UAE top politicians and diplomats have been busy in recent weeks, seen in a flurry of visits and handshakes, conferences and photo opportunities signaling yet more recalibrations in Gulf state relations.
On the table in August and September was rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar, along with renewed alliances with France and the UK.
There was even time, too, for a swim in Saudi Arabia, where a once cast-iron friendship had recently been turning sour.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MBZ, has been spearheading these moves, along with his number two, Emirati National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed.
They have been on the road, too, after years of largely unsuccessful foreign intervention, from Yemen to Libya, have left the UAE obliged to re-assess its “forward” foreign policy.
“There’s a perception now in Abu Dhabi,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at the Baker Institute, told Asia Times, “that the UAE can’t be fighting fires everywhere.”
Indeed, recent declarations by long-time ally the US that its commitments in the region are changing – along with Washington’s recent debacle in Afghanistan – “have brought home the fact that the UAE is more vulnerable than it thought,” Coates Ulrichsen adds.
Now, a policy of tactical rapprochement with old foes and revamped relations with old allies seems underway, as the UAE’s leaders wait to see how the Biden administration evolves in the lead-up to US Congressional mid-terms and the 2024 presidential elections.
In these uncertain times, old friends in Paris and London are being sounded out, while recent wrinkles in relations with regional rivals are smoothed.
Regarding those regional rivals, relations with one in particular nosedived following the Arab Spring, when Abu Dhabi came out in defense of the regional status quo – and Ankara firmly backed Islamist rebel groups from Morocco to Syria.
Turkey and the UAE then found themselves on opposite sides of the frontline in Libya, while competing for influence in the Horn of Africa.
The UAE has also backed Greece and Cyprus in their disputes with Turkey over Eastern Mediterranean maritime boundaries and gas claims. Abu Dhabi has likewise led the way in the Arab world in recognizing Israel, which also has poor relations with Turkey.
Abu Dhabi was a driving force behind the 2017 “Arab Quartet” blockade of Turkish ally Qatar, which was finally abandoned in January this year.
Thus it was a great surprise to many when in mid-August Sheikh Tahnoon met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.
UAE palace adviser Anwar Gargash – one of the chief architects of the emirates’ more active foreign policy in recent years – described the Erdogan-Tahnoon meeting as “historic and positive.”
Erdogan referred to the possibility of “serious investments” from the UAE coming Turkey’s way in the future – a potentially useful lifeline for the economically troubled Turkish ruler.
A month later, on September 21, the new warmth between the UAE and Turkey bore its first fruit, too, with Turkish Deputy Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar in Dubai for a major natural gas conference.
Gas projects could “help us to solve some of the regional conflicts, our conflicts between neighbors,” Bayraktar said.
Also present at the conference was Qatari energy minister Saad al-Kaabi, who would have been banned from entering the UAE less than a year ago, because of the blockade.
To further illustrate how far relations have recently mellowed, on September 19, pictures emerged on Twitter showing Sheikh Tahnoon and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani all smiles and in swimming trunks at an exclusive Red Sea resort.
That resort was at Neom in Saudi Arabia, and joining them in the photo was the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman.
Relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia have not been good since the UAE pulled out of their joint military expedition into Yemen back in 2019 – a conflict that has since seen major advances for Iran’s allies and Saudi Arabia’s foes, the Houthis.
“Sheikh Tahnoon has dealt with Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” says Coates Ulrichsen, “given the animosity that MBZ accumulated in those countries while he was the driving force behind UAE foreign policy. MBZ has instead concentrated on cementing and deepening partnerships that haven’t been subjected to such strain.”
Thus MBZ arrived in Paris and then London in mid-September to talk of new “partnerships for the future” with President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“For Paris, Abu Dhabi is the key strategic ally in the region,” Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Europe and Middle East Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Asia Times.
France and the UAE both backed Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar against the Turkish-backed internationally recognized government in the recent conflict. France has also backed Greece and Cyprus in their dispute with Turkey over the Eastern Mediterranean.
The French military has a base in the UAE and many military contracts with Abu Dhabi.
“France has been extremely active in the Middle East in recent years,” adds Barnes-Dacey, “gaining itself a seat at the high table.”
Indeed, when leaders and ministers from Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met in Baghdad last month, France was the only non-Middle Eastern country represented.
The UK, meanwhile, was the UAE’s former colonial ruler and still maintains strong links with the country – militarily, economically and personally.
“MBZ not only visited London, but also the military college at Sandhurst for his son’s passing out parade,” says Coates Ulrichsen. “There are a whole lot of linkages between the UK and UAE, with the UK able to say, ‘We’ve been here in the region for a long time and we’re not going anywhere now.’”
MBZ’s trip to London was also followed by an announcement of US$14 billion of new UAE investments in the UK.
Filling the vacuum
“There’s clearly a perception now that the US is disengaging from the region,” says Barnes-Dacey, “and other countries will undoubtedly try to fill that gap.”
How accurate that perception of US withdrawal is, remains to be seen, however, as the Gulf states are still key to US deployment in the region.
“The last US drone strike that hit Kabul during the recent evacuation took off from the Al-Dhafra base in the UAE,” Coates Ulrichsen notes.
Yet, the perception of withdrawal – and of uncertainty over the future of the Biden administration, as it faces Congressional elections next year – is still a strong one, with Abu Dhabi and other regional states “now trying to diversify”, Coates Ulrichsen adds.
In this, the UAE’s recent rapprochements with regional powers and courting of more long-standing Western partners may be a wise tactic, while former rivals continue to circle awaiting the next move.