Q&A with Middle East Community members - Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen

Wikistrat spoke with Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen on an article he co-authored with Giorgio Cafiero, The Changing Balance of Power in USA-UAE Relations, Al Sharq Strategic Research


Wikistrat: Why/how has Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) become a highly strategic actor on the international stage in recent years?


KU: Mohammed bin Zayed has become a strategic actor on the regional and international stage in the decade since the Arab uprisings swept through much of the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. During this period, MBZ has consolidated power and authority at home and has emerged as the undisputed decision-maker within both Abu Dhabi and across the federation of the UAE as a whole. MBZ has been driven by the conviction that Iran and political Islam pose the two most serious threats to regional stability and to the ‘UAE model’ of ‘secular’ authoritarianism.


Driven in part by the assertive Qatari response to the Arab Spring and perceived support of Islamist actors in states that experienced regime or leadership transition in 2011-12, MBZ spearheaded an aggressive Emirati response designed to contain and then roll back participatory openings made by Islamist actors and parties in transition states. The close alignment of the UAE with Saudi Arabia and the even closer personal relationship MBZ has forged with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has added geopolitical weight to the UAE’s standing although it has also contributed to the debacle in Yemen and the unsuccessful attempt to isolate Qatar.


Wikistrat: Will MBZ’s efforts to develop the UAE’s autonomy through ties with China, Russia, and India be impacted by the Emirates’ special partnership with Washington and formal diplomatic relations with Jerusalem? What are the risks for the UAE’s leadership as a result?


KU: MBZ has chosen to diversify the UAE’s international relations and commercial and strategic partnerships, a process that began in the early 2010s but which gathered pace as Emirati decision-makers expressed concern at apparent US disengagement from regional affairs under the Obama administration and, since 2018, the perceived drift in the Trump administration’s approach to the region too. MBZ is unlikely to buy into any US pressure on the Emirates to take ‘sides’ and pick the US over Russia and China and will push back strongly were any such attempt to be made. Relations with Israel are far less likely to be impacted by UAE ties with China and Russia and MBZ is likely to focus on developing and expanding bilateral UAE relations with key regional and international states based on the assessment of what is best for the UAE rather than what Washington thinks or wants to see happen.


Wikistrat: What could move Abu Dhabi toward alignment with any major global power on the Qatar blockade question?


KU: US officials are making another attempt to facilitate dialogue to resolve the rift with Qatar and once again are focusing on mending relations between Doha and Riyadh, in the view that what the blockade of Qatar essentially boils down to is the closure of Qatar’s only land border (with Saudi Arabia) and the closure of Saudi airspace to Qatari aircraft. Were these issues to be resolved, the blockade of Qatar essentially would end, with or without UAE buy-in, but any bilateral Saudi-Qatar agreement would risk leaving the UAE as the holdout to a resolution that the US has long sought.


For this reason, MBZ has put pressure on the Saudi leadership not to make any concession to end the blockade without Emirati approval, and this appears to have derailed at least two prior US-facilitated attempts to end the blockade in December 2019 and July 2020. As the Trump administration is anxious to seal a reconciliation agreement that it can portray as another foreign policy ‘win’ ahead of the November 3 presidential election, it will be instructive to see whether MBZ is willing to continue to block any such development, even at the cost of attracting the ire of the White House.


Wikistrat: In what way has the White House outsourced part of Washington’s foreign policy to the Emirates, particularly in regard to Libya?


KU: The general inattentiveness of the White House to aspects of regional policy, such as the deteriorating political and security situation in Libya, has opened space for regional players, such as the UAE, to move in and play an outsize role in events. UAE involvement in Libya long predates the Trump administration’s entry into office in January 2017, but what has perhaps changed is that there is more room for Emirati officials to maneuver given the lack of fixed US interest in the Libyan endgame. It may also be the case that the White House’s often-expressed desire to lighten its regional footprint makes the Trump administration more open to regional partners that claim that they are ready and willing to take on more of the burden-sharing, regardless of their aims and objectives that a more conventional administration would scrutinize more closely.

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