United Arab Emirates, a small state with a big ego | International

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The Emirates footprint is found along a string of ports that run from the Persian Gulf overlooking which it looms to Limassol and Benghazi in the Mediterranean, passing through the south of the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. , through the presence of DP World, the Emirati giant in the sector. But it is also found, at different levels, in the various open conflicts in the Arab world: from the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria to that of Libya, passing through Sudan and Yemen, the latter the most significant of his interventions (and the one that cost his troops the most casualties).

This ambitious foreign policy, normally associated with the great powers, is surprising, however, in a country the size of Andalusia and in which barely one million of its 9.5 million inhabitants are nationals. It also represents a departure from the line followed since the independence of the United Kingdom in 1971, which avoided meddling in other people's disputes. As a “small state with a big ego”, Gaith Abdulla, an Emirati specialist in Gulf studies, has described it.

Two main reasons seem to be behind the new strategy: The absence of Arab leadership following the chaos that followed the 2011 uprisings and the fear of Islamist advancement in the region, be it Shiite (Iran) or Sunni (with groups such as the Muslim Brothers or the violent jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State). Except for Egypt, the Emirates is the country that has adopted the hardest line against Islamism (one of the reasons for its scuffle with Qatar).

The intervention in Yemen alongside Saudi Arabia in 2015 reaffirmed the UAE's willingness to resort to arms to defend its interests, even if they were not the same as those of its neighbor and ally. In reality, both its military projection and its economic investments have gone hand in hand. Emirates has used that war to expand its geopolitical power in the region and establish military bases in the Horn of Africa.

“They will argue that they have pulled out for strategic reasons, but it shows that maybe they weren't as successful as they hoped. His ambitions went much further, ”Abdulla told EL PAÍS. In his opinion, it has weighed especially "the negative reaction that the conflict is generating in the United States and in the international press." NGOs hold the Arab coalition responsible for causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and Amnesty International has accused the UAE of human rights violations in secret prisons under its management. In addition, the expert assures, the withdrawal "does not go against their interests: the Foreign Ministry is happy to move on to the diplomacy phase, from the beginning it was looking for a way out."

There are also analysts who estimate that Abu Dhabi has been alarmed by the escalation of tension between Iran and the United States in recent months and wants to focus on its own security. Others are of the opinion, however, that the UAE has achieved its goal: to secure a zone of influence on the southern and western coast of the Arabian peninsula through the militias it has trained and continues to finance in southern Yemen.

“The withdrawal does not indicate a total withdrawal from Yemen. The UAE is still interested in that country's ports, shipping lanes and islands (especially Socotra, at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden) and will continue to support and finance local militias and troops, especially in the south. " Nael Shama, an Egyptian academic specializing in international relations, explains by email, nor does he signal the end of this country's ambitions in the region that Shama, like other observers, relates to “the vision of the world and the perception of threats that they have the (Emirati) leaders, especially Mohamed Bin Zayed ”.

Mohamed Bin Zayed boosts defensive capabilities

Although he does not hold any executive position in the UAE Government, Sheikh Mohamed, 58, is the strong man of the country, even before Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed suffered a stroke five years ago. Khalifa continues to formally preside over the federation as emir of Abu Dhabi, the emirate with the most weight of the seven that make it up and whose crude reserves make the country the fifth largest oil exporter in the world.

The petrodollars have allowed Mohamed Bin Zayed to develop independent defense capabilities, making the UAE one of the largest buyers of weapons and recruiter of hundreds of mercenaries. It is significant that MBZ (as he is often referred to by diplomats and journalists to distinguish him from other princes with the same name) puts his title of Deputy Chief of the Emirates Armed Forces before that of Abu Dhabi's heir.

One of the pillars of that process has been close cooperation with Washington. The UAE is “one of only three countries and the only Arab nation that has participated with the United States in all six coalition actions of the last 20 years: Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Bosnia-Kosovo, the 1990 Gulf War and the fighting against ISIS, "as highlighted by the website of the Emirati Embassy in the US It also provides logistical support to both the US Navy and Air Force, and houses the headquarters of a Joint Air Combat Center.

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