'Assertive' UAE cannot afford to overreach, diplomats say

Security event in Abu Dhabi hones in on ‘middle power’ challenges

A Saudi border guard watches as he stands in a boat off the coast of the Red Sea on Saudi Arabia's maritime border with Yemen, near Jizan April 8, 2015. Iran sent two warships to the Gulf of Aden on Wednesday, state media reported, establishing a military presence off the coast of Yemen where Saudi Arabia is leading a bombing campaign to oust the Iran-allied Houthi movement. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser - GF10000052470
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The UAE's new role as a middle power means it must avoid overreaching and overconfidence, diplomats and military personnel heard on Monday.

France's deputy secretary general for defence, Gen Francois-Xavier Le Pelletier de Woillemont, told the Sorbonne Emirates Strategic Conference in Abu Dhabi the economic downturn and the war in Yemen are the UAE's two main challenges.

Noting the surge in power seen in the UAE since 2011, the general said: "Finding a way out of the crisis in Yemen will be one of the challenges in the coming years".

“The difficulty of this crisis holds the world’s attention and we know the UAE is sensitive to it. I am sure you will agree with me, the solution can only be political.”

Confidence, co-operation and regional concern had allowed the UAE to attain middle-power status, Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist at UAE University, told yesterday's event at the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.

“The UAE today is more confident of itself, of its resources, its achievements and its ­projection of power than it has ever been, and if you miss that, you miss a very important and essential feature of the UAE of the 21st century,” Dr Abdulla said.

But the country's new, confident position is not without danger, he said.

“Once you become active, once you become assertive, you need to look out for two risks,” Dr Abdulla said. “One is overconfidence. You can be confident, which is needed for ambitious leaders and for pursing your plans, but beware of being overconfident.”

The second is overreach and thinning resources. “Are we approaching this?” Dr Abdulla asked. “So far, no. So far we are in a safe zone. But think of Yemen. This war has now been going on for three years.

“I hope this stops tomorrow. No country on earth wants this war to end more today than the UAE and Saudi Arabia.”

Dr Ebtesam Al Ketbi, president of Emirates Policy Centre think tank, said the country shifted its foreign policy in response to domestic threats, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and external changes such as the Iran nuclear deal.

Dr Louis Blin of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave a warning that if the Iran's state collapsed, it would create a humanitarian crisis which could destabilise the region.

“It would be wrong to assume that the regime in Iran is on the verge of crumbling. The same assumption was made of [Syrian President] Bashar Al Assad and instead we see the country crumbling while the regime remains,” Dr Blin said.

"[Iran's] destabilisation would result in enormous risks to its neighbours. It would come around with retaliation, maybe military attacks.

"After 1979, five million Iranians took refuge outside of the country and no country at the present time would accept Iranian refugees in the West.

“So if there were a cause that would lead to an outflow of Iranians, where would they be bound for? Here, Iraq and the Gulf.”

In this strategic moment, some Gulf states feel they must be the ones to fill a perceived vacuum of power in the Red Sea, said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“The Red Sea Corridor, including the Horn of Africa, is today very much in the neighbourhood and there is an ­interest to secure the neighbourhood in order to safeguard the security that the UAE and Saudi Arabia and other countries have relied on for their entire model,” Ms Dickinson said.

Protecting freedom of navigation and trade, and the logistics corridors, are important to national interests.

But Ms Dickinson warned Gulf states that they must not underestimate local dynamics. The UAE's interests cannot be secured until there is a resolution to the war in Yemen, she said.

Maritime co-operation is crucial for regional stability, said Rear Admiral Didier Maleterre, the Joint Commander of the French Forces in the Indian Ocean.

He also called on the UAE to help fight illegal fishing in Africa saying food shortages, civil unrest and mass migration were the consequences of the illicit trade.

Yet in addition to fighting terrorism and organised crime, security extends to environmental protection. He called on the UAE to help fight illegal fishing in Africa.

“We know that illegal and overfishing is a legal and environment issues but what are the consequences of illegal fishing? It’s food shortage, it’s civil unrest, it’s mass migration, it’s war at the end of the day. So from our perspective, the role of the UAE now bears in this region is to help Africans to fight against illegal fishing …. So I think that countries like UAE now have started to work with us to fight these big issues for the 21st century.”