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The UAE’s new ME policies

Dr. James J. Zogby

One year ago, looking at the many Middle East messes Joseph Biden was inheriting from his predecessors, I wrote a paper suggesting that he needed to adopt a bold and creative approach toward the region. I felt that it was important to recognise both the dire circumstances facing the Middle East and the fact that many of the conflicts raging across the region were connected and involved combinations of a similar cast of characters and issues of shared concern. Also important to consider was that the US could no longer pretend to be the post-Cold War’s sole world leader. The disastrous consequences of Bush’s Iraq fiasco ended that, as had decades of US neglect and/or failed policies which had hardened negative trends, exacerbated conflicts, and fuelled extremism.

Instead of the US playing “whack a mole” with each conflict, hotspot, or problem—a set of policies that had not worked in the past and would not work now—I suggested something akin to a P5+1 approach to advance a comprehensive initiative to promote regional security. The Biden administration, however, appears to have chosen a low-key, low-expectations approach employing quiet diplomacy and conflict management—something like prescribing aspirin to a patient suffering from massive third-degree burns—the very “whack a mole” approach that has failed in the past. With conflicts aplenty, tensions rising, and no solutions on the horizon, some countries in the region have taken it upon themselves to take steps they deem necessary to calm tensions and promote stability and security.

Perhaps the most significant practitioner of the Middle East’s new politics has been the UAE. Not only has it engaged in dramatic ground-breaking diplomacy with the region’s three non-Arab powers—Israel, Turkey, and Iran—cementing each of these with economic ties that bind. It has also restored relations with Syria and taken steps to reduce its involvement and exposure in conflicts in Libya and Yemen. The reasons behind these changes in the UAE’s regional posture deserve closer scrutiny. As a result of our many blunders across the region—including, for example, the unravelling of Iraq and Libya, the emboldening of hardline elements in Iran and Israel, and the spread of extremist currents—the US has left our allies in a lurch. They’ve had to fend for themselves to try to clean up or just deal with the mess we’ve helped to create. For decades, since its founding, the UAE carved out a role for itself as a regional hub of development and tolerance. In a study we conducted about a decade ago, when we asked Arabs for their views of other Arab countries, the UAE received near universal high marks. From our polling, we concluded that for many Arabs the UAE had come to be viewed in the same way the US had been seen by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a land of opportunity and promise. The country has faults and problems (what country doesn’t?), but for a half century now the UAE has been the destination of entrepreneurial Arabs from the Levant and North Africa. They’ve started businesses and earned good salaries, and their remittances have helped to sustain their home countries.

But by the middle of the last decade as this UAE role was being threatened by regional unrest, extremist intolerance and violence, and the failures of the US to address these many challenges (some of which we created and left to fester), the UAE’s leadership changed direction, taking a more aggressive stance to protect themselves and the regional order. The UAE became heavily involved in Yemen in an effort to save the compromise government they and their Gulf allies had supported, that was being challenged by a tribal Iranian-backed insurrection. It also became involved in the fruitless effort to clean up the mess left by the US-led campaign that ended the Qaddafi regime in Libya. After some costly and damaging setbacks, at this juncture, the UAE has recalibrated its posture and its policies have taken a new direction. In the face of the challenges posed by the recognition that there will not be military solutions to the many conflicts fuelled by regional rivals like Turkey, Israel, and Iran, the UAE has rolled back its military involvement and embarked on a series of diplomatic initiatives using what has always been its most potent weapon—the soft power of its economy, the freedom of its entrepreneurial culture, and the diversity of its population.

These are bold steps taken to fill the vacuum left by US blunders and neglect. If only the US could be as bold. One final note: left in the lurch in all of this are the Palestinians. Victims of Israeli acquisitiveness and brutality, the dysfunctions of their leadership, and callous US neglect, Palestinian concerns remain ignored. While Israel appears satisfied that their subjugation of Palestine is near complete, a reality check is in order. One thing is certain, as they have done time and again, Palestinians will reassert their demand for justice. While the US has always had the leverage to address the many injustices done to this long-suffering people, it has failed to act. As the new Middle East policies of the UAE begin to take hold, hopefully it will use the leverage it will acquire to do what the US has failed to do.

Dr. James J. Zogby

The writer is the President of Arab American Institute.