Why is UAE foreign policy so often misunderstood?

The Emirates has always adopted a defensive strategy in its regional roles, writes Ebtesam Al Ketbi

“Some of the commentary on recent developments in Tunisia & Sudan has tried to exaggerate the UAE’s role in what are essentially internal dynamics. There is also a tendency by some commentators to misrepresent the UAE’s intentions in a way that does not reflect the reality.” This was posted recently by Dr Anwar Gargash, the Diplomatic Advisor to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on his Twitter account.

Dr Gargash further emphasised that the UAE works with partners to promote regional stability and seeks to build bridges to de-escalate tensions. “We understand that stability depends on governments addressing popular sentiments and avoiding marginalisation of segments of society,” he said.

Dr Gargash also said that any efforts to reduce tension, build political consensus and strengthen regional partnerships must be commended. “The UAE believes that dialogue, inclusive processes and avoiding confrontation should be the main tools in managing both internal disputes and regional relationships,” he said.

Self-criticism or constant reviews of positions and policies are not common practice in the Arab political space, except in rare cases. However, a shortcoming in the Arab region’s political and media spheres is looking for mistakes and defaming to the extent of “demonising” others. The motive of the people behind these campaigns is to isolate the targeted party from its Arab context and question its objectives, policies and positions. Any party that adopts a realistic, transparent or different policy, detached from populism and emotions, become a potential target of such campaigns.

In the past few years, the UAE has shown its readiness and ability to use various tools, including military force, to combat actual or perceived threats beyond its territory. Evidently, these threats are centred around the Muslim Brotherhood, extremism and terrorism. It has also focused on Iran’s policies and proxies, and Turkey’s foreign policy strategies.

The country has welcomed 2021 with optimism, turning the page on regional discord. It has emphasised the need for diplomatic solutions to de-escalate regional tensions, and redirected priorities and resources toward expanding trade partnerships. During the post-Covid-19 recovery phase, the UAE’s focus has been on developing a competitive environment and preparing the economy for decades to come. This phase for the UAE will be governed by digitalisation, technological solutions, the shift toward clean energy and the expansion of infrastructure and regional connectivity projects.

The UAE has also warned against attempts by parties in the region to exaggerate its regional role through a campaign of “fake news”. The country believes that these campaigns and exaggerations only serve malicious purposes of its regional adversaries. They portray the country as being behind every political act or plan in the region. To explain this phenomenon, Dr Gargash said in his tweets that it is not fair to exaggerate the UAE’s role in a way that portrays it as a “difficult member” of the region. He said that a state confronting regional interference in Arab affairs does not deserve to be at the receiving end of such propaganda. “We are partners to good forces in the region that seek stability and development and reject Arab submission to regional powers. We believe the aim of these campaigns is the demonisation of the UAE. But it is in part an acknowledgment of the centrality of the UAE and its credibility,” he said.

The UAE has always adopted a defensive rather than an aggressive strategy in its regional roles. It does not seek to engage in conflicts, and its development model is grounded in the stability required to attract trade and investment. However, enormous regional pressures have also pushed the UAE to make decisive, doctrinal shifts in foreign and defence policy. For example, the country participated in the Peninsula Shield Force to safeguard Bahrain’s security and stability in 2011. That decision was taken at the request of the Bahraini government. In 2011, it joined Nato forces in Libya under UN Security Council Resolution 1973. It also intervened in Yemen in 2015 at the official request of the government of the country's internationally recognised President, Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi.

During the first and second decades of the 21st century, the UAE's regional outreach has not necessarily translated into actual and sustainable strategic gains. The trajectory of these gains has not been stable or risen constantly. We also believe that self-critical evaluation is beneficial and healthy. For all actors in the region, gains and losses have varied from time to time and from issue to issue. At times, tactical withdrawals, retreats and advances manifest conflicts and responses to regional and international axes and rivalries. Manoeuvres are meant to establish influence in the region and implement their agendas and strategies for all stakeholders.

The UAE’s objectives behind supporting stability, moderation and development in the region had never changed, even as the country sought different means and tools. Against this backdrop, it has reviewed its policy towards a number of countries over the past two years. It has decided to turn the page on disagreements with other countries in the region, advanced the prospects of regional stability, helped prevent the escalation of conflicts and supported building bridges between nations.

Such a strategy allows the economy and politics to go hand in hand, making the UAE’s international relations approach realistic. And this rationality stands in contrast to the exaggerations perpetuated regarding the UAE’s role in influencing the domestic dynamics of Tunisia, Sudan and other sovereign Arab countries.

Published: November 11th 2021, 8:35 AM
Ebtesam Al Ketbi

Ebtesam Al Ketbi

Dr Ebtesam Al Ketbi is the President of the Emirates Policy Center