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UAE, the New Key Role Player in the Middle East

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is likely to play a bigger role in the conflict-ridden Middle East due to its economic, military, and political influence. For most of the past four decades, the UAE has maintained a low-key role in the region. Yet since becoming a major economic powerhouse and hub for global trade, the UAE has responded to security threats in its neighborhood by making major investments in its military capabilities and strategic alliances with other powerful countries, both internationally and regionally.

The UAE has started to emerge as a new regional power with many roles to play in the near future as a member of numerous alliances. In recent years, the UAE’s military has worked side-by-side with the US in the fight against Islamist extremism in Iraq and Syria. The UAE forces had a role in Afghanistan too as a member of the international coalition.

Currently, the Middle East is in flux with much geopolitical instability all over the region. Thus, the UAE has changed its strategies by joining alliances and by concerting meetings with international powers to safeguard its national security and economic and financial gains as many countries close to the Emirates are beset by terrorism, civil war, and political and social unrest.

The UAE has pursued a unique foreign policy around the globe. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy has been staunchly anti-Islamist especially against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Thus, the UAE has declared the MB as a terrorist group and launched a war against the MB, considering the movement as a threat to its regional stability.

Perhaps the most vivid display of Emirati military power has been in Yemen, where Abu Dhabi has played a significant role in the Saudi-led coalition to restore Yemen’s internationally-recognized government, crush the Houthi rebel movement, and to ensure the flow of commodities and oil through the Bab al-Mandab Strait. The UAE strives to cooperate with the international community to restore peace to Libya after six years of war in that oil rich country which left many people dead and displaced. Abu Dhabi, which has been supporting Haftar since 2014, seeks to oust the MB from Tripoli in order to rebuild the country without the influence of political Islam.

The UAE has become a second home for many people. This growing population has helped the Emirates to expand their foreign policy objectives more and to seek natural resources in Africa and Asia to support not only regional stability but also bring economic relief to beleaguered countries. This approach cannot be secured without having a stronger UAE strategy to protect gains, without a strong equipped army that helps ensure these gains, and without defending the country from foreign menaces. In other words, the UAE is examining the balance of power in the Middle East, benefitting from its own political stability while other countries are plagued with terror, violence and wars.

Since Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) became the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, UAE policy has not only been driven by current geopolitical and geoeconomic variables but also by Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 and the UAE Vision 2021. Both visions could not be secured and achieved without safeguarding the gains of the country by MBZ. This approach has required the UAE to shift its strategy from neutrality to intervening diplomatically and militarily to deter risks and dangers to the UAE, its unity, its economy and its people. Strong armed forces help MBZ achieve these goals.

MBZ started to play a major role in 2006 with activating the country’s foreign policies. The first threat the country tackled was that which the UAE government has repetitively warned about: The increasing extremist threat and their ideologies which aggravate the Middle East region and affect its development, and now, its transformative socio-economic process.

In his speech at the second Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate in November 2015, Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said that the UAE believes that extremist ideologies and terrorism are “two faces of the same coin, which mutually reinforce the other and contribute to instability.”

The UAE has changed its policies from zero interference to interference due to new threats and near-by wars, which challenge the Emirates’ security, stability, and prosperity. The government fears extremists and terrorist groups operating in the region, including those such as Islamic State whose offshoots have spilled blood in other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Yemen, representing a grave threat on the UAE’s doorstep. Since some countries near the UAE have hosted many terrorists and extremists, the UAE believes that it has to act and to take a preventive measure to abort the ideological hubs of extremism. This perception explains the UAE’s decisive action in Yemen in which Abu Dhabi sought to counter the spread of chaotic instability expanding beyond Yemen’s borders into other countries. Given that the UAE requires free and open maritime sea lanes as part of the country’s reliance on supply chain transport and commerce, the security of other Arabian Peninsula states, as well as those in the Horn of Africa rank as high foreign policy priorities for Abu Dhabi.

The UAE realized that if any extremist group takes root in countries near the GCC, it could spill into the Arab Gulf states, breaking down the social fabric to promote myopic views of the world, using Islam to justify their acts and brainwash the youth minds through seditious messages. All of this anti-social and anti-civilization approach by extremists has prompted the UAE to join alliances against terrorism including the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) but also an active member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS as well as US-led operations involving Operation Inherent Resolve in the Levant.

After the financial crisis in 2008-2009, the UAE started to play steadily a more political role in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Emirates had a big say in political developments across Bahrain, Tunisia and other MENA countries. The country has increased its arms sales from various sources: The United States, Russia, China, former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, France, Italy, Spain and South Africa. The UAE has set up plants to produce some weapons after signing technology transfer agreements with various companies such as Rosoboronexport (Russia), Denel (South Africa), and Indra Sistemas (Spain).

The UAE is trying to convey a message to its foes that the balance of power in the Middle East has changed and that the number of conventional armed forces does not really matter if the country has advanced military technology and special operations forces. The country is expanding its strategies east and west, making a balance for future security requirements and prospects. This aspect is seen in the many visits of senior Emirati officials to Asia, the EU, and the United States. MBZ has paid a number of visits in 2016 and early 2017 to China, India, Russia, and the UK to cement ties with these countries to make balanced relations in a turbulent world.

Last January, President Donald Trump’s call to MBZ was an indicator that Washington deeply appreciates the UAE and pins high hopes on its leadership to tackle a host of Middle Eastern issues, putting an end to chaos in the region. The UAE rose to the challenges since the so-called Arab Spring erupted in 2011, giving due attention to stability, prosperity, and security of the country which survived the tumult of the past six years.

Overall, since achieving independence in 1971, the UAE has enjoyed peace, stability, and security. The World Happiness Report 2016, released by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, revealed that the country recorded an overwhelming 99.34 percent in the index for security and stability and 96.74 percent for justice. The UAE has benefited from such an environment to enhance its business and economic activities where millions of people come to earn a living and enjoy a prosperous life. Yet situated so close to many regional hotspots, the UAE recognizes that the Emirates must always remain alert and ready to fend off such threats at this critical juncture.