is strong enough to give the Gulf country the moniker the “Sparta of the Arab world”. According to Bloomberg, the UAE, which now manufactures and exports its own arms, has confirmed its first sale of air defense missiles to German security contractor Rheinmetall AG.

Yet lately, some observers of Arab Gulf affairs have noticed that the UAE may be reassessing its active regional role, scaling down its foreign military footprint, withdrawing its forces from Yemen, halting aid to the Libyan National Army, and dismantling its air and naval base in Assab, Eritrea. These same observers assume that the Emiratis have come to the conclusion that the era of the UAE’s rise as an influential player in regional power politics is coming to an end.

However, it is important not to be too hasty to eulogize the UAE’s role in the world, especially in the Middle East’s two main hotspots, Libya and Yemen. In Yemen, the UAE remains a major political power both in the north and the south of that Arabian Peninsula nation. Meanwhile in Libya, the UAE has been engaged and yet moderate in its activities.

Even if the UAE is scaling down its military footprint in Yemen, Libya, and in other hotspots, it remains determined to implement its vision for a stable and tolerant future for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

This means more, not less, bold foreign policy. Indeed, nothing fundamental has changed recently in regard to the rise of the UAE as a middle power. As it has done over the past decade, the UAE will continue to establish itself as a force for moderation throughout a turbulent Arab World and greater Middle East. What we are seeing instead of a drawdown is a pivot toward new directions and new initiatives. 

Specifically, the UAE is expecting to go from power projection to power protection, from direct regional involvement to an over-the-horizon leadership role with more emphasis on soft power rather than hard power in a post Covid-19 world. 

The COVID-19 Impact 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a decisive moment for the UAE on all levels, including its foreign policy priorities. The pandemic has set in motion a grand rethinking of the UAE’s domestic, regional and global agenda with an urgent emphasis on domestic needs. This re-evaluation has coincided with a growing awareness of the danger of regional overreach. 

The country is sensitive to being associated with conflicts, especially in places like Yemen, which the United Nations has called the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. According to Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, “the UAE will become increasingly focused on its economic reforms over the next year, with the economy playing an important role in its foreign policy and relations”.

However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led the UAE to tactically make short-term changes in its foreign and domestic public policies. 

The long term strategic thinking of the UAE remains intact as Emirati leaders are not abandoning the decisive and proactive foreign policy of the past decade. The UAE’s momentum, both domestically and regionally, is noticeably moving forward. The country is determined to stay engaged regionally, showcase its soft power credentials and upgrade its hard power, as evidenced by the country’s weapons purchase of $23 billion from the United States, which includes advanced 50 F-35 combat aircraft, armed drones and other military hardware. 

No Scaling Down, Going Global Instead

The F-35 combat aircraft deal is meant to protect and supplement the Gulf nation’s soft power projections in the post-COVID-19 era, which will feature vaccine diplomacy and more generous medical investment. By March 2021, the country had provided 1814 tons of medical aid to 129 countries around the world, making it one of the top providers of COVID-19 aid. 

In addition to these soft power approaches, this new era is certain to emphasize financial investments, a space program, a pivot to Asia, and connections with new global powers such as China and regional partners such as Israel.

Furthermore, the country is slowly but steadily carving a role for itself as an international peace-maker. For instance, in February and March of this year, it worked to broker negotiations between Pakistan and India to de-escalate border tension, secure a ceasefire and resolve a long standing border conflict, including the resolution of the seventy year old Kashmir dispute. Recently, the UAE was asked to mediate between Sudan and Ethiopia in the two east African nations’ dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 

This peace-brokering between India and Pakistan, and between Sudan and Ethiopia, indicates that the UAE is developing a new role on the global stage and stepping up its credentials as being a middle powerhouse.

As the UAE’s former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and current Diplomatic Adviser to the president, Anwar Gargash, said, “We want to be a global player. We want to break barriers and we need to take some strategic risks to break these barriers.”

As such, going from a local-centric state to a regional power and now to a global player has been the UAE’s trajectory over the past 50 years. For a country that only gained independence in 1971, this progress constitutes an impressive Arab success story. 

Naturally, this success raises the question of what dynamo drives the UAE momentum and how sustainable it will be in the Arab Gulf. 

What challenges and strategic risks will the UAE face as it prepares for the next 50 years? Here are four drivers of the rise of the UAE as the Middle East powerhouse: Confidence, Concern, Cooperation and the Crown Prince. They are the 4 Cs of UAE Momentum. 

The Confidence Factor 

The UAE’s regional engagements and global ambitions are primarily driven by a deep sense of national confidence, which has been the hallmark of the twenty-first century UAE. The leaders, government officials, ordinary citizens as well as the expats of the country have never been as confident as they are now about the UAE’s resources, capabilities and potential for long-term success. The national belief is that nothing is impossible for the UAE. 

This national confidence is the culmination of tangible successes over the course of its fifty-year history. The new UAE is a modern, cosmopolitan and global society, sustained by an economy which has gone from a peripheral $37 billion GDP in 1985 to $450 billion in 2021.

Politically, the UAE has established itself among the 34 middle powers of the world. The country ranks 22 in U.S. News’ 2021’s best countries ranking. This year, the UAE is considered the first in the Middle East region and 17th worldwide in the Global Soft Power Index 2021. It is also regularly listed among the top best performers in 100 vital indicators of the U.S. News; World Report’s Knowledge; and Development Index. 

The Concern Pillar 

The UAE enjoys a global status as a stable, moderate and prosperous oasis in an insecure Gulf region and, as such, is concerned about the stability of nearby state and non-state actors. 

The Gulf can be a dangerous neighborhood with many flashpoints of conflict. Consequently, no matter how confident the UAE feels, the country has, since its inception, been concerned about the rising non-state actors, mostly Islamist extremists. These actors have become more dangerous and emboldened in their activities and recruitment drives in the aftermath of the chaos and turmoil created by the Arab uprisings, which have resulted in neverending conflicts and regime change in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa. 

One way for the UAE to deal with its tough neighborhood is to constantly upgrade its security and defensive capabilities and protect itself with the best weapons money can buy. 

As a result, the UAE has had to be proactive in its response to aggressive states and non-state organizations. The newly signed Abraham peace accord is one way to stay proactive. The accord, which was signed in September 2020, is seen by the UAE as a strategic asset that boosts its global and regional outreach. This U.S.-sponsored peace treaty has the potential to create a tripolar U.S./Israel axis with the UAE. 

These security concerns will keep the UAE fully engaged in regional affairs for years to come. 

The Cooperation Drive

In its 50 years since independence, the UAE has built a solid reputation as a team player—a country committed to cooperation and coordination between itself and other nations. The UAE is not a loner, certainly not a maverick like next door neighbor Qatar. Forging a solid network of friends and allies throughout the region has been a cornerstone of UAE foreign policy since its early years.

This commitment to political cooperation in the realm of foreign policy is consistent with the internal construction of the nation. The UAE itself is a result of political cooperation as it is a federation of seven semi-independent Emirates. 

The lesson learned over these past 50 years is that, in order to survive and thrive in such a challenging region as the Gulf and the greater Middle East, the country must build a durable network of regional allies and global strategic partners. 

The current rise of the UAE to middle power status has been possible because of the close coordination between the country and its key global allies such as the United States, Britain, France, and regional partners; especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states. 

Its most pressing foreign policy challenge is the realization that neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia alone can manage the growing power of Iran, which is widely considered the primary danger to Gulf security and regional stability. 

Consequently, coordination with Riyadh has been a strategic necessity in the post Arab Spring era. The Yemeni Civil War is the most recent case of the highest level of strategic cooperation between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The Role of the Crown Prince 

Much of the recent growth of the UAE has been the work of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Mohammad Bin Zayed (widely known in the Western media as M.B.Z.), and his young and capable foreign policy and security team. 

David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times describes the 60-year-old Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates as “arguably the most powerful leader in the Arab world. He is also among the most influential foreign voices in Washington”. 

Crown Prince M.B.Z. is solely behind the recent energy foreign policy coming from Abu Dhabi and is the real force behind the UAE’s regional and global prominence. He has built the UAE as a leading regional military power. Moreover, he has expanded the UAE network of friends, partners, and allies.

For nearly two decades, M.B.Z. has deployed the UAE’s forces in places such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. Consequently, the Crown Prince will be remembered for his lasting contribution not just to making the UAE a modern middle power but also a prosperous and stable fortress

Challenges facing the UAE

While the future looks bright for the UAE, the nation does have its share of challenges. 

While it has not yet reached the point of over using its considerable financial, political, military and diplomatic resources, excessive over-reach is a growing concern. 

Historically, one reason why great powers fail and fall is because they overstretch their capacities. As a newly rising middle power, the UAE is far from going beyond its capacities. 

However, the country might be shouldering too many regional responsibilities. For example, confronting Iran’s destabilizing role in the region, opposing Turkey’s aggressive regional expansionism and containing the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence after the Arab Spring were among the many responsibilities the UAE took upon itself in the past 10 years. 

Thankfully, the leadership in Abu Dhabi appears to realize the need not to overstretch itself and to de-escalate regional tensions. The leaders in Abu Dhabi understand they should not overreach, as evidenced by recent events; namely, the end of the Qatar boycott, a developing dialogue with Iran, and a possible détente with Turkey. 

Overconfidence can also be a problem for leaders of any country. Certainly, research shows that people tend to listen to and trust those who project confidence and sound in control of things. Confidence then is a cornerstone of leadership and it is good for nations as well as leaders to be confident … but not too confident. 

Time and again overconfident leaders succumb to the illusion of being invincible and then make tragic mistakes with even more tragic consequences for the whole nation. 

The closest the UAE came to this sort of hubris was during the Yemeni Civil War. Luckily, leaders in Abu Dhabi were smart enough to start to draw down Emirati troops in Yemen beginning in July 2019.

Emerati leaders also pulled away from the abyss with Iran when in July 2019—following tanker attacks in the Strait of Hormuzthe UAE sent a delegation from its coast guard to Tehran to hold maritime security talks with Iranian officials, emphasising diplomacy over confrontation. 

Finally, some of the time the UAE can over-rely on its global partners and friends. It goes without saying that building allies and strategic partners is part and parcel of international relations and the more allies a nation has, oftentimes the more power and influence the country can display on the world stage. 

To this end, the UAE has been a role model in forging a vast network of regional and global partners. For example, the UAE’s presence in the Horn of Africa region continues to be vast as it has underwritten the recent Eritrean-Ethiopian peace. The UAE maintains a $442 million commercial port in Berber, Somaliland and plans to expand its state and private investment in infrastructure, agribusiness and tourism throughout the region. As a result of these connections, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somaliland are all key UAE allies in the Horn of Africa. 

European partners, meanwhile, are allied to the UAE; but the EU foreign policy regarding the UAE seems to be more unilaterally confined to individual European countries such as France, Britain, and Germany. 

As for Arab partners, most need the UAE more than the UAE needs them. So, Emerati leaders are well advised to lower their expectations of their Arab allies and instead invest in self-reliance and connections with states outside of the Arab world.

Despite all of these important connections, there still may be too much over-reliance on the UAE’s special relationship with the United States. Presently, the UAE needs the power of the United States to support it. The present situation with the United States is politically beneficial to Abu Dhabi. Nonetheless, the United States is becoming increasingly less reliable as a long term partner.

This leaves China as a possible global power with which the UAE could ally. The UAE has worked to develop a dialogue with China yet China, for its part, does not yet appear ready to be a credible ally for the Emiratis. At this early stage of its emergence as a potential global superpower, China is certainly a credible business partner for the UAE but not yet a security ally. 

Ultimately, security guarantees are what the UAE and other Arab Gulf States need most and so China does not presently compare to the United States as a security partner.

Despite all the risks, the ambitious drive forward will continue both domestically and regionally. The country is full of confidence and optimistic about its present and future. It acknowledges its humble beginnings in 1971 and is aware of where it is heading. Emiratis know what they want their nation to become. In 2024 they want to land on the moon and, by 2030, the Emiratis want the UAE to make it to the top 10 best country list. They also have a clear vision for where they want their country to be in 2071.