Balancing act: Emirati foreign policy amid US-China rivalry

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Abu Dhabi seeks to design its own independent global and regional foreign policy, but ties with Beijing are the key prize.

An August 16, an Associated Press report indicated that the United Arab Emirates has abetted Beijing’s crackdown on the Uighur Muslim population. A 26-year-old Chinese lady, Wu Huan, who was on the run because her fiance is a Chinese dissident, claimed she saw two Uighur Muslims held in a Chinese-run secret detention facility in Dubai, where she was held.

While questions have arisen over the validity of this young woman’s statements, or that it was seen as “out-of-character” for the UAE, the report comes during an increasingly close relationship between Beijing and Abu Dhabi. More significantly, it once again highlights the UAE’s bid to become a global and regional powerhouse while playing a careful balancing act between China and the West. 

In the last decade, China advanced its so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, to bolster development and enhance Beijing’s global economic footprint. In contrast, the United States has scaled down its involvement in the wider Middle East region, and some allies have perceived it as less reliable. 

The UAE has adapted to this transforming power balance, and has gradually adopted a more “eastwards”-oriented foreign policy. Since March 2020, it has managed to balance ties with Iran on the one hand, and Washington and Saudi Arabia on the other. More recently, the UAE showed further signs of an apparent rapprochement with Turkey. 

Given both Iran and Turkey’s closeness with China, it shows that Abu Dhabi seeks to design its own independent global and regional foreign policy, without dependence on any one superpower — though ties with Beijing are the key prize for Abu Dhabi. 

The UAE has presented itself as a key partner for China’s expansion, having established solid trade and technological agreements in recent years, promoting its own location as a financial hub and international shipping center. China has reciprocated calling the UAE a “shining pearl along the Belt and Road.” 

However, Abu Dhabi’s traditional patron, the United States, has scrutinised the UAE’s evident ties with China. In June, Joe Biden’s administration encouraged Abu Dhabi to end its deals with Huawei and remove the Chinese company’s equipment from its networks within the next four years.

The Biden administration also warned on August 10 that any Middle Eastern ally that establishes a Chinese military base will face jeopardised ties with Washington. Indeed, US Democrat Senator Chris Murphy suggested that Abu Dhabi could be a candidate for this, given its growing closeness with Beijing.

Abu Dhabi’s latest reported connection with China could even undermine Washington’s stated campaign to oppose Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, given the Biden administration has condemned China’s actions as “genocide.”

Departure from traditional allies?

While Washington may want to coax Abu Dhabi into ending its ties with Beijing, the UAE may still defy this. Could this signal the UAE’s departure from its close relations with Washington?

Overall, the UAE has maintained a strong relationship with the US under past administrations. Aside from former US Secretary of Defence James Mattis dubbing the UAE “little Sparta,” Abu Dhabi has faced criticisms over its role in Libya and Yemen, where it has supported proxy factions that have been accused of gross human rights violations. 

The UAE has also at times defied Washington’s commands. For instance, it has ignored Washington’s restrictions on doing business with Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria through the Caesar Act, and Abu Dhabi has even denounced Washington’s ongoing sanctions against Damascus.

While former US President Donald Trump was comparatively tolerant of the UAE, Biden was expected to be tougher on the Gulf nation, given his criticisms of Abu Dhabi’s allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But Biden performed a U-turn on a $23 billion arms package of F-35s and other state-of-the-art military equipment in April, which he initially planned to scrap. 

However, the Biden administration announced that it would review its arms export agreements on August 4, which could deliver a further challenge to the UAE’s F-35 deal. The UAE’s deals with Huawei also leave the arms package hanging in the balance.

Furthermore, the UAE could lose the freedom to sway and lobby the Biden administration, as it did with Trump. In July, an ex-Trump administration official was charged with secretly lobbying for the UAE

Federal prosecutors said Thomas Barrack, a wealthy private equity investor who was a campaign advisor and close ally of the former US President, reportedly pushed policy proposals that were favourable to the UAE. Though it won’t necessarily end Abu Dhabi’s strong ties within Washington, it could create more stigma around Emirati lobbying.

Yet the UAE could still find other ways to remain close with Washington. Having been on multiple soft-power offensives in the past, Afghanistan’s current crisis with the Taliban insurgency has given Abu Dhabi another opportunity to remain in the West’s good books.

After fleeing Afghanistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his family took refuge in the UAE, which the Emirati Foreign Ministry said was done on “humanitarian grounds.” Yet this came with unverified rumours that Abu Dhabi offered the president large sums of money, which Ghani also denied as “completely baseless” and “lies.”

Moreover, the UAE said it had worked to facilitate the evacuation of Western diplomatic staff from Afghanistan.

Of course, the UAE was always prepared for a changing relationship with Washington. Even prior to Biden’s presidency, its normalisation with Israel last year helped boost its image with both Republicans and Democrats. Moreover, it is inconceivable that Washington would substantially pressure Abu Dhabi, given it is still a vital regional partner for the US and the West in general.

Yet, given the Biden administration’s recent moves, Abu Dhabi’s previously smooth relations with Washington could face difficulties. Therefore, it will try to continue a balancing act between both superpowers. 

At the same time, as China attaches less political conditions to ties with the UAE, Abu Dhabi will increasingly shift towards Beijing in the future, particularly if Washington’s own sway in the region further declines.

For China, the UAE’s own receptiveness towards such relations would make it a valuable partner with whom to increase its economic, trade and even military ties, while also further outmanoeuvring Washington. Even if China hopes to host a base in the UAE in the future, Abu Dhabi may still tread carefully to maintain ties with Washington, at least for the time being.

In any case, China will guarantee Abu Dhabi extra support on the international scene, such as through the UN Security Council, and can therefore guarantee Abu Dhabi’s protection from among the international community. 

Courtesy: TRT World

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