The Foreign Policy of the United Arab Emirates

By Rugh, William A. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Foreign Policy of the United Arab Emirates

Rugh, William A., The Middle East Journal

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) regards Iran as its most serious security threat because of traditional Persian ambitions in the Gulf, Tehran's ideology and rhetoric, its weapons acquisition program, and its support for terrorism. The dispute over three Gulf islands symbolizes the confrontation. The UAE is a consistent partner in the international coalition against Saddam Husayn, and cooperates with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United States, and others in trying to enhance Gulf security. It supports the Arab-Israeli peace process but does not take a leading role in it.

Analysts agree that the Persian Gulf region is vital to the interests of the industrialized nations of the world. Its strategic location, unparalleled petroleum deposits, and petrodollars to spend or invest give the countries of this region special importance. Although the US confrontation with Iran since 1979 and with Iraq since 1990 have focused the attention of Americans and the Western media on the area, the foreign policies of these states are still not well understood by outsiders. Usually, outsiders regard the six Arab states of the Gulf--Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)--as having very similar internal situations and external policies, when in fact they are different. This article will look at one of them, the UAE, to examine the characteristics and bases of its foreign policy. Of these six Arab states on the Gulf, only three--Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE--have very substantial petroleum wealth, and the UAE, in fact, has recoverable petroleum reserves that match those of Iran and Iraq, and are four times those of the United States.(l) Of these five oil-abundant Gulf states, only the UAE has no significant external debt problems. And of all the states of the Gulf, the UAE enjoys the greatest internal tranquillity, tolerance, and absence of domestic political and social tension. What, then, are the characteristics of UAE foreign policy?

First, although the UAE is a federation of seven emirates, the making of its foreign policy is essentially in the hands of its president, Abu Dhabi ruler Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan al-Nuhayyan. The rulers of the other six emirates have considerable autonomy in many important matters, including the exploitation of natural resources, trade and commerce, customs regulations, financial and judicial matters, as well as the maintaining of public order. But in foreign affairs, the president sets policy for the country. He consults with the six other rulers on critical issues, but he generally has the last word, even if they disagree with him. Under the constitution, they selected Shaykh Zayid as UAE president in 1971 and have reconfirmed him in that position ever since, an endorsement which has allowed him to dominate the country's foreign affairs virtually unchallenged.


The leadership of the UAE bases its foreign policy on the realization that it is a small, wealthy country in a tough neighborhood. Its two million inhabitants (80 percent of them foreign workers and their families) and 50,000-man army are no match for Iraq or Iran, with their populations of over 15 and 60 million respectively, and their large, wellequipped armies.

The UAE government regards Iran as, by far, the greatest threat to its security for a number of reasons. First, the UAE leadership views with great concern Iran's clear ambition, expressed earlier by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and then, more recently, by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successors, to play the dominant role in Gulf security. In the UAE this hegemonic attitude is regarded as a combination of a traditional Persian sense of superiority, plus the revolutionary and expansionist zeal of the ayatollahs now in power in Tehran. Added to these factors is the suspicion which the Sunni Muslims on the Arab side of the Gulf have toward the Shi`ites who control Iran; Islam is not a unifying factor in this case. …

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