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The UAE’s empire of sand

Emirati leaders must learn that war and chaos are no longer model foreign policy strategies
A tribesman leads camels through the UAE desert in 2013 (AFP)

Some time ago, I had a chance meeting with a scholar working for an Emirati think tank, on the sidelines of an academic conference in Europe. 

I asked for his analysis of the UAE’s aggressive foreign policy, particularly since the beginning of Arab Spring. He answered: “Emirati officials are convinced that the best defence is a good offence, and that it is best for their country to confront the Arab Spring and the demands for change and democracy outside their borders, ie. before it reaches them.” 

The same response was given by Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla several times to the New York Times, as he attempted to justify the conduct of the UAE since the beginning of the Arab Spring. 

Sudanese uprising

That is how the Emiratis, along with the Arab and foreign pundits who work for them, attempt to justify the UAE’s foreign policy. The most recent manifestation of Emirati intervention in Arab Spring countries can be seen in Sudan, where a peaceful uprising has been underway since last December. 

Since the removal of President Omar al-Bashir, the UAE, together with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have embraced the Transitional Military Council, which took power on 11 April. These countries were the first to be visited by the head of the council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as “Hemeti”.

All Emirati attempts at intervention in Arab Spring countries have failed, instead harming the UAE’s own reputation

The violent dispersal of the protesters’ sit-in outside Sudan’s army headquarters, which saw more than 100 killed and dozens of rapes reported, took place just a few days after these visits.

According to the New York Times, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE supplied money, weapons and advice to Hemeti, despite allegations that a militia he commanded committed genocide in Darfur.

The Times also pointed to the proliferation of Emirati armed vehicles in the streets of Khartoum, where the Rapid Support Forces are controlled and led by Hemeti. A former Sudanese pilot said that Saudi and Emirati cargo aircraft had landed at Khartoum airport, bearing military equipment. 

From Yemen to Libya

Prior to recent events in Sudan, the UAE intervened in the Yemeni conflict, backing an ongoing four-year war fuelled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s quest to improve his political status.

The Emiratis also backed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup against Egypt’s fledgling democracy in July 2013, pouring billions of dollars into guaranteeing his loyalty and ensuring the elimination of the political opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. 

It did the same in Libya by supporting warlord Khalifa Haftar, who has committed massacres in Benghazi and whose militia has been fighting for control of Tripoli since early April. It is no coincidence that Haftar’s attack on Tripoli came just days after Algeria’s popular uprising, which began in February, led to the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika; the goal is to block any potential revival of the Arab Spring. 

Libyan tanks are fired south of Tripoli on 13 June (AFP)
Libyan tanks are fired south of Tripoli on 13 June (AFP)

More dramatically, two years ago, the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, launched a boycott against neighbouring Qatar. The blockading countries have sought to discredit Qatar and tarnish its image in the international arena, spreading baseless accusations that it finances terrorism.

A miserable failure

But has the UAE succeeded in achieving its imperialist foreign policy aims? The simple answer is no. All Emirati attempts at intervention in Arab Spring countries have failed, instead harming the UAE’s own reputation. In Sudan, the military’s forceful dispersal of the sit-in - which killed dozens of people - further ignited the flames of popular protest. 

The loathsome face of the military was further illuminated when Burhan and Hemeti attempted to deceive the demonstrators by professing themselves to be defenders of the uprising. International condemnation has rained down on the military council from the United Nations, the EU, the US and the African Union

In Yemen, it has become apparent that the UAE is not simply an ally of Saudi Arabia, but is pursuing its own agenda. Yet, this agenda falters with each passing day, as the UAE military’s embroilment intensifies amid a useless and futile war. The war, which has led to death, disease and starvation on a massive scale, has cast the UAE in a negative light. 

The UAE’s military interventions have led to disaster - not stability
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In Egypt, despite the superficial stability, the economic and social situation is nearing a tipping point. In Libya, Haftar has so far failed to impose his control over Tripoli, despite the military, political and logistical support provided by the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and European countries, including France

As for the siege on Qatar, this has been a miserable failure, with Qatar emerging more confident and influential in the region. All attempts by the UAE to isolate Qatar regionally and internationally have backfired. 

The UAE has been dubbed “Little Sparta”, in reference to the Greek army-controlled city that adopted an expansionist policy through war. But what Emirati leaders may not realise is that war and chaos are no longer model foreign policy strategies, but are instead more likely to lead to defeat and failure in the long term. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Khalil al-Anani
Khalil al-Anani is associate professor of political science and chair of the Policy and International Relations Programme at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. You can follow him on Twitter: @Khalilalanani.