May 25, 2016. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi receives Muhammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy commander-in-chief of the UAE armed forces.
ZUMA Press/Alamy Live News.
Among the member States of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia and Qatar have received the most media attention in recent years. In France, presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Holland have greatly contributed to this, the latter’s focus on Saudi Arabia having abruptly replaced his predecessor’s passion for Qatar. The same holds foot the civil war in Syria, where Riyadh and Doha have been conspicuously supporting the revolt against Bachar Al Assad’s regime. By comparison, the federation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has kept a low profile.
Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy has two principal goals: to protect itself against Iran and to combat political Islam in all its forms, with the Muslim Brotherhood as its main target. While the fear of Iran is shared on the whole by the other Gulf monarchies, the same is not true of political Islam, an area in which the Emirates are completely at odds with Qatar and also, though only recently, with Saudi Arabia. While King Abdallah was ferociously opposed to the Brotherhood, which he had even included, like the United Arab Emirates, on the list of terrorist organisations, King Salman, in order to promote a Sunni front, ostensibly against terrorism but actually against Iran, has tempered that hostility.
Saudi behaviour with regard to the Brotherhood rather resembles that of Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy must deal with a population of majority Shiite, or that of Kuwaiti attitude, where the parliamentary system is historically more liberal, despite its being a monarchy. For Abu Dahbi, on the other hand, such a compromise is out of the question: once so well tolerated in the Emirates as to have gained considerable influence, including at State level, the Brotherhood came to be considered, after the turn of the century, as a threat to national stability and since 2011 has undergone merciless repression.
Attachment to the Sisi regime
Both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh were strong supporters of Marshall Sisi’s putsch that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Botherhood who had the support of Qatar and Turkey, and had won the first really democratic election ever held in Egypt. But neither of those capitals was about to allow the Brotherhood to take over an emblematic Sunni country, the most populous in the Arab world, home of Al Azhar University and guarantor of their strategy depth with respect to Iran.
The Emirates’s attachment to the Sisi regime has kept them from getting involved in the conflict between Cairo and Riyadh which has developed in recent months. This conflict has multiple aspects: President Sisi’s public endorsement of Bachar Al-Assad, the Eyptian refusal to provide ground troops in Yemen to fight the Houthi rebellion, the conspicuous rapprochement between Moscow and Cairo, and finally the fact that the Egyptian courts have blocked the transfer to Saudi Arabia of the two Egyptian islands which control the straits of Tiran, southern entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba on the South-West shore of the Sinai. Contrary to Riyadh which has, by way of reprisal, suspended its aid to Egypt, and notably its oil deliveries, Abu Dhabi is still supporting Cairo, even while criticising the poor management of the billions of dollars the Gulf countries have poured into Egypt.
Against Ennahda in Tunisia
On the other hand, the UAE has cut off supplies to Tunisia, whereas before 2011 they were in that country’s second largest trade partner after Libya. Why? Because the government was taken over by Rached Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. This ostracism has persevered to this day because of the party’s continued presence, albeit with a single minister, in the cabinet formed by President Beji Caid Essebsi. The scenario which Abu Dhabi favoured, the total eviction of the Brotherhood from the avenues of power, as happened in Egypt during the summer of 2013, did not come to pass. By giving up the post of Prime Minister in January 2014, the Ennahda leader, partly influenced by events in Egypt, was able to avoid this extremity.
Symptomatically, the forum held at the end of last November in Tunis in view of stepping up investments in that fragile country, was sponsored in large part by Qatar. No representative of the UAE bothered to come, only two people from a Dubai investment firm were present. By way of contrast, King Salman’s Arabia has strengthened its ties with Tunis after a period of extreme tension following the events of 2011.
At odds with Ryadh in Yemen
In Yemen, the Emirates are part of the military coalition formed by Arabia in 2015 to fight the Zaydite movement, Ansrullad d’Abdelmalik Al-Houthi which has rebelled against the regime of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. However, they do not approve of the Saudi support foot Al-Islah, the Muslim Botherhood’s party in Yemen, whose tribal militia are nonetheless fighting side by side with the troops loyal to President Hadi. Similarly, the two monarchies disagree about the nature of the future Yemenite regime and the identity of its future leaders. Both deny the existence of any disagreement, but in fact the role, if any, to be granted the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen is a deep source of division.
Abu Dhabi also criticises Riyadh’s lack of concern over the expansion of jihadi groups in Yemen, profiting by the present chaos. Al-Qaida in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) has considerably widened its territory in the southeastern and eastern parts of the country. Even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), absent from Yemen until the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition, has appeared as the result of a schism within AQAP. In fact, the Saudis for a long time avoided bombing AQAP which was fighting the Houthis. On the other hand, the ISIL perpetrated murderous attacks against both the loyalists, notably in Aden, and the partisans of Ansrullah, including in Sanaa itself. Consequently the Emirates, while still formally part of the Saudi coalition, have concentrated their war efforts on the jihadi organisations. They are now taking part in the campaign the US have waged against AQAP for many years now, primarily via killer drones, but also by special forces commando operations. Thus UAE soldiers took part at the end of January in the first US special forces raid under the Trump presidency against a safe house for Al Qaida fighters.
In Syria, the Emirates, unlike Qatar and Arabia, while backing the moderate opposition to the Assad regime, have been careful not to support the Islamists. Now that the presence of the latter in the field has become preponderant, they advocate a political solution, associating Russians and Americans. Although not going so far as to adopt the Egyptian position, favourable to Assad, Abu Dhabi is now less aggressive towards Damascus. Along with their American counterparts, UAE special forces are said to be training elements of the opposition which constitute a kind of Arab guarantee among the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group dominated by the Kurds of the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, on whom the US are relying on to fight ISIL on the ground and take back Raqqa, the organisation’s Syrian “capital.” We might also mention the participation of the Emirates with their F16s in the US-led anti-ISIL coalition. Their actions are confined to the Syrian theatre, like those of the other Arab members of the coalition, among which the UAE is nonetheless proving to be the most active.
Military support to the Libyan opposition
In Libya, the Emirates’ role is particularly conspicuous for they find themselves in direct armed confrontation with Qatar. Their involvement here goes back to 2011 when, with the technical assistance of the US, their F16s participated in the NATO operations instigated by France to bring down Mouammar Khadaffi’s regime. Already at the time, UAE special forces fought side by side with non-Islamic militia groups. Doha, besides the contribution of its Mirage 2000 to the anti-Khadafi coalition, with the technical backup of France, also sent its special forces into Libya but this was in aid of an Islamist militia.
These rival interventions, both carried out with the blessing of France, reluctant to alienate either of these two important trade partners, only deepened the state of chaos. Since then, the Emirates has allied with Egypt to provide military support for general Heftar who opposes the government set up with great difficulty in Tripoli, with the help of the international community. Since 2014, Heftar has commanded a self-proclaimed national army attached to the Tobruk parliament in exile. They are fighting every manifestation of political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, which the general describes, using rhetoric copied from President Sisi, as a terrorist group, no different from the jihadi groups tied to Al Qaida or ISIL, also present in Libya.
Thus the Emirates find themselves in military opposition to Qatar, who is backing and arming militia close to the Brotherhood, especially those operating in Misrata. These made up the bulk of forces allied with the Tripoli government which, with the support of the US airforce, drove ISIL out of Sirte in 2016. Abu Dhabi went so far as to bomb Islamist militias in Tripoli using aircraft based in Egypt. More recently the Emirates have provided general Heftar with light propellor-driven planes for ferrying ground troops. The pilots were mercenaries supplied by the former head of the now-defunct Blackwater company, Erik Prince, who has been doing business with Abu Dhabi for several years. In Libya, while the UN is striving with great difficulty to sustain a compromise government in Tripoli, the Emirates are supporting its most powerful adversary, in the name of their struggle against any and every form of Islamism.
Dahlan, Heftar and Russia
On the Palestinian question as well, the fight against the Brotherhood determines Abu Dhabi’s attitude. Not content with giving refuge from 2011 to Mohammed Dahlan, they hope to see him become Mahmoud Abbas’ successor, despite opposition inside El Fata, where he is accused of corruption and of having had a hand in the supposed poisoning of Yasser Arafat. Dahlan is a fierce enemy of the Brotherhood in general and Hamas in particular, besides being on the best of terms with Israel and Egypt.
Of all the monarchies in the CGC, the federation of the United Arab Emirates no doubt has the best relations with Russia, while remaining a very close ally of the United States. We encounter this proximity in Libya, where Moscow, while posing as a mediator, is nonetheless supporting general Heftar, who made a visit to Moscow in 2018 and was invited on board the aircraft-carrier Kouznetsov off the Libyan coast in January 2017. The same is true in Egypt, where Russia has been increasingly present, especially in matters military, since general Sisi took power. This proximity even exists in Syria, at least to some extent, since Abu Dhabi argues in favour of a partnership with Russia.
Weakening political Islam by all means
It may also be observed in Abu Dhabi’s involvement with the organisation in Grozny, at the end of August 2016, of a conference on Sunnism in collaboration with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. During that event, at which the Egyptian delegation, led by the grand Imam of Al-Azhar, was especially large, Wahhabism (the Saudi brand of Salafism) was declared to be a dangerous distortion of Sunni Islam and not even to be a part of it. However, the final press release made no mention of either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, countries which had not been invited and where Wahhabism is the official doctrine. By giving their support to this ostracism of the brand of Salafism propagated by Arabia, the Emirates wished to make perfectly clear their opposition to any form of Islam likely to further the growth of jihadism. This political and religious attack on Riyadh is a direct challenge to the Saudi monarchy’s claim to hegemony over the Sunni population of the world. Arabia’s reaction, verbally very violent, was mostly aimed at Egypt, thus fuelling even more the feud between the two countries. On the other hand, it spared the Emirates which were not officially involved in setting up the conference except by way of a foundation based in Abu Dhabi.
The United Arab Emirates bank on eliminating the Brotherhood within their borders and combating it everywhere else. For them it is important to weaken the networks of a political Islam which they still fear might rear its head again within the Federation, where its sympathisers, though now gone underground, have never disappeared.