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Abu Dhabi is trapped in a nightmare of its own making

The emirate is creeping towards a conflict with Iran that could leave it exposed and vulnerable in a future Third Gulf War
Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, at an Arab summit in Mecca (AFP)

Abu Dhabi is panicking. Its crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, has supported every measure against Iran.

The US exit of its the nuclear accord with Iran; sanctions on Tehran; the creation of an Arab Nato; the holding of an "anti-Iran" conference in Poland; the designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation.

All this in an attempt to position his tiny emirate as the key pillar of Washington's policy towards the Islamic Republic. And now it's come back to bite him.

Three attacks against oil installations and a Saudi pipeline have brutally but effectively exposed Abu Dhabi's vulnerability to attack anywhere in the Gulf, and well south of the Strait of Hormuz, in the event of a full-blown third Gulf War.

There have been a number of other attacks, all claimed by Yemen's Houthis, but one attack has not been announced.

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A few days before marine mines were reportedly placed on four tankers off the port of Fujairah early last month, an Emirati oil well in the Gulf was hit, according to a well-placed Emirati source. 

"The damage was limited, and like the other mines it was designed to send a message," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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 "It caused damage, but not huge. We are very concerned about this. [John] Bolton [the US national security adviser] is not going as fast as Abu Dhabi had been hoping." It was impossible to verify his information.

Three emergency summits in Mecca, which Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) attended over the weekend, failed to come up with a coherent response. Apart from revealing a third attack on the Saudi oil port of Yanbu, Bolton vowed that the United States would present evidence of Iran's involvement to the United Nations Security Council.

The most coherent message on Saturday came from the other camp. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned that the "entire region will burn" if the US starts a war, sending the price of an oil barrel up to $300. Even so, Nasrallah was confident it would not happen, because of what it would mean for "everyone involved".

That was aimed at Iran's Gulf neighbours.

The attacks, which were designed to seek international attention but were not themselves of much physical consequence, have sent a powerful message to MBZ personally.

Whoever carried out the attacks - and Iran called the allegations it had organised them "baseless" - seemed to be saying: "Two can play at the game of escalation, and your tiny city state will be on the front line of the chaos you yourself have created."

The dilemma of denial

The Emirati reaction to that message was silence and denial. The United Arab Emirates initially denied the Fujairah attacks had taken place, as it had done with Houthi drone strikes on Abu Dhabi and Dubai's airports last summer.

"Houthi media claims regarding Dubai International Airport are untrue," the Dubai media office quoted the aviation authority as saying after the Yemeni movement claimed an attack in August.

"With regards to reports by questionable sources this morning, Dubai Airports can confirm that Dubai International (DXB) is operating as normal without any interruption," it said after another one in September.

Yet the Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, released a video on 23 May showing what appeared to be footage of a drone flying over Terminal I and creating a fireball upon explosion.

Denial is not working. Even after the three Mecca conferences, the UAE has not officially blamed Iran for the attacks

Denial is not working. Even after the three Mecca conferences, the UAE has not officially blamed Iran for the attacks.

When asked straight by the BBC whether he thought Iran was responsible, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's minister of state for foreign affairs, would only say: "We have some indications and we will make the announcements once the investigations are completed.”

To go public is just as risky. To blame Iran for the attacks officially is to claim the Islamic Republic carried out an act of war, a war for which no one, least of all the Emiratis, is prepared. 

It is also to drive up insurance premiums and to chase away all that shipping traffic it has attracted to its ports - but particularly Fujairah, which is the world's second-largest bunkering hub, or refuelling port.

Iran's non-oil trade with the UAE was worth $16.83bn in 2018, most of which takes place via Dubai. Now, as a result of the latest round of sanctions, many Iranian firms are being forced out, to the benefit of Oman, Qatar and Turkey. This, in turn, has created tensions between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Opposition to MBZ's aggressive policies is expressed at the highest levels.

The UAE's vice president and prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum, confines himself to generalities. He has voiced in tweets his objection to "obscene" policies. History, he said, will decide whether Arab rulers have "great achievements that speak for themselves or only empty speeches with worthless pages and words".

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed meets with US National Security Advisor John Bolton in Abu Dhabi (Reuters)
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed meets with US National Security Advisor John Bolton in Abu Dhabi (Reuters)

The tension inside the Emirates is also apparent in the social media exchanges to between licensed voices.

When the academic Abdulkhaleq Abdullah mouthed the official state line - "The Gulf states do not want a war but should a war erupt they are fortified with the best defence shield one can imagine. They will also be in a position to benefit from downsizing Iran and dwarfing it as well as pulling out its claws," he tweeted - the prominent businessman Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor, who has supported closer relations with Israel, said this in reply:

"Brother Dr Abdulkhaleq, there are winners in the war. It is true we are shielded in terms of defence, but our economies will not be saved from the results of any military attack on Iran, for it would paralyse the region economically for years. We do not want a war in our region and we request our leaders to seek a resolution for the crisis in any way that is not military."

Young Frankenstein 

Former State Department staffers now realise they created a "little Frankenstein" in promoting MBZ, a former air force pilot, to the role he now enjoys, boyar to the least stable and most suggestible president in modern US history. But it's too late for regret. 

It's almost too late, too, for the US generals who are now scrambling to find back channels to tell Iran's Revolutionary Guards that they don't want war. They will find the IRGC in no hurry to respond.

Iran's strategy, which will unfold when the current 60-day ultimatum for the other signatories of the 2015 nuclear pact to salvage the deal expires, will be to use the withdrawal from specific elements of the JCPOA as levers in future negotiations.

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It, too, will effectively establish preconditions for talks. And what incentive do they have to talk before sanctions are lifted?

We have all been here before. As Donald Trump is just about to discover, it's all too easy to set the clock back. 

Meanwhile, Bolton has his USS Abraham Lincoln and B-52 bombers, whose deployment he said at the weekend was on the recommendation of the US military, but which he had personally announced.

And the Houthis have a "bank" of 300 targets for their drones, which they fully intend to use. 

The current dilemma for Abu Dhabi is absolutely one of its own creation. The least stable mind in the Middle East, that of its crown prince, has shown repeatedly a facility for starting conflict in his lifelong jihad against the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.

His forces are in a quagmire in Yemen. His proxies have got nowhere in Libya, and he is trying to repeat the same formula in Sudan. 

Trump may be waking up late to the fact that his biggest ally poses the biggest danger to the US military interests in the Gulf.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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