by William A. Rugh
America’s diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates have generally been excellent for many years, but now they are troubled by misunderstandings and differences of perception over several issues. The UAE has for years criticized the U.S. for failing to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and they were not surprised that the Obama-Kerry effort to revive the peace process seems to have collapsed because they do not regard the U.S. as an honest broker. Today they are focusing on other concerns about American policy in the region they regard as more urgent.
One issue is Iran. Since 1979, Washington has maintained a confrontational polity toward Tehran, and that was just fine with the Emirati leadership. They believe that Iran has hegemonic ambitions to dominate the region, and because it is a large and powerful country just a few miles across the water with ability to do harm, it must be managed carefully. Trade with Iran is important, especially to the merchants of Dubai, many of whom have ancestral ties across the Gulf and speak Persian. The UAE periodically rejects about Iran’s claims to the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs that both countries claim, but the Emirati leaders are careful not to push the dispute to into real conflict. They welcome American military cooperation and buy American weapons in self defense, but they do not want to host American bases for fear of provoking Tehran.
However when they saw that the newly elected Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, made overtures to the West and President Obama reciprocated by agreeing to negotiations over nuclear issues, they suddenly had new concerns about the United States. They had seen the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq turn into strategic and geopolitical advantages for Iran, since the old Iranian-Iraqi rivalry turned into close cooperation. They feared that the Obama administration was inadvertently and naively making other moves in the Gulf that would strengthen the Iranian position there and regionally. The Obama administration’s decision to engage the Rouhani regime in negotiations was focused on reducing the nuclear threat, but the Emiratis saw it as possibly leading to much wider consequences that could be negative for them. They conceded that the UAE would gain if the negotiations actually did lead to reducing or eliminating the possibility of Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons. But they feared an agreement might open the door to much greater changes in the American posture in the Gulf. Would Washington revert to its pre-1979 Nixonian policy of regarding Iran as the guardian of the Gulf? Would the American public after the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan pressure Obama to withdraw from the obligations for helping the Arab states of the Gulf provide for security and self-defense that had become part of recent American policy? Adding to these fears was the revelation that Washington had held secret talks with Iran to set up the nuclear negotiations, without informing their friends in the Arab Gulf states.
Concerns by the Sunni- led Arab states about growing Shiite regional power further complicates the Iranian issue. From the perspective of the UAE and the other Sunni-led Arab states of the Gulf, the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 not only helped Iran strategically, it also helped Shiites gain the upper hand in Iraqi politics. Then when uprisings broke out in the Arab world in 2011, the only serious anti-government demonstrations in the Gulf took place in Bahrain, led by Shiites who are in the majority and were protesting against discrimination. The Bahraini government put the blame on Iran as the instigator of the uprisings, and the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in sending troops to Bahrain to help in its self-defense, ostensibly against Iran. Many in Washington believed Iran was not the real problem, and an independent commission of inquiry led by the American jurist Sherif Bassiouni agreed, but Bahrain and the other Arab governments in the region insisted on blaming Iran.
In fact, although some Emirati citizens are Shiites, secular divisions have never been a part of UAE internal politics, unlike the situation in some other Gulf countries. Since the founding of the UAE system 1971 primarily by Shaikh Zayid of Abu Dhabi and Shaikh Rashid of Dubai, they insisted on tolerance for everyone, and they welcomed large numbers of foreigners into the country. When Zayid was alive he reportedly once counseled Bahrain’s Ruler Shaikh Isa bin Salman that it would be wise to treat Bahraini Shiites better. After Rashid and Zayid passed away in 1990 and 2004 respectively, their sons have carried on in a smooth transition that has maintained a policy of internal tolerance. Yet the theologically-inspired leadership in Iran that seems much less tolerant adds to Emirati concerns.
Beyond Iran and Bahrain, the developing situation in Egypt since 2011 and the related rise of Muslim Brotherhood influence there and elsewhere, has caused a major spilt in perceptions between the United States and the UAE.
When President Mubarak was overthrown in January 2011, the Obama administration dealt officially first with the military-led regime that took over and then with the government of President Muhammad Mursi after he was elected in the summer of 2012. Mursi’s election was reportedly free and fair, and many in Washington were hopeful that this had launched Egypt onto a more democratic path. Moreover, Washington was satisfied that Egypt continued adhere to the treaty with Israel and to cooperate with the United States in several ways. But the UAE leadership was alarmed at the sudden rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian presidency and parliament. The UAE and the United States had both supported the Mubarak administration for decades, and now it seemed Washington was abandoning its friend as Islamists were taking over. Concern grew in the Emirates that Brotherhood influence was spreading throughout the region and the Emirati authorities began arresting suspected MB sympathizers.
When the Egyptian military overthrew Mursi last July and cracked down hard on the Muslim Brotherhood, most Americans criticized it as an anti-democratic coup d’etat, but the Emirati leaders were pleased. They echoed the accusations of the new Egyptian military-backed leadership that the Muslim Brotherhood was a terrorist organization that should be crushed. Stories circulated in Egypt saying that U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson had conspired secretly with President Mursi during his tenure, were picked up in the Emirates, reinforcing concerns about Obama’s policy. Emiratis remembered the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, and asked how could the United States now condone the Brotherhood who were also “terrorists”. When Americans tried to point out that Mursi was a democratically elected president, Emiratis responded that he had only won by one percent and the June 2013 demonstration against him “by many millions” meant that he had to go.
The UAE immediately showed its support for the post-Mursi government by sending it billions in assistance, while the Obama administration reduced its assistance to show its displeasure at Egypt’s undemocratic moves. Obama came under domestic pressure to cancel America’s longstanding Egypt assistance altogether, while the Emirates want Washington to provide more political and economic support. Washington is hoping that the leadership in Cairo will soon move to alleviate some of its recent undemocratic practices, but the UAE is hoping Cairo will not let up on its suppression of the Brotherhood. The UAE and other Gulf leaders smoothed over their open dispute with Qatar over policy toward the Brotherhood, but it remains a very sensitive issue.
The continuing Syrian civil war is yet another major irritant affecting US-UAE relations. Both Washington and Abu Dhabi agree on the fundamental goal that Bashaar al Assad must step down and Syrian stability to return. However the view in the Emirates is that the Obama administration has failed to act decisively to resolve the situation that is causing increasing human suffering. President Obama and the U.S. public do not want American “boots on the ground” to end the fighting, and he has also rejected other military options as doing more harm than good. It is difficult for people in the Emirates and elsewhere in the Gulf to understand that reasoning, because they assume the United States should use its overwhelming military power. They see Bashaar getting stronger and Obama doing nothing about it so they believe he is weak and lacks the will to do what they believe should be done. Obama’s handling of the Syrian chemical weapons problem was seen in Washington as a diplomatic success but in Abu Dhabi as further evidence of his weakness.
Emiratis are therefore disappointed that President Obama has failed to solve problems they are concerned about, since they have high expectations that the United States can significantly influence events if it wants to. But despite the divergence of views between the U.S. and the UAE on these several issues, the two countries are likely to overcome these tensions over the longer term, since they still have strong mutual interests that keep them working together.
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