If the UAE is famous for anything, it's man-made islands and gold-plated hotels, not muscular foreign policy. But the current bout of insanity across the region has put cracking down on Islamist extremism and preventing Iranian subversion at the top of the UAE's To Do list when it comes to security.
That lines up nicely with the goals of its powerful neighbor and close ally, Saudi Arabia (not to mention the United States), but puts the UAE at cross purposes with another neighbor and ostensible ally — Qatar.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the first- and second-most populous cities in the UAE; they're also two of the world's swankiest and fastest-growing cities. As such, the Emirati sheikhs are passionate about ensuring conditions remain ripe for prosperity. The billions of dollars in foreign investment and tourist revenue that flow into the country each year will keep coming only if bourgeois malls, five-star restaurants, and indoor skiing are what comes to mind when thinking about the UAE — not jihadists and suicide bombers.
To counter both Iranian shenanigans and Islamist hijinks, the UAE has adopted a strategy built around putting warheads on foreheads, launching air strikes on Islamist rebels in Libya and Islamic State strongholds in Iraq. For the past week, Emirati jets have been participating in the Saudi-led bombing campaign over Yemen to hammer the Houthi insurgency into submission. The Yemen conflict — the latest in a string of civil wars and internal rebellions throughout the region exploited by both sides of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry — has led to a unified effort by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to counter what is being viewed as a blatant Iranian incursion into the Arabian Peninsula.
But the UAE has not always been in lockstep with other GCC members. Emirati relations with Qatar have been seriously strained over the past few years, largely because of Qatar's support for Islamist political movements and various other jihadi types across the region.
Relations reached an all-time low early last year. In March 2014, the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, withdrew its diplomatic mission from Doha, claiming Qatari support for Islamists threatened the internal political stability of GCC nations and violated GCC policy. Qatar's backing of the Muslim Brotherhood prompted this spat, which created a worrisome rift in the GCC. UAE and Saudi foreign policy has been dominated by a paranoia about the Brotherhood, which they see as a real threat to their absolute monarchies.
After the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi's Brotherhood regime, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were quick to forge ties (and send boatloads of cash) to the new government in Cairo. Eradicating any vestiges of the Muslim Brotherhood became a top priority as all three countries officially labeled it a terrorist organization.
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Which meant they were mighty pissed at Qatar, in part because the Qataris were not only funding the Brotherhood, but also harboring exiled leaders. So in response, Saudi Arabia took the opportunity to flex its muscle and the UAE was more than happy to support the censure.
By the end of summer 2014, the Saudis had pacified relations with their recalcitrant neighbor. The Emir of Qatar visited Riyadh to kiss the King's head in July, and Qatar expelled the Brothers it was harboring two months later. But the Emiratis were not ready to forgive and forget. They continued to push rhetoric describing Qatar as a terror sponsor bent on destabilizing the region.
The UAE's no-tolerance policy on all kinds of Islamism — from the Brotherhood to al Qaeda to the Islamic State — is fueling the continued hostility. Qatar's support for extremist rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria, and its failure to clamp down on Qatari citizens personally financing jihadist elements, added to Emirati resentment. In Libya, Qatari-backed Islamists and UAE-backed secular rebels fought a proxy war against each other last year. After witnessing the Islamic State commandeer large swathes of Iraq and Syria last summer and fall, the UAE felt vindicated in its warning against supporting Islamism, no matter the political cost.
This is not to say the UAE hasn't played dirty in this fight. There are allegations that the UAE used UK-based PR firms to exaggerate the levels of Qatari terror sponsorship in the media. Another controversy involved an NGO allegedly funded by the UAE in secret, the Global Network for Rights and Development, which published very favorable ratings for the UAE and deplorable marks for Qatar in a human rights index report published last year. (Doha has likewise been accused co-opting PR firms, think tanks, and media to improve its image at the expense of the UAE.)
These ploys seem to be more than just an attempt at degrading Qatari support for political Islam. Such efforts hint at the UAE's desire to improve its position within the GCC and the international system as a whole. By inciting anti-Qatari sentiments in the West, the UAE will be able to diminish Qatar's foreign investments and wavering international support for its role hosting the 2022 World Cup. Reducing Qatar's soft power will be a political win for the UAE in Riyadh, and a financial win for investors in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Although the UAE returned its ambassador to Doha last November, they are not likely to become best buds anytime soon. Still, the current cooperation in Yemen is a sign that their differences will not trump major conflicts in the neighborhood, and that the GCC is still able to be directed under Saudi leadership in times of crisis. The big question is whether the rivalry between the UAE and Qatar will eventually make that impossible.
For the UAE, future relations with Qatar will depend on their cooperation against both Iran and Islamism. If the UAE continues to feel its economic and domestic political interests are threatened by Qatar's actions — namely its willingness to support Islamists in Saudi proxy wars — then relations will continue to sour. But realizing that history will probably look poorly on a country that, accidentally or otherwise, gets implicated in the rise of a jihadist death cult empire, Qatar is likely to dial back much of its Islamist support.
The UAE's unique foreign policy approach will continue to turn heads due to its similarity with many Western policies: supporting Saudi great power politics, opposing encroachment of political Islam, and creating ripe conditions for capitalist growth. That's bound to have fans in Washington, which may further empower the UAE's position in the GCC.
Follow Chris Mondloch on Twitter: @C_Mondloch