The world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, projected a giant Turkish flag last month – a sight few would have expected until very recently. In the past decade, Turkey and the Emirates have pursued a fierce regional rivalry. Yet in recent weeks Abu Dhabi gave a lavish welcome to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan as part of a wider rapprochement that includes the UAE investing $10bn in Turkey’s struggling economy.
This is quite a shift for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. In recent years, the Emirates has earned the nickname “Little Sparta” for increasing military investment and active deployment, amplifying their regional power. For a relatively small state, the UAE has been hyper-active, using military and economic tools in Libya, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere to build regional influence while facing down rivals like Turkey, Iran and Qatar.
Now it seems it has changed tack. UAE presence in Yemen has been reduced, while the Libya conflict is stalemated. Meanwhile the détente with Ankara comes alongside a concerted diplomatic push for improved relations with former rivals. Tensions with Qatar were eased in early 2021 with the ending of a near four-year boycott of Doha. Ties with Iran, while still tense, have warmed, with the dispatch of an Emirati security advisor to Tehran in December. Abu Dhabi has also shown enthusiasm for the United States’ revived nuclear talks with Iran, having previously urged then-president Donald Trump to abandon the JCPOA.
The Emirates seems to be navigating itself into a unique regional position: on speaking terms with all. They normalised ties with Israel, while reopening the UAE embassy in Syria, the former’s staunch enemy. It retains a deep military and economic alliance with the United States but has also strengthened its ties to China and kept channels open with Russia. As a result, the UAE is increasingly looking as much Little Switzerland as Little Sparta.
There are three main explanations for this shift in approach. Firstly, the “Spartan” military activism has become increasingly ineffective. Intervention in Libya and Yemen scored some successes, including early victories for the UAE’s Libyan allies and the establishment of Emirati bases on south Yemen’s coast and islands. However, the Libyan war has stalled, while Yemen has descended into a humanitarian disaster that has increased international criticism of the Saudi-led coalition. In addition, the Yemen war is now hitting home, with rebel Houthi missile attacks being launched at the UAE.
Secondly, some of the UAE’s local priorities have shifted. One of the key motivators for getting involved in regional crises was Bin Zayed’s determination to limit the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Arab Uprisings of 2011, these Islamists looked set to dominate various post-revolutionary governments. However, by supporting a military coup against the Brotherhood in Egypt, sponsoring anti-Islamist forces in Libya and backing non-Brotherhood separatists in Yemen, the UAE has effectively weakened the Brotherhood in all three states. Unlike in the early 2010s, the Brotherhood now looks unlikely to sweep to power in Arab capitals anytime soon.
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Thirdly, the geopolitical climate has fundamentally shifted. Biden’s election was significant. Donald Trump was sympathetic and even encouraging of a more military interventionist UAE and supported both the Yemen and Libya operations. Biden, however, has taken a more conciliatory approach. Yet this is not the only factor. The past decade has seen the Middle East fall down the US’ priority list. Like Saudi Arabia and other allies, the UAE has had to reorient its security and diplomatic strategy to be less reliant on America. The “Little Sparta” approach was one response. After its limited success, shifting to embrace diplomacy with all regional and international players is another.
Despite something of a dialing down, acute tensions remain across the Middle East. It means there could well be more utility in the UAE playing the role of the region’s Switzerland than its Sparta. As a survival strategy in a contested region when the US is a less reliable security partner than previously, it makes sense to maintain dialogue with all the key actors. How far Abu Dhabi takes this, however, is unclear. Though distrusted by some, the Emirates would be able to use its connections and financial power to step up to a mediation role. It is already facilitating Syria’s regional reintegration, however controversial, and might consider creative diplomatic solutions to end Yemen’s long war. That said, it still retains expanded military capacity and, should the regional or international context shift again, Little Sparta could still return.
Christopher Phillips is a Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary University of London