A Singular Gulf Country in the Middle-East? How the UAE Articulates its “Pro-secular” Vision of the Arab World
To depict the Gulf crisis as a mere “game of thobes” between affluent and egocentric Sheikhs fails to consider the ideological drift between the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The three main actors in the crisis have different visions for the Arab World, which has significant implications for the future of the region. One cause of the enduring conflicts in the Middle East is its sectarian nature and the multitude of players involved, with both states and non-state actors using the prism of religion to back their own camps and pursue their own agendas.
The UAE seems to stay clear of that sectarian vision and Mohamed Ben Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the federation, believes in the necessity to extirpate the religious component from both regional conflict management and state governance. This view that some have called “pro-secular” translates both domestically and abroad. With a large and religiously diverse foreign workforce, the UAE has implemented policies and interfaith dialogues that saw the adoption of a charter of tolerance in its constitution, as well as the creation of a ministry to foster peaceful coexistence in the country. This openness has been facilitated since the UAE is the only country in the Gulf that traditionally follows the Maliki school of jurisprudence, which embraces the spiritual and tolerant teachings of Sufism and is radically opposed to Wahhabism.
In the UAE, any organisation that uses religion, be it Islam or otherwise, as a means to promote a political agenda is banned. The local Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, Al Islah, which beholds Islam as a solution to the evils of mismanagement and corruption that affects Muslim countries was outlawed in the UAE in 2014. Emirati-thinkers argue that the movement weaponizes the Islamic doctrine to eventually seek power for its own ends, is acting as a catalyst to radicalism, and due to its transnational nature, it cannot abide by the rule of law of any sovereign nation. On the foreign front, the Emirati elite sees any sectarian approach to conflict management or to state building as problematic because it cannot guarantee peace and stability in the long term. Only adherence to the rule of law and strong national centralised powers will put an end to the balkanisation of the region.
This pro-secular agenda led them to support the coup of general Al Sissi in Egypt and to provide financial and material assistance to general Al Haftar in Libya, who is seen as the only credible deterrent to Islamism. In Yemen, the Emiratis eventually opted for Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Shiite, as the only leader able to federate the complex tribal fabric and bring peace. Emirati forces are not waging a “holy war” against Shiites per se but rather against the Houtis, a religiously affiliated group, which they think Iran has instrumentalised in order to spread its influence on the borders of Saudi Arabia. In southern Yemen where most of UAE’s activity is concentrated, the Emiratis first task has been to eliminate Sunni extremist (Al Qaida and ISIS) groupuscules and not to back them against Shiites. In Syria, the Emiratis remained a leader in the military coalition against ISIS and did not oppose the Russian intervention, which they acknowledged to fight against a common enemy.
Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE are not known for arming Syrian rebel factions. They defend a political transition (UN Resolution 2254) for the Syrians to decide the future of their country. In Iraq, the UAE like Saudi Arabia support the Sadrist movement, which opposes Iranian influence in Iraq’s internal affairs and defends the nationalist identity. With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Emiratis have associated with Mohammed Dahlan, the former Fatah leader in the Gaza strip, known to be opposed to Hamas and Islamism. States failure and extremism have propelled the Iranians to fill the vacuum left in the region following the disengagement of the Obama administration. Because of new challenges affecting the Arab states at their core, the Palestinian issue, despite remaining a factor of political union among Arabs, has been relegated to a secondary issue. In that regard, the UAE along with Saudi Arabia have operated a strategic rapprochement with Israel on the common ground of curbing the Iranian influence that they perceive as more imminent.
Obviously, secularism in the UAE is by no means comparable to the French concept of Laicite, which dictates a clear separation between the church and the State. Islam is an integral part of the social construct of the UAE and its leadership defends its inclusive version. From the UAE’s perspective, secularism appears to be more of an attempt to undermine any extremist or political version of Islam from taking root in the region. In terms of conflict management, it means supporting nationalist political parties and staying away from the sectarian impulse of backing the camp that shares the same religion or ethnicity.
This approach is in sharp contrast with the traditional establishment’s perception of politics in the region. When Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, declared that his country had a vision for a more secular Middle East, his comments were vehemently criticised by some Saudi royals. Although Mohamed Ben Salman, the Saudi crown prince, is keen on following the role model of his Emirati counterpart, the religious political alliance on which Saudi Arabia has been built, years of Islamic activism and especially the export of Wahhabism as a soft power tool, remain in the mentality of many and could potentially act as a barrier to change.
The “pro-secularism” defended by Abu Dhabi clashes as well with the politics of Doha, which plan during the Spring was to support the powerful transnational network the Muslim Brotherhood represented. By having a string of governments affiliated to the organisation, Doha could have been able to defend its interests and directly influence the affairs of the Arab World. Although the Qatari society did not succumb to extremism, Doha is more of a pragmatic power, which uses the powerful political trends that sweep the region as a mean of influence. Cornered by its neighbours, Qatar’s diplomacy nowadays consists in allying with two anti-systemic powers, Iran and Turkey, the latter with which it shares the same stance on the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Qatar wants to become the Gulf’s most reliable ally to the West (as recently expressed with its adherence proposal to NATO), a position held thus far by the UAE.
The staunch Emirati aversion for political Islam and its support for the eradication of extremism are partly attributed to their “pro-secular” vision. For them, disentangling from the sectarian lens that govern the Middle East politics, especially the Sunni-Shiite divide, would bring about a renewed Arab identity in a region, which contemplates with resentment any prospect for a return to a Middle East under Iranian or Turkish influence.