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What is the UAE’s Endgame with Iran?

Observers in both the West and the Middle East erupted with speculation at the news that the UAE’s Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, the brother of President Sheikh Khalifah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, made a highly publicized visit to Tehran this week. News reporting tended to describe the visit as a harbinger for a dramatic thaw in Tehran’s icy relationship with Abu Dhabi. The Iranians laid out the red carpet for the visiting dignitary, and Iran’s press reported on the visit in detail, hinting that Sheikh Tahnoon had come seeking to improve relations between the two historic adversaries. Tehran’s apparent elation at the visit needs no explanation; suffering under American sanctions and with the increasingly likely prospect of failure in the Vienna nuclear negotiations, Iran needs to reduce the number of its antagonists to the greatest possible extent. At the same time, this visit should be seen in the context of the UAE acting in its own interest, an interest that does not include isolating Tehran.

A Difficult Start to Iranian-Emirati Relations

Most reporting on Sheikh Tahnoon’s visit has ignored the fact that the UAE, even during the most contentious times, has never cut off its relationship with its powerful neighbor across the Gulf. Outside observers tend to focus on the visible points of antagonism between the UAE and Iran, while ignoring the more benign cooperation between the two countries. In this case, some in the West mistakenly believe that the Arab states of the Gulf share a monolithic hostility towards the Iranians, based on the erroneous assumption that Sunni Arabs bear an ancient hatred of the Shi’a – many of whom live in the GCC. In fact, apprehension toward Iran is more closely linked to the Islamic Republic’s hegemonistic policies. The Shah’s regime pursued similar policies prior to its downfall in 1979, and was the subject of similar concerns on the Arab side of the Gulf.

Even under the Shah’s rule, though, the UAE found ways to put aside its disputes with Iran and work together. In 1971, the Shah’s Iran, and not the Islamic Republic, occupied two island groups off the coast of the UAE, Abu Musa and Tunbs, after the British left – each of which was also claimed by the emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah. Although the UAE’s leadership was furious, it never allowed the dispute to interfere with trade or diplomatic relations with Tehran. Neither Britain nor the United States, which counted the Shah as a major ally, objected to the Iranian move. According to one study, “The main American concern was for Britain to hand over the Tunbs and Musa Islands to the Shah of Iran, whom Nixon had anointed [the] American shieldbearer in the Gulf.”

At its independence, the UAE, like the other smaller lower Gulf states, had no desire to fall under the influence of either Saudi Arabia or Iran. For this reason, the United Arab Emirates has, from its inception, adroitly managed a well-balanced foreign policy that seeks to maintain independence from both of its powerful neighbors. Sheikh Zayed, the co-founder of the UAE together with Sheikh Rashid Al-Maktoum of Dubai, campaigned strenuously to include Qatar and Bahrain in his new United Arab Emirates federation. The two leaders hoped to unite all the smaller sheikhdoms into a single political entity that could better stand up to the two would-be hegemons of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although both of those states ultimately sought to preserve their own independence, they shared the UAE’s suspicion of their larger neighbors; each had inherited territorial disputes with them from British protectorate days, disputes that remain mostly unresolved today.

The Difficulty Continues

The UAE, like the other smaller GCC states, strives to maintain manageable relations with both Gulf behemoths. On regional issues, it has mostly allied with Saudi Arabia against Iran, but it does not take orders from Riyadh. It has maintained a continuous, if occasionally concealed, diplomatic and security dialogue with Iran, no matter what the circumstances. In November 2013, four days after the P5+1 signed an interim nuclear deal with Iran, the UAE foreign minister visited Tehran, a visit that was reciprocated by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif two weeks later. Although the Western press gave the impression of monolithic GCC opposition to the JCPOA, the UAE, as well as several other Gulf states, had a far more nuanced reaction than what was reported.

After the 2016 attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, the UAE joined its GCC partners in condemning Iran, but it refused to close its own embassy in solidarity, angering Riyadh. Following the 2019 sabotage operations against ships in or near UAE coastal waters – operations which have been overwhelmingly blamed on Iran by security experts – an Emirati coast guard delegation visited Tehran in order to “improve maritime co-operation in the waters separating the two countries.” In the same vein and unlike most of the GCC states, the UAE never completely severed its ties to Syria after the outbreak of the country’s civil war in 2011.

Finally, despite joining the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, the UAE has so far shown little interest in fighting the Houthis, Iran’s allies in Sana’a, who dominate northern Yemen. Instead, the Emiratis concentrated their efforts in the country’s south, forming a strong alliance with the Southern Transitional Council at the expense of the Saudi-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis have little traction in the overwhelmingly Sunni south, which has remained politically distinct from the north for most of recent history. After the intervention decisively failed to defeat the Houthis, the UAE withdrew from the Saudi-led Arab coalition but systematically expanded its influence and presence in the south, supporting South Yemeni separatists and expanding its presence into Yemen’s strategic Socotra Island archipelago. The UAE’s support of anti-Hadi southern separatists, and its abandonment of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, have raised suspicions that Abu Dhabi is fundamentally working against Riyadh rather than Iran.

These factors, as well as the floundering nuclear negotiations in Vienna, help to explain the rationale behind Sheikh Tahnoon’s visit to Tehran. The trip reflects Abu Dhabi’s desire to avoid suffering collateral damage if, faced with the failure of negotiations, the U.S. decides to roll out “Plan B” – a veiled threat of stronger punitive measures. Abu Dhabi does much to influence the course of the negotiations in Vienna, but it has its own interests to protect. After President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the UAE suffered significant collateral economic damage from sanctions against Iran. Because much of Dubai’s wealth derives from its activities as an entrepot, a commercial and financial hub for the region, it has pinned its hopes on the reopening of legitimate trade with Iran. Having the Vienna negotiations fail would further damage its economy. Similarly, if “Plan B” leads to armed hostilities, the UAE needs to avoid becoming the target of an Iranian asymmetrical response. No matter what the outcome of the JCPOA negotiations, Sheikh Tahnoon’s visit represents a continuation of the normal UAE practice of keeping its lines open with all important players. Recent speculation about a UAE-Turkey détente, as well as Abu Dhabi’s overtures to China and Russia, falls in the same category.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.

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