Emirati manoeuvres

Ahmed Mustafa , Saturday 10 Jun 2023

The UAE withdrew from US-led maritime forces patrolling the Gulf, with media reports indicating it will join a similar mission alongside Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Emirati manoeuvres
Emirati manoeuvres


A decade of American disengagement in the Middle East is culminating in policy shifts that may well see a permanent change in some states’ attitudes and stances. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a prime example of such states, having made big statements and bold manoeuvres. 

This week, the Emirati National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan met his American counterpart Jake Sullivan at the White House. The meeting took place one day after the UAE announced its withdrawal from the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) two months ago as part of its assessment of “effective security cooperation” in the Middle East.

The American-led coalition of 38 countries’ naval forces “working together to combat Iranian attacks on commercial ships, weapons smuggling and piracy”, which includes the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Germany, is the largest such maritime security force in the world.

The Bahrain-based American 5th fleet, which leads the CMF, insisted that the UAE is still a “participant” despite its official announcement of withdrawal from the force patrolling the Gulf. A day before the Emirati announcement last week, the American daily Wall Street Journal published an article about the Emirati frustrations with American efforts to protect commercial ships from Iranian attacks in the region. According to the paper, “Emirati officials told US officials they were unhappy with American-led security efforts in the region earlier this month [May], after Iran seized two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz on April 27 and May 3”. One tanker was transitting between the Emirati port cities of Dubai and Fujairah.

But Emirati resentment of US policy in the region dates back to other incidents that have taken place in recent years. In January 2022, the UAE was left in a state of frustration when the US was slow to come to the Gulf nation’s aid after Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen launched a deadly drone attack that killed three people in the capital, Abu Dhabi. Since 2019, Iran has been accused of targeting ships in the Sea of Oman, some of them Emirati. The American response was not satisfactory to its Gulf allies, who particularly resented Washington’s failure to act in September 2019 following the Houthis’ drone and missile attacks on Saudi energy giant Aramco’s facilities that stopped almost half of Saudi oil production.

Yet the White House statement in the wake of the two security advisers’ meeting reiterated the “enduring US-UAE strategic partnership”. Mr Sullivan “welcomed the UAE’s leadership in the run-up to the COP-28 Summit in the UAE”, while Sheikh Tahnoon “praised the US defence partnership with the UAE”. The official statement added that both “pledged to intensify cooperation under the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII)”, as well as seek “ways to deepen and expand the Abraham Accords including through the I2U2 grouping [India, Israel, the US and the UAE] and the Negev Forum, under which the UAE last year convened the largest gathering of Israelis and Arabs in decades.”

The Emirati Foreign Ministry statement on its withdrawal from CMF played down the significance of the move. It said that news reports had mischaracterised “US-UAE conversations regarding maritime security”. The statement on the ministry’s website added, “the UAE is committed to peaceful dialogue and diplomatic engagement as a means to advance the shared goals of regional security and stability… As a result of our ongoing evaluation of effective security cooperation with all partners, two months ago, the UAE withdrew its participation in the Combined Maritime Forces.”

Speculation about the Emirati move as a snub to the US became rife as some media reports suggested it is joining another maritime force that includes Iran to patrol the Gulf. English-language Iranian channel Press TV reported this week that “Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Oman are to form a joint naval force under the auspices of China towards enhancing maritime security in the Gulf.” China has been playing an active role in the region recently, interpreted as “filling the void” resulting from Washington’s waning clout there. Beijing oversaw an agreement between Tehran and Riyadh to resume diplomatic relations.

Whether the news about an alternative coalition with Iran to patrol the Gulf is true or just a trial balloon, the UAE has been taking steps seen by the Americans as “intimidating.” Enhancing cooperation with China is a source of concern to the US and the West in general. According to the Financial Times this week: “The UAE has attracted many Russians and their assets in the wake of the Ukrainian war, raising concerns in the West that the Gulf’s financial capital could emerge as a haven for sanctions busting.”

But the Emiratis insist on the notion of “seeking national interests” rather than placating or intimidating any party. Their relationship with the US is important and “there’s a commitment to keep advancing the relationship,” according to an official source. They maintain the principle of “a difference in opinion not spoiling friendly relations.” Still, many observers view the most recent moves by the Emiratis as a swing from West to East.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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