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Strategy

The UAE: 21st Century Realities and Indispensability

This is the third piece in a multi-part series on Arab Gulf security.

When Sheikh Zayed died in 2004, the carefully crafted succession proceeded as planned. Crown Prince Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed had been groomed through a series of positions that gave him experience in the military and multiple branches of civil government. He is also Zayed’s only son with an Al Nahyan mother. He became the ruler. Zayed appointed Mohammed bin Zayed as first deputy crown prince making him next in line to rule.[i] Upon becoming crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, had already accrued considerable governing and diplomatic experience. US officials had a highly positive view of his abilities.[ii] In this arrangement, Mohammed bin Zayed was responsible for policy, but Khalifa bin Zayed controlled the purse strings; therefore, major policy initiatives required their agreement.[iii] The new government was set; now Sheikhs Khalifa and Mohammed had to chart the path forward. It was a fundamental question of what the United Arab Emirates would be – a loose confederation of independent states or a federation of emirates under a strong federal government led by Abu Dhabi?

Security and alliances were the most pressing issues. This situation was aggravated by the fallout from 9/11 and the United States’ war in Iraq. In moving toward a closer security relationship with the US, the UAE now faced a level of scrutiny that highlighted the incongruities of its political paradigm. There were hard questions from Washington about the UAE’s “involvement” in 9/11. Al Qaeda had used Dubai’s banks and transportation hubs to support their operations. There was also increased intelligence reporting that Dubai was assisting the Iranian nuclear program by transshipping equipment and technology, a situation candidly acknowledged by senior UAE officials. In addition, by late 2004, it had become apparent to the Arab Gulf that the Bush administration placed the Shi’a ‘majority’ in Iraq on the road to political control.[iv] From the perspective of Abu Dhabi this was increasingly beginning to look like a situation in which as the adage goes: ‘who needs enemies when you have friends like these.’

The UAE as a ‘state’ had only limited to non-existent authority to impose its will on any of its component parts.


For the UAE leadership, meaning the leadership in Abu Dhabi, the security situation was challenging. The UAE might have a seat at the United Nations and represent itself as a nation-state, but in fact the UAE as a ‘state’ had only limited to non-existent authority to impose its will on any of its component parts. As deficient as the 2004 UAE structure might be, the idea of the old Trucial Coast without the UAE was a security nightmare that no one in the West wished to contemplate. At the same time, the independence exercised by Dubai and Ras al-Khaymah opened the door to the Iranian intrigues and the Muslim Brotherhood-associated Al-Islah Party. Something had to be done – but what?

UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed (right) receives Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed on 2nd December, 2018 to commemorate the UAE’s 47th national day (WAM).

The new ruler and his crown prince had to decide what exactly they wanted. If it was the strategic or so-called ‘indispensable’ relationship with the United States, then they had to find a way to control their own internal problems. On the other hand, given the situation in Iraq, an alliance with Washington had its downside as well. If not Washington, then what was the alternative? In the meantime, the UAE had to publicly defend Dubai as a member emirate while simultaneously attempting to bring it under control. Dubai had become a symbol of disunity and anti-western policies that undermined UAE credibility.

Modernization of the UAE military was another high priority that required a Western partner. While the UAE wanted high-tech weaponry, the leadership saw that there were two more critical considerations as well: operational capability and organizational modernization focused on regime protection – meaning the federal government and Abu Dhabi’s role in it. In a small, wealthy emirate with fractious history, the latter was critical. They needed US assistance across the board to take the UAE military to the next level. In addition given the limited manpower pool, the regime had no choice but to optimize by utilizing available Emirati nationals and then buttressing them with significant numbers of foreign contractors and mercenaries.

Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric coupled with the large Iranian population in Dubai elevated fears of potential Iranian-incited sectarian frictions.


Federal control and internal security control became the priority. In 2005, hardcore nationalist elements in Iran elected a new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A populist rabblerouser, he took an aggressive stance toward the Arab Gulf States and its Western backers; he also backed the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In addition, Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric coupled with the large Iranian population in Dubai elevated fears of potential Iranian-incited sectarian frictions.[v] In 2006, yet another security issue involving Dubai’s policies arose. Through an acquisition, DP World, a Dubai-based port management company, was slated to become the manager of key US ports. Opponents argued that Dubai’s ‘role’ as a conduit for 9/11 attackers and their funding alongside the Iranian presence and influence in Dubai made it an unacceptable choice. The controversy became a public relations and political nightmare for the UAE and its rulers, and the combination of US congressional opposition and the embarrassment to the Bush administration resulted in Abu Dhabi forcing DP World to divest itself of the US assets.[vi] A second vexing internal security issue, particularly for Mohammed bin Zayed, was the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate, the Al-Islah Party. Both had made considerable inroads into the UAE educational system and were becoming more active politically particularly in northern emirates. The Brotherhood’s political mantra posed a threat to the legitimacy of traditional regimes. In addition, the economic dichotomy between the wealth of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the circumstances of the northern emirates was tailormade for Muslim Brotherhood exploitation.[vii] The UAE leadership needed a catalyst that they could use to change the paradigm – fortunately, it got one.

The economic dichotomy between the wealth of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the circumstances of the northern emirates was tailormade for Muslim Brotherhood exploitation.


Like previous financial crises, the 2008–2009 global crash was good news for Abu Dhabi and the UAE federal government. Eighty billion dollars in public debt and with the state-owned investment company Dubai World, a critical investment company, on the verge of default, Dubai had to ask Abu Dhabi for a bailout.[viii] Dubai received $20 billion in ‘loans’, and suddenly security policy, trade policy, and Iranian policy fell into line with that of the federal government and Abu Dhabi.[ix] While nothing is really ever ‘over’ on the Arab coast, 2009 ushered in a redistribution of power. The rulers in Abu Dhabi used a harder-edged version of Zayed’s economic leverage to consolidate power and control.

For the UAE, Abu Dhabi, and its leaders, it would be hard to exaggerate the psychological impact of 2011. After seeing Bush hand power to the Shi’a in Iraq and disagreeing with Obama’s 2010 decision to withdraw from Iraq and to open a dialogue with Iran, Sheikhs Khalifa and Mohammed witnessed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt be swept away by revolution while the US watched from the sidelines. From an Al Nahyan perspective, the willingness of Washington to stand by and allow, or depending on one’s perspective, to assist in pushing long-term allies over the edge required some careful rethinking. The message was unmistakable – if it was an internal revolt, then you were on your own.

The Arab Spring drove the UAE and Saudi Arabia together and set Abu Dhabi’s ‘forward policy’ in motion.


Neither the ruler nor the crown prince was taking any chances. In 2011 and 2012, liberal reformers and Al-Islah members were arrested, and the Muslim Brotherhood was banned as a terrorist organization. It was a logical reaction. Liberal reformers had opened the door in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood brushed them aside and stepped through it. When the protests spread to Bahrain, Abu Dhabi joined forces with Riyadh to support the Al Khalifa. The Arab Spring drove the UAE and Saudi Arabia together and set Abu Dhabi’s ‘forward policy’ in motion. During the next decade, Mohammed bin Zayed emerged as the undisputed leader of the UAE and would pursue a policy of confronting Iranian and Islamic fundamentalist, particularly Muslim Brotherhood, challenges across Africa and the Middle East.

The UAE seemed to be everywhere with mixed results. In 2015, the joint Saudi-UAE intervention in Yemen prevented the Salih-Houthi alliance from reconquering the largely Sunni south but failed in its strategic goal of bringing the Zaydi government to the negotiating table and forcing an end to Iranian support for the Houthi movement. The UAE military simply lacked the manpower to achieve its objectives and could not make up the difference with mercenaries. Eventually, this reality led to a withdrawal and a policy based almost entirely on proxies.[x] In 2017, the UAE joined a Saudi-Bahraini embargo of Qatar. Qatar’s relationship with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, coupled with Al Jazeera reporting on the Kingdom and the UAE, had become a severe irritant. The boycotters failed to appreciate that the Qataris had become too valuable to too many people, including Turkey and the United States, for this effort to work.[xi] The Qataris have emerged even more independent, and the boycott damaged the UAE’s trading position in the Gulf. Here again, the UAE leadership cut its losses.[xii] There was the Egyptian alliance that failed.[xiii] Whatever comes from various other efforts, there will not be a white flag from the Muslim Brotherhood or rather Brotherhoods given that the organization is hardly the monolith that UAE propaganda depicted.[xiv] To its credit, the UAE saw what it viewed as existential threats and acted. In Bahrain, it served notice that Abu Dhabi would not sit idly by and watch an Arab Gulf state succumb to revolution. In the case of Yemen and Qatar, actual existential threat or not, intervention was a substantially higher risk. The best that can be said is that the UAE managed to extricate itself – the worst that can be said is that their flawed strategy was destined to fail from the beginning. The global ambitions of the UAE notwithstanding, the real danger to the UAE is self-inflicted destabilizing overreach that could undermine the accomplishments of the last fifty years and discredit centralized federalism. There are calls for sanctions from various human rights groups and descriptions of the UAE as an “authoritarian security state.”[xv] Overconfidence drove the Yemen and Qatar policies – the focus now appears to be increasingly more realistic.

The UAE’s desire to set itself apart from other US allies with a very expensive, problematic, and operationally challenged weapons system like the F-35 in return for a treaty with Israel raises interesting issues.


Finally, regarding military modernization, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated, “The proposed sales will make the UAE even more capable and interoperable with U.S. partners … in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran.” The weapons are a means of prepositioning US equipment and capability in a potential conflict zone. It is hard to imagine the UAE acting alone directly against Iran but, for Iran, it is a reminder of the US alliance. That said, the UAE’s desire to set itself apart from other US allies with a very expensive, problematic, and operationally challenged weapons system like the F-35 in return for a treaty with Israel raises interesting issues. According to a State Department spokesman, the extended negotiations over the terms of any transfer “with respect to Emirati obligations and action before, during, and after delivery” have to be absolutely clear and “projected delivery dates on these sales [F-35 and MQ-9B drones], if implemented, would be several years in the future.”[xvi] The question arises: In the end, given the negative propaganda that the Accords handed to Iran, to the Brotherhood, and to other opponents of the Abu Dhabi regime, will it have been worth it? The suspension of negotiations by the UAE raises further questions about the future of the deal and more importantly the value of the Accords.[xvii] The synergy of interest between Israel and the Gulf Arabs in deterring Iran is obvious, but there may be a yet to be determined cost associated with the formal treaty.[xviii]

The United Arab Emirates was in talks to buy 50 F-35 fighter jets from the US in a deal initially agreed last year by the Trump administration (Wilson Ring/AP).

With respect to the reorganization of the military and the creation of the elite forces, this enhances both the image of the federation’s military and internal stability. The limited manpower pool will always be a chronic problem. The UAE has borrowed from the Trucial years and adapted the use of foreign officers, troops, doctrine, and training. No matter how professional, the Emirati forces must be augmented by mercenary cadres. Former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps General James Mattis is famously quoted calling the UAE “Little Sparta” and others have compared the reorganization and force structure of elite units to the US Marine Corps. UAE military performance in Yemen suggests this is hyperbole.[xix] Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA military analyst, assessed elements of the UAE military as being “the best in the Arab world” but the overall quality was “uneven.” Experts repeatedly raise issues like extra-legal military actions, use of mercenaries and surrogates with tainted tactics, poor strategic planning, and overextension.[xx] Many of these standards are taken from Western militaries and misapprehend the context and primary responsibility of a Middle Eastern military.

The greatest threat to any leader or regime in the Middle East is its own military, paramilitary organizations, security services, or some combination thereof. This is particularly applicable to the UAE.


In the Middle East, the primary responsibility of any military is regime protection. Conversely, the greatest threat to any leader or regime in the Middle East is its own military, paramilitary organizations, security services, or some combination thereof. This is particularly applicable to the UAE because militaries and regime loyalty are often as fractured as the political, economic, and socio-cultural landscape of the state. That is why the capabilities of the military are tiered with key units being more highly trained, better paid, better equipped, and more heavily scrutinized than regular force units. The Presidential Guard in the UAE is an excellent example. Commanded by a former Australian major general and leavened with mercenaries and contracted foreigners, the Emirati component consists of thoroughly vetted individuals, mostly if not all officers, with close ties to the federal governing regime and Abu Dhabi. The force not only protects the leadership, but it is also able to serve as a resource for enforcing federal policy or supremacy if need be. Mohammed bin Zayed is a trained military officer, but first and foremost, he is the son of one of the most astute rulers in the history of the Arab Gulf, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan. In reference to regional militaries, he knows what happened to the Hashemites in 1958, to former air force officer turned president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and to any number of other regimes. He knows the role that the militaries played in these events, and the structure of the Presidential Protection Force reflects this knowledge. The new military and security service structure is about maintaining the gains of the last fifty years and protecting the UAE as an increasingly centralized federal system – just as it should be.

The Limitations of Indispensability and the Future

The UAE and the leadership in Abu Dhabi have already demonstrated their ‘indispensability’ to their Gulf and Western allies.


For the UAE and the current Al Nahyan regime, what is the way forward? What does ‘indispensability’ in fact mean? What is the greatest contribution that Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed can make to UAE stability, Arab Gulf security, and Western interests in the region? We know what it’s not – headline grabbing overreach, failed attempts to intimidate Arab states particularly those critical to Western security interests, or high-profile alliances with questionable outcomes. In fact, the UAE and the leadership in Abu Dhabi have already demonstrated their ‘indispensability’ to their Gulf and Western allies. Sheikh Zayed and his sons, Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Mohammed, created and then centralized control over the fractious political, economic, socio-cultural, and dynastic regions in the Gulf. Sheikh Zayed became the ‘indispensable’ partner for the British and then transitioned the old Trucial system into the makeshift federation of early UAE. He then arranged a transition that preserved the federation and placed it in the competent hands of his two sons. In turn, they used the lessons learned about oil and economic leverage to centralize control and policy within the federal government and to create a functioning federal system on the southern Arabian Gulf coast. The UAE’s ‘indispensability’ lies in the fact that since 1971, its rulers have created a vastly improved functioning successor to the British Trucial system that is critical to Gulf Arab and Western interests.

“Despite the great shift from a monarchic to a revolutionary republican system, Iran’s [hegemonic] goals in the area have neither shifted nor changed.”

Dr. Anwar Gargash, Special Adviser to the Crown Prince


Going forward, Mohammed bin Zayed’s greatest claim to indispensability will be the survival and improvement of the current UAE federal system. First and foremost, the crown prince’s assessment of Iran and its intentions in the Gulf are absolutely on the mark. In the words of Dr. Anwar Gargash – a special adviser to the Crown Prince, the former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and himself a member of one of the old established Iranian families in the UAE, “Despite the great shift from a monarchic to a revolutionary republican system, Iran’s [hegemonic] goals in the area have neither shifted nor changed.”[xxi] It is simply not possible for the Iranian government to escape its Persian heritage and prejudices regarding the Gulf Arabs.[xxii] The UAE cannot tolerate any attempt to use the Iranian expatriate community or pan-Islamic movements for subversion. Military modernization and interoperability with the US are important as is a qualitative edge in hardware and training. In a limited conflict, UAE capabilities should give the Iranians pause for thought, but in an all-out conflict, the UAE will not be able to escape the limitations of manpower, logistics, and command infrastructure support. Pride and frustrations and disagreements with Washington aside, the only real option is for Abu Dhabi to continue pursuing an ever-tightening alliance with Washington with the likely correct assumption that an external-based threat to the UAE would provoke an overwhelming US military response.[xxiii]

The second policy issue is a close corollary to the first. The UAE cannot have a strategic policy or for that matter be considered a reliable partner if member emirates are allowed to flaunt the wishes of the federal government and pursue their own arrangements, particularly with Iran. When discussing the UAE’s value as an opponent of Iran or as a force for stability within the Arab Gulf, the issue of a strong federal government that can control the avaricious tendencies and laissez faire policies of emirates that value financial gain at the potential expense of stability, security, and even survival is paramount. Given a decade of increased compliance with federal policies regarding Iran and terrorism policies, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi, and the federal government appear to have solved that problem, but history on the southern coast suggests that nothing is ever ‘over’. For the northern emirates, trade equals prosperity and independence, and there can be little doubt that some of them are actively exploring options to escape compliance or control. Accusations of a “authoritarian, security state” aside, compliance and federal control as well as a rethinking of northern emirate policies on immigration, property ownership, and business partnerships will be continuing issues if the UAE continues to be taken seriously.[xxiv] Fortunately, the current leadership knows this, but maintaining and expanding federal control is a perpetual issue.[xxv]

As a senior Arab intelligence official once stated, “Sometimes friends have to tell friends things that they do not want to hear.”[xxvi] He was referring to the misbegotten attempt to stabilize Iraq with a one-man one-vote democracy. That works both ways. The current policies of the UAE federal government and Abu Dhabi regarding more centralized control, more scrutiny of Iranian efforts at subversion, outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist organizations including Al-Islah, and seeking to strengthen alliances for a potential conflict with Iran are a matter of survival and stability. They are also consistent with the basic interests of the UAE’s Western allies. However, when these efforts or other policies lead to overreach too far afield from the necessities of internal security or with unrealistic, unattainable goals, they become problematic.

An Emirati tank in the port city of Hudaydah, Yemen (Najeeb Almahboobi/EPA).

When the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood results in an embargo of Qatar that was preordained to fail, an interventions in Libya with fugacious upsides, and political-military polices in southern Yemen that undermine initial gains, then it is a problem because it casts doubt on judgement. In Yemen, Iran saw an opportunity to harass Saudi Arabia through the Houthi-Zaydi revival movement. It is historical given that there is no solution to the problem of Yemen and never has been and never will be. The UAE and Saudi Arabia arguably did the right thing in preventing the Houthi-Salih alliance from overrunning the Sunni regions, but the prolonged war damaged the reputations of both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.[xxvii] The humanitarian crisis and accusations of war crimes aside, the strategic effort to bring the Houthis to heel failed. The UAE leadership has had the good judgement in almost all these cases to extract themselves from no-win situations, but reputations have still been damaged.[xxviii] In the aftermath, there is talk of a new UAE regional policy emerging in a shift from “power projection” to “force protection.”[xxix] This is welcomed news because the consolidation and expansion of the gains made by the UAE federal system since 2009 is the real priority for Gulf security. If the northern emirates returned to their pre-2009 practice of unilateralism, it would damage UAE credibility and its Western alliances.[xxx]

With reference to Arab Gulf relations, the centuries old feud with Qatar has moved from confrontation and embargo to a more traditional state of mutual loathing. Omani-UAE relations have its own problems. In 2011, the discovery of a UAE intelligence network spying on Omani-Iranian relations and the more recent UAE efforts to displace Oman in the hierarchy of US regional allies is merely a manifestation of centuries of competition between Oman and the southern Gulf littoral.[xxxi] The alliance with Saudi Arabia, always a one off, is over until the next crisis. Saudi Arabia’s strategic interests are fundamentally different from those of Abu Dhabi’s. The Kingdom is a large Gulf state with visions of dominating the region. Saudi Arabia has more than ten times the number of actual citizens than the UAE. There is a long history of animosity as well. The relationship since 2011 was a marriage of convenience driven by Iranian policy and the threat posed by the Arab Spring. Those threats still exist, but the miscalculations in combatting them caused the allies to part company. In virtually every other respect, UAE and Saudi interests are in competition.[xxxii] Saudi Arabia wants to evolve toward becoming a UAE writ large across the entire Arab Gulf. In addition, new taxes and tariffs in the Kingdom are particularly damaging for the UAE. Now, they have also fallen out over OPEC production quotas with the UAE demanding an increase. These developments represent a return to the historical competitive and adversarial norm for UAE-KSA relations.[xxxiii] Ironically, Saudi-Qatari relations have improved as the Qataris attempt to assist Riyadh in extricating itself from Yemen through diplomacy. Recent developments represent something of a return to the norms of behavior and the traditional frictions among the Gulf Arabs. For the UAE, this should reduce the chances for another ‘forward policy’ gone wrong.

The UAE and Abu Dhabi have introduced programs and projects designed to convert the economy and the citizenry from rentier welfare dependencies.


This discussion of federal centralization in the UAE and Abu Dhabi’s role in unifying the Trucial coast into a working Arab federation brings the focus to another looming long-term issue – the rentier oil economy. The UAE is a welfare state. Affluence is a function of the small number of Emirati citizens and Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth. In fact, the UAE and certainly the centralized state would not exist without the leverage of Abu Dhabi’s oil. The oil is a finite resource underscored by the UAE’s dependence on Qatari gas and the Dolphin pipeline to supply its electrical generation plants. This reality also explains the UAE’s nuclear and ‘green’ electrification efforts.[xxxiv] To Mohammed bin Zayed’s credit, the UAE and Abu Dhabi have introduced programs and projects designed to convert the economy and the citizenry from rentier welfare dependencies. It is an extremely difficult problem with the potential for high political volatility. Emiratis hold senior positions in the government, business, and in the military, but working level positions are held by expatriate workers. In the police forces and military, Emiratis are officers, and the lower ranks are by and large foreigners – South Asians, Iranians, Omanis, etc. Demography is a fundamental underlying weakness in oil-rich Arab Gulf economies.

The ‘conversion’ is so problematic that it will likely only happen when circumstances force the issue. The leadership knows this and is trying to get ahead of the problem, but it is an extremely difficult proposition – a situation that will likely take generations to change. It has taken fifty years for the Trucial States to evolve from a collection of independent sheikhdoms to a union of separate emirates with an overarching federal structure. To transform the society and culture without creating instability and undermining the state is a huge challenge. It shows foresight that the leadership sees it coming, but effectively addressing the problem is another issue altogether.

In 2008, a senior US official responsible for policy and planning in the Middle East was asked about the “long-term strategy for stability and security.” He answered that his “long-term strategy was trying to survive the next two weeks.”[xxxv] There is an analogy here that applies to the UAE, Abu Dhabi, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The objective is for the centralized UAE to survive long enough to have to deal with the problems of converting the rentier economy. All the advantages of oil and financial leverage aside, it is still surprising at how well the UAE since 1971 has done in creating a centralized functioning federation in a geographically and dynastically fractured area. It speaks well of Sheikh Zayed, his sons, and their supporters. Nevertheless, given the volatility and risks inherent with rule in the Gulf region, the focus needs to be on continuing centralization and stability with the UAE eschewing the downside of ‘forward policies’ that could undo the entire experiment.

For Mohammed bin Zayed another decade or two of leadership, whether as crown prince or ruler, followed by an orderly succession in a UAE with a strong federal government, would be the greatest possible contribution to his father’s legacy.


There is an encouraging pragmatism on the part of the UAE leadership so far – withdrawing from Yemen, ending the Qatar embargo, rethinking Libya – that bodes well for the foreseeable future. It is the ghost of Sheikh Zayed with an edge – forceful yet calculatingly conservative, the desert Sheikh who never forgets the order of threats – succession, factionalism, fanaticism, Persians, sometimes Arabs, and sometimes well-meaning allies. Setting the stage for a stable succession that secured these gains was Sheikh Zayed’s crowning achievement. For Mohammed bin Zayed another decade or two of leadership, whether as crown prince or ruler, followed by an orderly succession in a UAE with a strong federal government, would be the greatest possible contribution to his father’s legacy, his brother’s legacy, the Al Nahyan, and that of his own legacy. Little else will matter or likely be remembered – that is, unless something destabilized the regime.

[i] Andrea B Rugh, The Political Culture of Leadership in the United Arab Emirates (London: Palgrave – MacMillan, 2007): 89–93. Rugh provides a fascinating analysis not only of Khalifa’s lineage but the pattern of marriage of his eight children and it has been interlinked with key family clans. Mohammed bin Zayed’s appointment was something of blow to Khalifa who no doubt wanted his own son to succeed him, but the appointment was also not irregular. MBZ was Zayed’s third son, the second Sultan bin Zayed having fallen out of favor because of personal lapses; therefore, the succession was ‘regular’, and with eight full brothers each with a key marriage alliance, MBZ has a strong block for support.
[ii] Discussion with former senior US official. According to some, Mohammed bin Zayed was one of the best negotiators that they had ever encountered. Always prepared, he would seek the advice of experts and return to the table with multiple changes at every session. He knew how to use the expertise of others in enhancing his own capabilities and bargaining position. On one point MBZ was adamant, the F-16 in their UAE configuration had to be capable of reaching Tehran with respectable bombload. There was little doubt on who he saw as the primary enemy. This was high praise particularly when the source is considered.
[iii] Retired senior western diplomat intimately familiar with Arab Gulf affairs.
[iv] See Roby C Barrett, The Collapse of Iraq and Syria: The End of the Colonial Construct in the Greater Levant (Tampa, FL: The Joint Special Operations University Press: 2016): 1–9: https://jsou.libguides. com/ld.php?content_id=18599334. The Bush administration and particularly Paul Bremer, the Viceroy in Iraq, had no understanding of the implications of disbanding the Iraqi army or instituting a sectarian-based “democracy.” It would mean that Iran would win the US’s war in Iraq. The Gulf Arabs absolutely understood it and watched the slow-motion train wreck with great trepidation while American forces in Iraq were still searching to find the weapons of mass destruction that had been the putative reason for war and now apparently did not exist. According to sources, this monograph was used as the capstone reading in the USSOCOM intelligence training course.
[v] “Tehran has managed to increase its religious, cultural, and economic influence in the UAE through a concerted soft-power campaign,” Ahmed Majidyar, “Is the Sectarian Balance in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar at Risk?” American Enterprise Institute (October 21,2013): https://www.aei.org/ research-products/report/is-sectarian-balance-in-the-united-arab-emirates-oman-and-qatar-at-risk/. While the Shi’a are allowed a great deal of religious autonomy in the UAE, Iranians find themselves under much closer scrutiny because of US pressure over sanctions and increasingly centralized security control within the UAE itself. Karim Sadjadpour, “The Battle of Dubai: The United Arab Emirates and the U.S.-Iranian Cold War,” The Carnegie Papers (July 11, 2011): 28: https://carnegieendowment.org/files/dubai_iran.pdf.[vi] Abu Dhabi concluded that the controversy threatened other more important aspects of the relationship with the Bush Administration. David E. Sanger, “Under Pressure, Dubai Company Drops Ports Deal,” New York Times (March 9, 2006): https://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/10/politics/under-pressure-dubaicompany-drops-port-deal.html. In 2010, Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan Al Qasimi (r, 1948–2010), the ruler of Ras al-Khaymah, died. He had not only doggedly opposed federal centralization, but he also provided Al-Islah and Brotherhood sympathizers with protection. This removed another impediment to centralization.
[vii] Guido Steinberg, “Regional Power United Arab Emirates – Abu Dhabi is No Longer Saudi Arabia’s Junior Partner,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Berlin: Deutsches Institut für Internationale Poitik und Sicherheit: 2020): https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020RP10/#hd-d17450e483. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has been the de facto ruler since the 1990s and despite talk of a good relationship with Sheikh Mohammed, his policies followed the commercial and trade focused policies and resisted Abu Dhabi’s attempts to put a damper on Iranian trade. The DP World deal was a shot-across-the-bow for the Al Maktoum and the financial crisis of 2008 would turn Dubai upside down.
[viii] Vikas Bajaj and Graham Bowley, “Arab Emirates Aim to Limit Dubai Crisis in Pledge to Banks,” New York Times (November 29, 2009): https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/business/global/30contagion. html.
[ix] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “Reflections on Mohammed bin Zayed’s Preferences Regarding UAE Foreign Policy,” Arab Center Washington DC (July 24, 2020): https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/ reflections-on-mohammed-bin-zayeds-preferences-regarding-uae-foreign-policy/ MBZ, who, as rumor had it had been somewhat influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth, allegedly told US officials in 2006 that he believed the Brotherhood would win an election in Dubai. If the election had been held in 2009, he would have been proven correct. Under no circumstances would he allow the Brotherhood to undermine his secular vision for the UAE. MBZ believed that Qatar’s inclusive approach with the Brotherhood and protest movements was suicidal, and in the 2010–2011 timeframe, he developed a fixation on Qatar as a potential threat. The parallel with the Al Nahyan view of Qatar and the Al Thani prior to the 1867–1868 war is simply stunning. In addition, the Abu Dhabi rulers believed that the nexus that existed between Dubai and Qatar had serious security implications for Abu Dhabi and its vision for the UAE.
[x] The willingness to ‘cut your losses’ indicates a pragmatic willingness on the part of the Crown Prince to try a policy and then reverse or change it if it does not work. In this case, the odds of Saudi Arabia and the UAE being successful were very low from the beginning – it is almost inexplicable that they would get involved in a long war in Yemen. No one can ‘win’ a ground war in Yemen. That said the reversion to a traditional policy previously practiced by the Saudis of supporting various groups or militias and thereby managing to maintain some influence is likely workable but will be only marginally effective.
[xi] It was in many respects a repeat of the disaster of 1867–1868 with almost the identical players, based on almost identical reasons, and with identical results. One well-known academic and expert on the Middle East, also stated that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were particularly concerned about the western educational institutions with branches in Doha. The crown princes saw these institutions and were alarmed by the numbers of Saudi and Emirati students attending them as centers propagating ideas that could spread and undermine authoritarian rule. One thing was certain; among experts on the region, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were losing the messaging war.
[xii] Despite his weakened position in the union, the Emir of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, protested the embargo and for good reason. Qatar’s ports were notoriously shallow requiring most goods to be loaded onto shallow draft vessels and transshipped to Qatar. Of course, the largest transshipment points were Dubai and to a lesser extent Ras al-Khaymah. As a result of the embargo, Oman and Kuwait picked up most of the transshipment work and Qatar enlarged its deep-water port facilities so that use of UAE ports is no longer required. In addition, during the entire course of the embargo, the UAE continued to pay Qatar and indirectly Iran for gas pumped through the Dophin pipeline to keep UAE power plants running.
[xiii] The Arab world and particularly the Gulf needs to bear in mind that no matter how apparently desperate or poor an Egyptian may appear, his view of the region is reflected in Tahseen Bashir’s quip: “Egypt is the only nation-state in the world; the rest are just tribes with flags.” The attitude has something to do with being around as a state for the last 5,000 years. Mohammed al-Shahed, “Egypt withdraws from US-led Arab alliance against Iran: Report,” i24 News (April 13, 2019): https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/middle-east/ 1555157527-egypt-withdraws-from-us-led-arab-alliance-against-iran-report.
[xiv] In 2014, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed had a stroke and although there was much fanfare about his return to work, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, took over most of his functions as ruler. With regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no doubt that it is in Western interests to see the UAE and other Gulf Arab states control or suppress the Al-Islah and the Brotherhood; however, UAE official and unofficial depictions of a monolithic MB are oversimplified and actually undermined their message about the threat that it poses. Not even the Trump administration was willing to issue a blanket terrorist designation to the MB. In some areas under certain circumstances, the MB might be part of the solution to stability. For example, the dogmatic opposition to Al-Islah and the MB undermined UAE operations against Ansar Allah (Houthis) in Yemen and has earned the UAE the enmity of Libyan groups working to stabilize the security situation and eliminate extremists. From discussions with a key Libyan military leader supporting anti-extremist operations. Historically, Muslim fundamentalist formed the grassroots opposition to Soviet and Chinese-backed Leftists in much of the developing world simplifying US efforts to blunt Communist expansion. David D. Kilpatrick, “Trump Considers Them Terrorists, Some Are Allies,” The New York Times (May 10, 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/10/world/middleeast/trump-muslim-brotherhood.html.
[xv] “Rather, the crackdown on Al Islah was a facet of Abu Dhabi’s efforts to quash any political opposition in the UAE. The Emirates’ security authorities used state-of-the-art surveillance technology to track down and silence even harmless critics; and the country’s intelligence services were greatly expanded.” See Steinberg, Regional Powerhttps://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020RP10/#hd-d17450e483. See also footnote 27 for David D. Kirkpatrick and Azam Ahmed, “Hacking a Prince, an Emir and a Journalist to impress a Client, The New York Times (August 31, 2018): http://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/31/world/ middleeast/hacking-united-arab-emirates-nso-group.html. Jenna McLaughlin, “Deep Pockets, Deep Cover” Foreign Policy, (December 21, 2020): https:// foreign policy.com/2017/12/21/deep-pockets-deep-cover-the-uae-is-paying-ex-cia-officers-to-build-a-spy-empire-in-the-gulf/. The Roman auriga whispering momento mori was a sensible cautionary imperial practice and not a bad idea for successful leadership in the Middle East.
[xvi] Steve Trimble, “Abraham Accords Have Led to Fast Arms Deals but Slow Implementation,” Aviation Week and Space Technology (November 8–21, 2021): 38–39. If these prognostications prove correct, the US will be on the verge of fielding a more advanced 6th generation fighter of which the flying prototypes are rumored to already exist. See also, Tony Osbourne, “Fighter Transformation,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, (November 8–21, 2021): 34–36. This article explains the different approaches of the Arab Gulf states to fighter modernization and highlights the growing reliance on upgrading older designs with new technology and standoff weapons. Given the lethality of new air defence systems, the ability of the platform to carry and launch standoff weapons may be more important than a stealth fighter with its range and payload limitations.
[xvii] Mostafa Salem, Jennifer Hansler, and Celine Alkhaldi, “UAE suspends multi-billion dollar weapons deal in sign of growing frustration with US-China showdown,” CNN (December 15, 2021): https://www.cnn.com /2021/12/14/middleeast/uae-weapons-deal-washington-china-intl/index.html. Much has been made recently about the “suspension” of the F-35 contract by the Mohammed bin Zayed and the large Rafale fighter purchase from France, frankly given the use restrictions and technology control issues that must accompany any sale of fifth generation US aircraft, not to mention the costs in terms of purchase and operation, fourth generation-plus aircraft like the Rafale with deep penetration weapons are likely a better fit for the UAE in terms of control, capabilities, supportability, and policy flexibility. Even should the F-35 buy proceed, the terms of the UAE F-35 arrangement will not reflect those with NATO, Israel, or key US Allies in Asia rendering it more a ‘prestige’ purchase than a practical operational enhancement. Chyrine Mezher, “The UAE is buying the French Rafale. What does it mean for the F-35?” Breaking Defense (December 6, 2021): https://breakingdefense. com/2021/12/ the-uae-is-buying-the-french-rafale-what-does-it-mean-for-the-f-35/.
[xviii] The Senior Arab expert on security affairs and Gulf policy commented a decade ago in an open address in 2008 that he would never have believed that “I would find myself in total agreement with Israel on a topic, but I am on the issue of Iran’s activities and role in the region.” In the 1950s, Israel and Saudi Arabia were the major beneficiaries of the “Arab Cold War” between Nasserist Egypt and Qasim’s Iraq. See Barrett, The Greater Middle East and the Cold War: US Foreign Policy under Eisenhower and Kennedy (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007): 127–148. An example of the problem for Mohammed bin Zayed is the reaction in some quarters to the Scholar-Statesman Award from the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy. Middle East Eye described the award as: “A leading Washington-based think tank has handed an award given to “outstanding leaders” to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, who has been accused of overseeing wide-ranging human rights abuses and brutal foreign interventions, for “securing peace with Israel” and “expanding religious tolerance.” The crown prince is an astute leader who has shown a willingness to reverse himself when the situation requires – it will be interesting to see what happens if it is in fact “years” before the drones and F-35s are forthcoming. For Israel, the Accords constitute a major diplomatic coup – the gains are more ambiguous for the Crown Prince and the UAE. Rayhan Uddin, “UAE: Abu Dhabi crown prince wins award for ‘peace with Israel’ and ‘religious tolerance,’” Middle East Eye (September 15, 2021): https:// http://www.middle-easteye.net/news/uae-israel-deal-mbz-washington-institute-leadership-award-win.
[xix] Richard Spencer, “A Defeat in the Desert: How ‘Little Sparta’ Lost Its Might,” The Times (December 29, 2020): https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/defeat-in-the-desert-how-little-sparta-lost-its-might-bxxncfltl. One analyst compared the UAE Presidential Guard to the US Marine Corps. When the UAE elite forces have fought a battle and collected their dead as the Corps did at Iwo Jima, Chosen, Hue City, or Fallujah, then they can talk about “Little Sparta.” Otherwise, Western military officers in the pay of the UAE must consider whether they may be fostering an overconfidence that will lead an important US ally into a serious miscalculation. The stalled offensive in front of Hodeida is a reminder that UAE forces simply cannot take significant casualties.
[xx] Melissa Dalton and Hijab Shah, “Evolving UAE Military and Foreign Security Cooperation: Path Toward Military Professionalism,” Malcolm H. Kerr Middle East Center (January 12, 2021): https://carnegie-mec.org/2021/01/12/evolving-uae-military-and-foreign-security-cooperation-path-toward-military-professionalism-pub-83549.
[xxi] Sadjadpour, “Dubai,” 10.
[xxii] See Trevor Le Gassick [review] in Modern Fiction Studies (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1998) and Joya Blondel Saad’s The Image of Arabs in Modern Persian Literature (Lanham, MD: The University Press of America, 1996) which describes popular Iranian depictions of Arabs as ”racist, anti-Arab … negative stereotyping of Arabs and their lifestyles and cultures.” This is particularly true of Iranian views of the Gulf Arabs as opposed to Syrians, Egyptians, and Iraqis.
[xxiii] “UAE Influence in Washington is under Scrutiny,” Memo – Middle East Monitor (September 7, 2021); https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210907-uae-influence-in-washington-is-under-scrutiny/ See also Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams, and Nicholas Confessore, “Foreign Powers Buy Influences at Think Tanks,” The New York Times (September 6, 2014): https://www.nytimes.com/2014 /09/07/us/politics/foreign-powers-buy-influence-at-think-tanks.html. Patricia Hurtado, Peter Martin, and Mark Niquette, “Trump Ally’s UAE Lobbying Struck Heart of Democracy, U.S. Says,” Bloomberg (July 20, 2021): https://www. bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-21/trump-ally-s-uae-lobbying-struck-heart-of democracy-u-s-says.
[xxiv] Steinberg, Regional Powerhttps://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020RP10/#hd-d17450e2330.
[xxv] Recently, a UAE power company, AJ Holding, based in Dubai and Fujairah announced an agreement to build power plants in Iran. It violates Western sanctions policy as well as raising questions about the dual-use technology transfers and the potential that enhanced power grids could indirectly benefit the Iranian nuclear program. There is speculation that the deal is an attempt by the UAE leadership to offer Iran an olive branch in hopes of dampening Iranian criticism of UAE participation in the Abraham accords – an unlikely outcome, or is it a ‘sovereign’ Dubai/Fujairah initiative that the UAE government cannot or will not control for internal political reasons? James M. Dorsey, “Playing Cat and Mouse:  UAE Power Company Agrees to Build Powerplants in Iran” (December 13, 2021): https://jamesmdorsey.substack.com/p/playing-cat-and-mouse-uae-energy?
[xxvi] Statement by a senior Arab intelligence official under Chatham House Rules.
[xxvii] Both from the perspective of the Arab Gulf, the West, and political self-determination in Yemen, the campaign to prevent a Zaydi-Salih takeover of largely Sunni areas was necessary to prevent another sack of the south like what happened in 1994. Yemen is a geographic term that encompasses at least five to six distinct independent identities. That said a prolonged ground war was unwinnable unless the Zaydis were quickly isolated in the highlands and the port of Hodeida taken. See Roby C. Barrett, A Different Political Paradigm in Context (Tampa, FL: The Joint Special Operations University Press, 2011): 1–6: https://jsou. libguides.com/ld.php?content_id=2876921. See also, Barrett, The Gulf, 515–530. The argument is that Yemen is a geographical term and not a nation-state. The entire discussion of a nation-state in Yemen is a fiction.
[xxviii] Criticism that the UAE and Saudi Arabia contributed to the prolonged conflict and brought their own disagreements, including those with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood thereby undermining efforts against Al Qaeda, has appeared in widely distributed US military publications. US 9/11 shock and tunnel vision aside, the depiction of UAE efforts is anything but flattering. See Norman Cigar, The Enemy is Us: How Allied and U.S. Strategy in Yemen Contributes to AQAP’s Survival (Tampa, FL: Joint Special Operations University Press, 2018): https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=813049.
[xxix] Elenonora Ardemagni, “The UAE’s Military Adjustment in the Bab El-Mandeb: From Power Projection to Power Protection,” ISPI Commentary (April 22, 2021): https://www.academia.edu/47465068/The_UAEs_ Military_Adjustment_in_the_Bab_el_Mandeb_From_Power_Projection_to_Power_Protection.
[xxx] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen in The Political Economy of Dubai: Dubai’s Role in Facilitating Corruption and Global Illicit Financial Flows,” Edited by Matthew Page and Jodi Vittori. Carnegie Report (July 7, 2020): https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/07/dubai-s-role-in-facilitating-corruption-and-global-illicitfinancial-flows-pub-82180.
[xxxi] Sami Hamdi, “Seeking Alignment with Its Interests, an Emboldened UAE Sizes Up Oman,” Inside Arabi – Voice of the Arab People (November 2, 2020): https://insidearabia.com/seeking-alignment-with-its-interests-an-emboldened-uae-sizes-up-oman/.
[xxxii] Neil Quilliam, “The Rocky New Era of the Saudi-Emirati Relationship,” Foreign Policy (July 27, 2021): https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/07/27/the-saudi-emirati-love-affair-is-over/.
[xxxiii] Jim Krane and Kristian Coats Ulrichsen, “The Saudi-UAE Bust-Up Is a Return to the Persian Gulf Status Quo,” The Baker Institute Center for Middle East Studies – Rice University (July 16, 2021): https:// http://www.bakerinstitute.org/research/saudi-uae-bust-return-persian-gulf-status-quo/. See also, Natasha Turak, “The Saudi Arabia-UAE rift that froze OPEC is a sign of things to come experts say,” CNBC (August 2, 2021): https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/02/the-saudi-arabia-uae-rift-that-froze-opec-is-a-sign-of-things-to-come.html.
[xxxiv] “UAE Energy Diversification,” Embassy of the United Arab Emirates – Washington, D.C.: https://www. uae-embassy.org/about-uae/energy/uae-energy-diversification.
[xxxv] Senior US Official speaking to a small group on the ongoing crises in the Gulf under Chatham House Rules.