The UAE’s vote on Ukraine signals a strategic shift

A growing sense of disillusionment with America’s lack of reliability has consequences

Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the UN Security Council meeting on Russia's military operation in Ukraine, on Friday February  25, 2022. AP Photo

While the official explanation for the United Arab Emirates’ decision to abstain from the UN Security Council’s resolution on Ukraine is to give the diplomatic process more time, the move also reflects an important shift in the Emirates’ geopolitical approach since taking up its Council seat in January.

In previous years, the Emirates has been closely allied with US policy in the Middle East, a fact proven over the decades, most recently highlighted in the UAE’s role in the Abraham Accords, which resulted in the historic decision to establish diplomatic contact with Israel and pave the way for others to do so.

But while the UAE remains keen to maintain strong ties with Washington, the ambivalent attitude of the Biden administration to the Gulf region during the past year has prompted the Emirates to review its approach. Since becoming president, Joe Biden and his team have proved to be less reliable allies, and at times even undermining Arab states.

In particular, Emirati officials have been decidedly underwhelmed by Washington’s response to last month’s series of attacks against UAE targets that were carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In the first, and most serious, attack on January 17, Houthi rebels targeted Abu Dhabi international airport, as well as a nearby oil storage facility, causing an explosion that killed three people and injured another six.

Senior UAE officials responded to the attacks by calling on Washington to both supply the UAE with better security, as well as reinstating the Houthis’ designation as a terrorist organisation - a status that highlights the dangers of the group and that Mr Biden revoked shortly after assuming office.

But while the Pentagon has agreed to some enhanced protection measures for the UAE, the Biden administration has been less forthcoming in terms of re-imposing the terrorist designation against the Houthis, even though the group’s recent series of attacks constitutes clear-cut acts of terrorism.

The White House’s reluctance to reimpose the terrorist designation is understood to stem from US President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to alienate Iran as talks aimed at ending the stand-off over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions reach a critical stage.

Biden officials also claim that re-imposing the designation, which was lifted within weeks of Mr Biden taking office last year, would make the Houthis less inclined to cooperate on allowing much-needed humanitarian supplies to reach the country. And yet, keeping the Houthis off the list has emboldened them and made a political solution even more difficult to attain.

Privately, Emirati officials have expressed frustration at Washington’s disinclination to adopt a more robust approach to tackling the issue, which not only threatens allies but also strategic waterways.

And the Biden administration’s reluctance to demonstrate its support for long-standing allies in the Gulf has resulted in key states in the region like the UAE reassessing their geopolitical priorities. As the US is seen as less reliable in its support for the security of its allies, regional countries will seek to balance their relations with other global powers like Russia and China.

As one UAE source commented: “It is important for the Emirates to demonstrate its neutrality when dealing with major global issues, so that we can give priority to our own geopolitical objectives”.

This more nuanced approach is evident in the UAE’s decision to abstain on Friday’s vote at the UN Security Council on a resolution condemning Russia over its conduct towards Ukraine.

While the aim of the resolution, which was mainly drawn up by the the US and its allies, was to increase pressure on Russia to call a halt to its military assault on Ukraine, Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia described the measure as anti-Russian, and vetoed the proposition, the only country to do so.

Wider concerns over Washington’s attempts to use the Security Council to score political points against Moscow prompted three countries - China and India as well as the UAE - to abstain.

The decision by the UAE to abstain is particularly significant, as it marks a shift in the Emirates’ traditional alliance with the US as it establishes a more distinctive diplomatic presence on the world stage. A lack of faith in America’s ability to comprehend the security needs and interests of allies has long-lasting ramifications.

As UAE Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh explained shortly after the vote, her country supported the draft resolution's emphasis on abiding by international law and the UN Charter, and was committed to the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of all UN member states. In her statement, she also stressed the importance of de-escalation, and alarm for Ukrainian civilians.

But by deciding to abstain from the vote itself, the UAE was also signalling that that it is embarking on a new, and more distinctive, approach to its dealings with the outside world.

Published: February 26, 2022, 3:18 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National