UAE’s ‘Look East’ policy is developing

With so much trade with Asian countries, the country must play a delicate balancing act

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces,  with India's prime minister Narendra Modi. Ties between the two countries are strong. Adnan Abidi / Reuters
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One of the first participants to speak at the World Government Summit in Dubai this week was also one of the most prominent: Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan. There were many global figures at the event, including current and former heads of state, but Mr Abe’s speech was given prime billing. That makes sense. The UAE’s future is increasingly dependent on its alliances and interactions with its Asian partners.

The facts are well-known. Just weeks ago, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was in New Delhi as guest of honour for Republic Day celebrations. Trade with India is vital, worth hundreds of billions of dirhams per year, making it the UAE’s top trading partner.

Number two on that list is China, the other Asian behemoth. Links with South Korea are equally important, both in terms of imports and particularly in the partnership that is building the Barakah nuclear energy plant in Abu Dhabi. Russian relations continue to matter, even as they conflict with the UAE’s foreign policy in some areas.

And of course the Philippines is a growing regional player and one that the UAE, with hundreds of thousands of Filipino expats, must pay special attention to. With the overwhelming majority of the UAE’s expat population coming from Asian countries, links east of Fujairah will remain important.

These links bring with them immense benefits, but also challenges. One example was demonstrated last week, when, just as Mr Abe was about to leave the United States to fly to the UAE, North Korea fired a missile across the Sea of Japan, to global consternation. Such threats can seriously affect our allies and, therefore, have an impact on the UAE.

Indeed, such challenges can emerge in unexpected areas. The UAE must carefully balance its relations with China, India and Russia, powerful rivals in certain spheres. The incoming US administration also appears to be inching towards confrontation with China over building in the South China Sea. If that happens, it will pose a challenge for the UAE, given our deep ties with both countries.

The UAE’s global alliances are like roots, stretching across the globe. They must be carefully nurtured.