Risk perception and appetite in UAE foreign and national security policy

This latest report from UK think tank Chatham House addresses the gap in collective analysis of the UAE’s foreign and national security policy.

The UAE has emerged as an influential player in regional power politics over the past decade, in a shift from a previously conservative foreign policy focused on self-preservation. Often, UAE foreign and national security policy is analysed in the West on the basis of certain initiatives – its support for Khalifa Haftar in Libya, for example, or for secessionists and other groups in Yemen; or its role in the 2017 Qatar crisis – that seemingly point to an overall strategy or set of intentions. Rarely are its policies studied through a more comprehensive survey of its activities in multiple countries in the ‘neighbourhood’ where it is most visibly engaged. This paper, researched and written as part of a Chatham House project to address this gap in analysis of the UAE’s foreign and national security policy, sheds light on Abu Dhabi’s ambitions to play a key role in shaping political and governance structures across the region in line with its own model, and in securing trade routes in its wider neighbourhood as an economic hub linking East Africa and South Asia. The ‘UAE model’ integrates economic openness, strong governance and service delivery, and a relatively secular and liberal (for the region) social environment, combined with a closed political system that polices speech and is built around an entrenched security state. Just as important is a rejection of any political or religious ideology that might challenge the supremacy of the state and its leaders.

UAE officials perceive that transnational, political Islamist ideologies promoted by Iran and the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its boosters – including but not limited to Qatar and Turkey – pose an existential threat to its broadly secular approach to government as well as to the stability of the so-called ‘status quo’ powers in the region, and act as a driver of regional radicalism. However, Abu Dhabi has been far more assertive against the Brotherhood and its purported backers, and much more cautious in its approach to Iran. Abu Dhabi, the biggest and wealthiest of the seven emirates, increasingly sets the direction of travel for the UAE at home and abroad. The evolution of the ‘UAE model’ is chiefly associated with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed – or MbZ. While MbZ and his trusted inner circle share a worldview, they are not necessarily operating from a strategic masterplan. A very small group often makes policy choices that are tactical and reactive, and such ad hoc decision-making can lead to overcorrection and missed opportunities. Western policymakers tend to be dazzled by the UAE’s perceived liberalism, and by its officials’ ability to literally and figuratively speak their language. They need to better acquaint themselves with the ‘UAE model’ in all its aspects, and get to grips with the reality that Abu Dhabi expects to be treated as an equal. Dealing with the UAE as a robust and mature partner will also mean demonstrating a greater willingness to push back.

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