The Red Sea Strategy of the United Arab Emirates
The transformation of Dubai from a fishing village to a cosmopolitan hub embodies the unexpected country of the United Arab Emirates. The vast oil wealth has enabled them to transcend their weight, but as the world moves away from oil, pressure is mounting to secure their future while they still can. To ensure its survival, the UAE will have to address the problems of economic diversification, a limited population of citizens, and control of regional trade routes, through its ambitious Red Sea strategy.
On this week’s board:
Hilal Khashan >> The Geopolitical Future / American University of Beirut
Helen Lacker >> SOAS/Award-Winning Author
Bilal Saab >> US Central Command / Middle East Institute
The UAE has transformed itself from an isolated region into a regional power through good leadership and calculated management of its oil wealth. Although it is made up of seven independent sheikhdoms, the vast oil wealth of the emirate of Abu Dhabi has kept it in a position of leadership of the federation for decades, with no change in sight for this arrangement. Its economic management, steadfast opposition to political Islam, and strong leadership have made the UAE a model of governance, tolerance, and economic prowess in the region. This gave them depth to weather events such as the global financial crisis and the Arab Spring with minimal disruption to the emirate’s monarchy.
The UAE was initially formed with a plan that included both Bahrain and Qatar, but “the Saudis intervened in its early days to thwart this plan, putting the three countries on three completely different courses. This event also initiated the complex relationship between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which has been compared to the relationship of older brother and younger brother by outsiders. In recent years, this relationship has become more and more strained due to two primary controversies, the Yemen war, and the role of political Islam in the Gulf. With Yemen, both countries are involved in the ongoing conflict, and while initially cooperating largely in goals and operations, the UAE has recently undermined the Saudi position by supporting southern separatist groups. Unlike some of the major factions in Saudi Arabia, the UAE is fundamentally opposed to “political Islam”. After seeing groups like the Muslim Brotherhood rip the Arab world apart in 2011, the leadership in Abu Dhabi has done everything in its power to ensure that these groups do not gain a foothold within the Emirates, and forcefully oppose foreign governments that harbor these ideologies. This means tensions at times between the UAE and many of its regional neighbors including Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Their opposition is front and center in Libya, where the Abu Dhabi monarchy regularly throws money and supplies at groups that oppose political Islam for fear of the movement gaining momentum elsewhere.
The main battlefield of the United Arab Emirates although closer to home is in Yemen and the Red Sea. The conflict in Yemen has been extremely costly to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While the former has allied closely with the Hadi government whose leader lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, in recent years the UAE has drawn close to various southern separatist groups in Yemen. This has damaged relations between the two countries, and threatens the possibility of making peace. The UAE’s involvement in Yemen and across Northeast Africa for the most part has recently taken the form of PMCs, which provide a major means for a country of just 2 million citizens to effectively project its power abroad. As the two countries line up to pursue opposing interests, local Yemenis are stuck in the middle, and achieving a negotiated peace becomes ever more difficult.
The UAE has worked to extend its influence further, working in places such as Libya and Somalia. Their broader regional strategies for engagement in Africa focus primarily around the north and east of the continent, where sharing in ports and infrastructure provides them with oversight and some control over the region’s major waterways. This is part of the broader “Red Sea Strategy,” which seeks to establish Abu Dhabi’s control over many islands and lands around the Red Sea in an effort to bolster its power in global trade. This included trying to gain control of islands such as Socotra and Mayun, and building ports in and around the Red Sea in the hope that Abu Dhabi would have some ability to control or generate income in the future. This project seeks to make the UAE a permanent presence in any trade through the Red Sea or the Suez Canal, thus expanding its power and economic diversification beyond oil. All UAE strategies aim at two things; Making the UAE a necessary partner for commercial and maritime movements in the region, and is working hard to diversify its economy. As the world moves away from black gold, the UAE is determined to establish a stable and strong economy that is independent of oil.
Abu Dhabi’s current moment in the sun is very crucial, giving them about 70 years (before oil demand dries up) to prepare themselves for the next 300. Abu Dhabi is taking some steps towards this, and has a solidly run economic history, but in my opinion it’s still close to where it should be….. and that countdown timer is still going down every day.
Now though I would like to get opinions on this Sub. What are some of the possible strategies that the UAE can take to diversify its economy? Should they continue their dependence on the United States, or should they try to forge closer ties with Saudi Arabia? Can Abu Dhabi control the Red Sea or is it simply too big a task? I’m eager to get your opinions on these because this sub has been really helpful in putting this piece together.
If you would like to check out the hour-long article we did about the UAE for yourself, you can click on any of the links below.