The Growing Regional Clout of the UAE

Many in the Arab world and elsewhere now understand that the UAE has the power to influence the direction taken by regional developments.

United Arab Emirates, the Sparta in the Gulf
United Arab Emirates, the Sparta in the Gulf

By Yoel Guzansky | for INSS,

The weakening of the traditional Arab political and military centers, as a result of the upheavals in the Middle East, has spurred a change in the conduct of some of the Arab Gulf states and boosted their influence. A prominent example of this is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has positioned itself as a key player in the processes shaping the region.

After dealing with potential threats at home, the federation (which includes the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain) took a leading role in contending with some of the political, economic, and military challenges posed by the Arab Spring.



The withdrawal of the British forces from areas “East of Suez” in 1971 accelerated the formation of the UAE on the basis of the Trucial Coast. Forty-five years later, the second largest economy in the Middle East – with the best trained and equipped military among Arab militaries – is focusing on neutralizing regional threats and on projecting power well beyond its borders.

While its strategic relations with the United States and its membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) still constitute key components of its defense policy, the UAE has made more frequent use of its military since the outbreak of the regional turmoil. The assertiveness typifying its foreign policy is closely related to its doubts about the future United States commitment to its security, and to its concerns about the strengthening of Iran and radical Islam and their impact on its internal stability.

“We can’t be a stable house if there is a brush fire around us,” said the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs back in 2014.

Little Sparta

As part of this trend, the UAE inaugurated a naval and air force base in Eritrea on the Red Sea coast, and thus became the only Arab country with a military base outside of its borders. It was also reported recently that the UAE built an additional military base in eastern Libya.

Despite its small military (about 50,000 military personnel), the UAE is well equipped with the most advanced weapon systems it can obtain and gained extensive operational experience in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Bosnia. Its forces were critical in suppressing the Shiite uprising in Bahrain in 2011, and its air force participated in the campaign to topple Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya.



The UAE’s military (which includes mercenaries) plays a key role in the continuing air, ground, and naval operations against the Houthis in Yemen, and it is the most active Arab partner in the coalition against the Islamic State (along with its support of rebel groups seeking to topple the Assad regime). Furthermore, its air force has attacked targets in Libya numerous times, using Egyptian bases. In addition to providing financial assistance to el-Sisi’s regime, the UAE allows Egypt to use surveillance drones, made by the Abu Dhabi-based Adcom, in the Sinai Peninsula.

Unlike Arab neighbors that purchase advanced weapon systems but often leave them unused, the Emirates makes optimal use of its purchases, and has thus earned itself the nickname “Little Sparta” within the US military.

“There’s a mutual respect, an admiration, for what they’ve done – and what they can do,” said General (ret,) James Mattis, who was nominated to serve as United States Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration.

Furthermore, the federation is seeking to deter Iran and, no less important, to achieve closer ties with Washington, by permitting the American air force and navy to operate in its territory (about 5,000 American military personnel are stationed in the UAE) and undertaking massive weapons purchases.

The federation was the first to order the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), and it is now looking to purchase the F-35 fighter plane.

The ratio between its small population (out of about nine million residents, only about one million are citizens) and the enormous proven oil reserves within its borders (about 100 billion barrels of oil) makes the UAE one of the richest countries in the world. This wealth allows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (the de-facto ruler) to buy domestic quiet. The wave of regional protest prompted some intellectuals and youth in the Emirates to ask for more political freedom. This minor protest, expressed mainly in the social media, has since been silenced, and the Federation proceeded to suppress any possible upheaval, particularly any associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, and due to concerns about protests given the downtrend in oil prices over the last two years, the UAE awarded generous stipends to citizens, and a greater role was given to women and youth in the state institutions.

Relations with Iran

The tensions between the UAE and Iran, which antedate the Islamic Revolution in Iran, were exacerbated in recent years by Tehran’s support of the Houthis in Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria. To the UAE, Iran poses the main threat to regional stability, and UAE leaders do not hesitate to criticize the Islamic Republic for its persistent involvement in Arab affairs. At the same time, the UAE diligently protects its normative commercial relations with Iran, and it seeks to capitalize on the removal of the sanctions on Iran and increase the volume of bilateral trade.

The fact that it is Iran’s second most important trade partner (after China) has led some in the federation to take a more pragmatic stance toward Iran. Yet despite the high volume of trade with Iran (many Iranian companies operate from the UAE, taking advantage of Dubai’s position as a financial hub), the issue of the three disputed Persian Gulf islands muddied the relations between the countries.

Upon the withdrawal of the British forces from the Gulf, Iran seized Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. In 1992, Iran asserted complete control of Abu Musa, routed the guard corps stationed there, and breached the joint sovereignty agreement between the countries. In recent years Iran has increased its control over the islands, does not recognize the UAE’s historic affinity to them, and is claiming its inalienable rights to the islands.

Relations with Saudi Arabia

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed warmer relations since the outbreak of the turmoil in the Middle East, and the two states are cooperating in a number of arenas. The personal relationship between Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia, contributed to the warming of these relations, and in particular, to the development of similar threat perceptions.

These are in contrast to the strained relations that existed before the formation of the federation between the two royal families, al-Nahyan and al-Saud, which were accompanied by frequent border disputes as well as power plays over leadership roles in the Arab world and within the GCC.

Despite the shared current challenges, the mutual distrust has not dissipated entirely, and is reflected inter alia in the differing positions held by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the el-Sisi regime in Egypt. Abu Dhabi is Egypt’s strongest economic supporter, and it is possible that it had a hand in el-Sisi’s rise to power.

Nuclear Development

Barring any delays, the first nuclear reactor (out of four currently under construction) will be connected to the electric grid by late 2017, and the UAE will become the first Arab country with a sustainable nuclear program. Even though the UAE has one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world, it plans to diversify its energy mix, which is based almost completely on fossil fuels. Alongside investments in developing solar power, the federation launched an ambitious program for generating electricity through nuclear power plants, and the assessment is that once completed, they will add 5.6 gigawatts to the power grid. The completion of the nuclear power project will earn the UAE much prestige and an improved regional standing vis-à-vis Iran and its Arab neighbors.

The UAE has posed convincing arguments about its need for a nuclear power program: the increased demand for energy, its desire to reduce its dependence on pollutant fossil fuels, and the need to free up more oil for exports. For the foreseeable future, the federation indeed does not constitute a threat as to nuclear weapons proliferation. However, in the distant future, its nuclear program may have a deterrent contribution, perhaps because its rivals are concerned about the possibility that its nuclear program might contain a military dimension. Doubts on the Emirates’ continued commitment to prohibit uranium enrichment within its borders surfaced following the signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and in light of certain remarks by UAE leaders.

The UAE will continue to use its vast economic resources and its military might to attempt to influence the direction that the Arab world is taking. In the past, the UAE exhibited moderation and restraint in its foreign relations and stood in the shadows of others; today, however, it is the driving force behind many of the regional changes and is a key player in many arenas – not less, and sometimes more, than Saudi Arabia.

Many in the Arab world and elsewhere now understand that the UAE has the power to influence the direction taken by regional developments, and they seek to attract the UAE to their side. For its part, Israel too recognizes that the UAE is an essential element in Israel’s efforts to strengthen relations with the Sunni Arab world.

  • Guest11

    Interesting. Trump and his designated Defense Minister are good friends of UAE. This will likely endorse UAE’s militarization in the region and its Assab military facility to fight Iran’s influence. Trump is anti Iran in any way. All this will leave a very interseting perspective for the UAE to play a role in the background and bring the unfair sanction to an end.

    • Kaleab B

      Good point. The next 2 years will be interesting to watch. I hope the Eritrea cashes in on whatever political capital it believed it has gained from this alliance.

      • langa langa

        Are you Looking forward to become a US puppet, what happens to your hyped bravado, calling the Ethiopian gov for a puppet or kedami, aye langa langa

        • Kaleab B

          LOL, you sound nervous. Your TPLF masters invaded a country (Somalia) on behalf of another country (USA). That makes them by your own word, not mine, “puppet or kedami”. Read wiki for details, I am LOL again

  • Merhaba Trump

    I am feeling good already about the Trump Administration.

    (1) James Mattis, the incoming Defense Minister, is a friend of UAE. Hey, any friend of UAE is a friend of Eritrea.

    (2) Rex Tillerson, the incoming Foreign Affairs Minister, is an oil man from Texas and CEO of Exxon, a company active in the exploration of oil and natural gas on the Red Sea. Eritrea has declared itself open for oil and gas exploration. What’s not to like?

    (3) Fluor, a construction and engineering company based in Texas, just secured a contract to design and perhaps build Potash project in Eritrea. I can’t remember the last time an American company won any contract to build anything in Eritrea. In the spirit of the late Abona Siraj, may I invoke an Eritrean proverb I once heard, “Dihri selefa intay terefa?” Or in English, “After her thighs, well…what has she got left?” Is this the beginning of the fall of the sanctions regime? Once American companies start taking contracts in Eritrea, what will be left of the sanctions regime? Dihri selefa intay terefa?

    • Lalmba

      Well said indeed. Looking at it in another semantic “If you can’t beat them, join them” seems to be in order. ኢንሻላህ ኣፍካ ይስዓር!

      • illogic shaboo

        So you have stopped fighting the big power nations senes Qatar is together with the Saudis a US puppet stat, ready to bomb Yemen to Syria 2.. So what make you different then your favorite scab goat weyane???

        • ኣሌክ – Alec you

          Sentiki… Just be concern about ur tiny-Tigray, cuz its future seems so gloomy. ????

    • YapiYapo

      I wish they had not awarded the contract to Fluor because it’s an American company. And American has been the soul reason why the sanctions were implemented and continue until this day. But Flour may be the best company for this opportunity and probably came at the right bid. Regardless, I hope this mine is build by Eritreans and Eritreans take the opportunity to learn as much as possible and acquire new skills. I hope in the near future, we can apply those acquire skills to other mining sectors in Africa, Asian, Europe and United States.

      As far as the sanction goes, let’s not hold our breath.

      • ኣሌክ – Alec you

        I feel ur concern, but in-order to build our country in peace its necessary.

    • atheist

      Donald Trump the next president of United States is filling his cabinet with k.k.k billionaires and you are happy with his selection of bloodsuckers I know it’s your right but I wish you could balance it with sadness.

      • Nobama

        Better billionaires than Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton who bully Eritrea and falsely accuse it of human Rights violations.

        • atheist

          President Obama and his cabinet are slaves and they are working for global elite.

    • Justice

      I kind of feeling the same.
      I would be glad to see a sort of Confederation of Eritrea and the UAE in all aspects-Socio-culturally and economico-politically–at all levels including but not limited to:
      Education,Health,Defense,Tourism,Air Transportation,Oil and Gas Exp and Mining Industries.
      That seems to be the case, which will be unveiled indirectly by the up-coming Interview of PIA,which he hinted last year.
      This little but Sparta Nation is very rich and very successful in exploiting its natural resources very well.We can learn lots form that Little Sparta…
      Building one of the best Naval and Air Force bases in Africa speaks volumes about the future relationship of both nations.
      After all, this is the same nation, which is training our Elite Air Force and giving free Scholarships for our Young Engineers and Scientists..

    • Honesty

      “lehulum geze alewe” Let us cross our fingers for the betterment of our people! No more suffering! “wushetna shenfela eyadere yekelale”. We were exposed to untimely death of our youth and sactions due to unnecessary antagonistic so that we could be frustrated and loose hope. Once the truth is revealed, we will continue our honesty working for the better future.

  • Raee

    It’s okay to be optimistic, but let’s not count the chicken before it hatches. Their forked tongues and brain say and does too many things at the same time. With America’s interest 1st motto, they always try to do things at their own term. We all remember an American oil exploring company was in Eritrea before the Weyane Invasion of Eritrea and Clinton forced it to leave Eritrea.

    • Lalmba

      Actually you are right brother Raee. But, I believe the wind is blowing towards our way not because of some bleeding hearts out there or some sympathy to a country and people they have unfairly abused for 70 long years, but their plan is not working for them. As they say, there are no permanent friends but PERMANENT INTERESTS. And there is always a ‘win-win’ situation without being exclusively tilting towards their side as they have been wishing to do.

  • ኣሌክ – Alec you

    As long as it benefits us!!! ????????????????

  • Taddese Tewelde

    NO ONE SHOULD UNDER ESTIMATE SHAEBIA….THEY KNOW HOW TO PLAY WORLD POLITICS WITH OUT SURRENDERING TO THE WEST….LIKE WOYANE….THIS IS FACT. GIVE THEM FEW YEARS THEY WILL BE BIGGER PLAYERS IN THE AREA.

    • Abrehet Haile

      Let’s pray they all stay in good health.

      • Taddese Tewelde

        God willing they will, for our sake.

  • merhaba

    It is very interesting Article !Infarct i like it ,It will be great for Eritrea . It is unbelievable how the Red-sea is very important was, no one even understand it.It is going to be plant a Nuclear solar Electrical Energy ?The Ethiopian regime are going to skit (run)(ቐዘን በቐዘን ይሆናሉ) in their pants,I don’t think weyanit is going to sleep tonight .It is Interesting and love it every thing .

  • Young EriBlood

    TN, quick question. Once the illegal and unmoral sanctions are removed, do think we are going to see UAE influencing international players speaking on our behalf to explore our untapped coast oil and gas potential?

    It seems to me from a person who didn’t vote for Trump (personally voted myself 🙂 that the Trump Administration seem to be well suited to doing business in Eritrea then any other Administration or leadership I could think of. Trump foreign policy is simple. It’s “What’s in it for America?” And I believe that’s fair as it’s for Eritrea as well.

    I believe coming Jan. 20, Trump is going to ask serious questions in the oval office on that day. Who are our friends? What are we gaining from the relationships? Who should we continue supporting and who shouldn’t we not maintain relationships with that don’t bring jobs back to America??

    I’ve read couple of Trumps self-help books. One is his classic, ‘The Art of the Deal’ book which I read twice 5 years before he announced to run for presidency. What I gained from that book is simple. His negotiation tactics is straightforward. To quote him, he says “Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself” and “Deliver the goods.” Meaning I don’t think he would never consider doing business Eritrea if there isn’t at least several large scale projects (upsides) for U.S.A to gain.

    By Gov. of Eritrea opening up our coast to a responsible oil and natural resources company perhaps an American firm, it sends a signal that America has something meaningful to gain besides a well educated, healthy and disciplined young youths (which is obviously that’s to our own-interests). But as an Eritrean-American and wearing my American hat as I write this, I believe Asmara is making some positive strategic plays to bait the U.S. by showing it’s economically ready, willing and able to do business and therefore by displaying the right intention, and more importantly you give the U.S. a major reason to abandon it’s policy of isolating Eritrea and launch a different trajectory for both sides.

    That being said, I believe UAE could play the relationship builder role since U.S. military leadership is already esteem, approve of, highly respect and think highly of the UAE and it’s capabilities. They must also applaud Asmara of it’s important logistics hub in Assab for that capability because we’re part of the interlink.