Sheikh It Up

The UAE's airstrikes in Libya represent a new and dangerous phase in its struggle with Qatar.

One of the key principles of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Nahyan, who forged the United Arab Emirates (UAE) out of seven sheikhdoms, was to portray his small and vulnerable country as a friend to all Arabs. The federation he created evolved as an unusual hybrid, with cities as diverse as the liberal Dubai and the religiously conservative Sharjah next door. It has become one of the Arab world's strongest economies, the second largest after Saudi Arabia despite a population one-sixth of the kingdom's size, and continues to develop at breakneck speed. What Zayed — who passed away in 2004, leaving power in the hands of his ambitious son — would have made of his country's involvement in the tangled revolutionary politics of Libya, several thousand miles to the west, is worth pondering.

U.S. officials revealed this week that the UAE and Egypt had stepped into the Libyan quagmire, launching a joint air operation against Islamist militias who were on the verge of seizing control of Tripoli airport. The news that the UAE — seemingly one of the few islands of calm in a tumultuous region — had engaged in military operations outside its borders is one of the more startling twists of the Arab Spring uprisings.

On the one hand, this is just the latest manifestation of the regional divide between opponents and supporters of political Islam. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the main backers of last year's military coup in Egypt that removed the country's first democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. The Islamists remain a force throughout the Arab world, however, and they retain the backing of Qatar and Turkey. As a result, relations among Gulf countries have rarely been so tense.

Indeed, another surprise of the Arab Spring was the angst among UAE leaders over the strength of Brotherhood-linked Islamists on the home front. The result has been a significant clampdown on freedoms: The government has prosecuted some 130 suspected Islamists for belonging to an illegal organization and plotting to seize power, revoked citizenship of some Emiratis, increased monitoring of social media, closed foreign think tanks, and passed a sweeping new counter-terrorism law that rights groups fear will help further clamp down on peaceful dissent.

The UAE-Egyptian intervention in Libya is yet another example of the Gulf states' newfound assertiveness, which now displays only secondary regard for American concerns. This represents a sea change in Middle Eastern politics: Ever since the Gulf states achieved their independence from the British, they have sought to project an image of their countries as trouble-free, depoliticized utopias, underwritten by the wealth accruing from energy resources. Iranian expansionism following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 began to disturb the calm waters, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia made huge military expenditures to deter potential Iranian attacks in the event of American or Israeli military action.

In the era of the uprisings, however, the fancy accoutrements acquired by Gulf states have apparently found other purposes. They are now being used to put down internal dissent, as in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, or to advance the states' regional interests. As the acrimony with its Gulf neighbors worsened, Qatar announced in March a massive $23 billion arms purchase including massive orders of attack helicopters from Boeing and Airbus. The psychology of the Tripoli raid almost suggests it's Doha that Egypt and the UAE would really like to bomb.

There have been efforts to bring Qatar back into the fold: Earlier this year, the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, withdrew their ambassadors from Doha and presented Qatar with an ultimatum to cut ties with the Brotherhood. A top-level Saudi delegation, consisting of Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Intelligence chief Khaled bin Bandar even visited Doha this week in an apparent last-ditch attempt to persuade the Qataris to change their ways — but to seemingly little avail.

Libya was already a testing ground for Gulf muscle-flexing before the recent airstrikes. In their initial response to the Arab uprisings, Qatar and the UAE worked with NATO in the air campaign to support Libyan rebels who eventually brought down Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in 2011. But the UAE's involvement at the time was limited, and framed by the government in the rhetoric of global good citizenry. Qatar, on the other hand, continued providing funding and media support to Libyan Islamist groups.

UAE officials are denying any role in last week's attacks in Tripoli, sticking doggedly to the narrative that the country is an oasis of stability that would not risk spoiling things by interfering in foreign climes. “The UAE will remain the model of an Arab country that successfully developed and grasped the future,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote in a series of tweets, which also attacked the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists and Qatari media for spreading the Libya story.

Despite the denials, the wisdom of the supposed UAE attack has been hotly debated. Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla wrote in a heated Twitter exchange with a former Qatari ambassador that the intervention was a move to prevent the emergence of another Islamic state, this time on Egypt's the border. Not all Emiratis were so supportive, however: as another commentator told me: “It's total madness. It's certainly not a decision that there will be consensus with the other UAE rulers over.”

Emiratis' fear of vulnerability has waxed and waned over the years, as their country metamorphosed into one of the region's strongest economies. Al Qaeda never turned on the country — or more specifically, Dubai, its freewheeling city of glitz and debauchery, which always seemed an obvious target. The sheikhs' ability to remain friends with regional leaders across the political spectrum (the UAE even recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan) seemed to buy them a form of protection.

The changes that have wracked the Middle East in recent years, however, have forced the Emiratis to take sides in the great regional struggle. In the view of the UAE and its Egyptian and Saudi allies, Qatar is a troublemaker that is empowering forces that will destabilize their lifeless political systems, whether by elections or violence. In the press, social media, and public statements, the Gulf rulers are hurling mutual accusations of extraterritorial interference.

By upping the ante, the sheikhs are only magnifying their fears and perhaps exacerbating the divides currently roiling the Gulf. Not quite the vision Zayed had in mind.

This piece was first published on Foreign Policy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Policy Fellow

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