What the return of an ambassador says about US-UAE ties

The presence of an accomplished career diplomat after a vacancy of more than two years could help maintain the extensive relationship between Washington and Abu Dhabi

Martina Strong has arrived to take up her post in the UAE capital, after playing a senior role at the American mission in Saudi Arabia for five years. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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Much has been made in recent years of moves by the US to reduce its presence in the Middle East and surrounding countries. From drawing down its once-considerable forces in Iraq, abruptly ending its military presence and backing in Afghanistan and refocusing on the Asia-Pacific, questions have been raised about Washington’s future direction and what this means for the region. Meanwhile, American diplomacy in the region had regressed until recently. This is why the recent – and long-overdue – return of a US ambassador to Abu Dhabi is not only a significant move, but a welcome one.

Last Wednesday, Martina Strong arrived to take up her post in the UAE capital, after playing a senior role at the American mission in Saudi Arabia for five years. The presence of a serious and accomplished career diplomat after a vacancy of more than two years could go a long way in maintaining the deep ties the US enjoys with the UAE.

In her first interview since assuming her post, Ms Strong told The National that the US was firmly committed to the region and that the UAE represented an “anchor” in that commitment. “President [Joe] Biden has been very clear,” she said. “Our commitment to the region is strong. We are not leaving.”

President Sheikh Mohamed speaks to US President Joe Biden at the G20 leaders' summit in New Delhi on September 9. AFP

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the US not striving for close ties with the region, and the Gulf in particular. Its strategic location, economic heft and global relevance make the Middle East of primary concern to powers around the world. The presence of the UAE at the G20 and admittance into Brics are the latest examples of global interest in the region. Many countries here also recognise the wisdom of maintaining a good relationship with a global superpower, and the UAE’s partnership with America has deep roots.

The ambassador arrives at a time when many exciting opportunities abound, both economic and political. There are also myriad challenges. US naval forces still perform a vital role in Gulf waters by helping to disrupt the destabilising flow of illegal weapons and drugs. Several conflicts in the region remain unresolved, and while countries have gone a long way – often with Washington’s help – in reducing tensions, along the deepest fault lines there is still much confidence-building to be done.

Given these challenges, positive American engagement with the Gulf is helpful; only last week Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet, signed a new bilateral strategic security and economic agreement with Washington. This is to say nothing of the long-standing security relationship between the US military and its Gulf allies.

Diplomatically, too, a strong US presence in the region can pay dividends. In her interview, Ms Strong reflected on the Abraham Accords, the third anniversary of which was marked last week, saying: “If there's one diplomatic achievement or breakthrough of the past five years, I would highlight it - a historic step that the UAE took, a step in a new direction towards greater partnership, greater security stability within the region.”

Nevertheless, times have changed, and the rise of a multipolar world has shaken some of the old certainties. The UAE, as a cosmopolitan nation with a diverse expatriate population, has strong ties with many countries, including some with which the US has a more competitive relationship. However, good friends and allies will always find a way to work together respectfully.

Perceptions of waning US influence have been gaining traction, and Washington has been working hard to dispel notions that it is retreating from the Middle East. A strong diplomatic presence in Abu Dhabi is a welcome development.

Published: September 19, 2023, 3:00 AM
Updated: September 20, 2023, 2:54 PM