By: Nathan McQuarrie
The UAE’s primary goals in its relations with Iran are to avoid conflict and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Recently, the UAE has pursued these goals through a warming of relations with Iran. Traditionally however, the UAE pursued those goals by joining the Saudi-U.S.-led pressure campaign on Iran. Most notably, the UAE provided funds, air support, and thousands of troops to fight the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The UAE also ardently supported the U.S. in its campaign to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and welcomed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in favor of a more aggressive approach.
However, the UAE’s partnership with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. against Iran did not prove advantageous over the last several years. Emirati leaders reportedly convened in June 2019 to fundamentally reassess the UAE’s foreign policy. At that meeting, the UAE’s vice president, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, allegedly complained about the hundreds of millions of dollars that the UAE was spending on countering Iran in Libya, Sudan, and Yemen. Al-Maktoum also complained of President Trump’s unreliability. Following the downing of a U.S. drone on June 20th, the Emiratis expected a strong American show of force and were disappointed when President Trump called off the retaliatory attack at the last minute. President Trump’s uneven response to Iranian aggression resulted in the perception among the UAE’s leadership that the U.S. could not be counted on for security, especially in a conflict with Iran. President Trump’s withdrawal of support from the Kurds in Syria added to that perception.
The New UAE Policy Towards Iran
With all these considerations in mind, the UAE began a fundamental shift in its policy towards Iran in the middle of 2019. With less confidence in American security, and growing costs from the intervention in Yemen, the UAE decided to act preemptively to secure its interests by reopening diplomatic efforts with Iran. Thus far, this new policy has included withdrawing troops from Yemen, mending economic ties with Iran by unfreezing $700 million in Iranian funds, and sending officials to meet secretly with Iranian leaders. In September, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with the UAE’s Foreign Minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, to discuss the UAE-Iran relationship.
Efficacy of the New Policy
The UAE’s new policy towards Iran has limits though. The new orientation did not prevent the U.S. and Iran from riding to the brink of war earlier this year over the killing of Qassim Suleimani. While that war never materialized, the Middle East came extremely close to another Gulf war, which would have spelled ruin for the UAE and its economy. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia both called for de-escalation during the crisis, it is unclear just how influential their entreaties were, if at all, on the decision of U.S. and Iranian leaders to pull back from war. Additionally, the new policy has not had an effect on reducing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In fact, Iran has begun exceeding limits placed on its Uranium Enrichment by the JCPOA. Considering the current U.S. posture towards Iran, it is unlikely that the UAE would be able use its influence to broker a new deal that would prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
As demonstrated, the efficacy and effectiveness of the UAE’s new diplomatic approach towards Iran will depend heavily on the actions of the UAE’s much larger allies. While the UAE may try to broker peace between Iran and the U.S.–Saudi coalition, the UAE still remains a small country with an inconsequential population. Despite its growing wealth and prominence, the UAE will not be able to constrain a vindictive Iran or a retaliatory U.S. from reengaging in hostilities. If however both the U.S. and Iran continue to regard war as a non-starter, then the UAE’s diplomatic stance will position it well to secure lasting peace in the region, and perhaps lead in the formation of a new status quo in the Gulf.