UAE-US relations amid shifting geopolitics

Centre for Arab Progress – London

When Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of the Democratic Party introduced the Monitoring China-UAE Cooperation Act, it reflected a growing sense of apprehensiveness within United States ranks regarding the United Arab Emirates. Co-sponsored by Republican Representative. Chris Stewart, the official title of the act dedicates a focus on requiring a report on cooperation between China and the United Arab Emirates.
The report submitted to the House and Senate details the requirements which include:

• Details on China-UAE cooperation in defense, security, technology, and other strategically sensitive matters that implicate U.S. national security interests.
• An updated quarterly intelligence assessment of measures the UAE has taken to safeguard U.S. technology and how reliable UAE assurances are that U.S. technology is being safeguarded.
• The Director of National Intelligence’s confirmation that the UAE’s assurances to safeguard U.S. technology are viable and sufficient to protect U.S. technology from being transferred to China and others.

As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mira Resnick stated, “there are certain categories of cooperation with the Peoples Repubublic of China that we [the US] cannot live with.” Just last year, A Pentagon report on China’s military power listed the UAE among countries it believed Beijing “likely considered” as locations for “military logistics facilities”.

There are question marks being raised in Washington. Especially since more than one Emirati official has openly expressed dissatisfaction with the security technical conditions applied to a deal to purchase American-made F-35 aircraft, drones and other advanced munitions. The United States argues that it wants to protect high-tech weapons from Chinese espionage, but the requirements appear onerous and threaten the sovereignty of the United Arab Emirates.

This in synchronisation with the ambiguous approach of the United States. In May 2021 planes belonging to China’s People’s Liberation Army landed at an airport in the United Arab Emirates and unloaded crates of undetermined materiel – according to US officials who witnessed the intelligence, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The transport flights are seen as consistent with other signs of nascent security cooperation between Beijing and the U.A.E that ostensibly the US disapprove of. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal separately reported in November 2021 that U.S. intelligence agencies learned in Spring that China was secretly building what they suspected was a military facility at the Khalifa Port in the United Arab Emirates. The Guardian reported that the construction was halted following Washington’s intervention.

The UAE-China Cooperation Bill is also not the first to come through Congress. In November, US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced a joint resolution to block a $650 million sale of air-to-air missiles proposed by the Biden administration for Saudi Arabia. This is in line with the Bipartisan opposition to US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that is growing. Omar in 2020 also introduced a package of resolutions to ban the Trump Administration’s proposed sale of weapons to the
United Arab Emirates.

The problem in Washington:

Despite the misguided influence of members of Congress and executive levels in the US administration who have publicly expressed their concern about the development of the UAE’s relations with China, it showcases a degree of confusion in the entire system of Washington’s foreign relations with various countries in light of its declared priorities in confronting China and combating terrorism over other special considerations.

The US can no longer pretend to be the post-Cold War’s sole world leader. The catastrophic consequences of the failure of its policies in Iraq and Syria have led to the strengthening of fears and anxiety among many countries in the Middle East, which now view the US policy as being responsible for exacerbating internal conflicts in the region, and fuelling waves of terrorism and extremism.

With the continuation of conflicts, the escalation of tensions, and the lack of solutions in sight, some countries in the region, including the UAE, have taken steps they deem necessary to calm tensions and enhance stability and security. There is seemingly a strategic review based on the core idea of a reduction in military solutions to the many conflicts fuelled by regional adversaries such as Turkey, Israel and Iran. The UAE has embarked on a series of diplomatic initiatives for more than two years now, using its invariably most powerful weapon – the soft power of its economy, the freedom of entrepreneurship, and the diversity of its population. These are steps described in international circles as bold and fruitful and necessary to address the mistakes left by US policy in the region.
The UAE leadership has worked to diversify its foreign investments and commercial partnerships, and has set its strategic goals for the coming decades in order for the digital economy to become the locomotive of its economy with the aim of catching up with the new business world and the fourth technological revolution. Abu Dhabi is well aware of the added value provided by its moderate political system and its free market economy, and the elimination of its problems with all the countries of the region. The manifestations of change in foreign policies based on maximizing economic benefits and state leadership in the field of business were evident with the normalization of economic relations with Israel and with Turkey, the opening of channels of communication with the archenemy Iran, and a quiet exit from the region’s military conflicts and internal wars of regional and international dimensions. This comes alongside building extensive economic partnerships with China and the Russian Federation, without breaching its long strategic alliance with the United States.

Chinese investments and contracts in the UAE totalled $8.16 billion in 2018 – eclipsing the second-largest recipient, Saudi Arabia, by nearly $3.4 billion, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker.

With this the UAE is fast becoming one of China’s most important economic — and politically stable — partner in the region: The UAE is a major source for China in the oil sector, and a gateway for Chinese exports to the world. It is home to about 6000 Chinese companies and 200,000 Chinese citizens, and its ports have become a pivotal position in the map of the Belt and Road project. Western reports indicate great economic integration and active cooperation between China and the United Arab Emirates in the areas of free zone development, technological innovation, logistics and infrastructure, and recently even the production of vaccines.

At the same time, the Financial Times reports that US oil imports from the region have declined markedly over the past 10 years as a result of the shale gas boom in North America. Research from the US Energy Information Administration showed that in 2016, US imports of crude oil from Gulf countries was at 1,738 thousand barrels per day. In 2020 it had fallen to 700 hundred thousand barrels per day. In contrast, demand for oil in Asia soared, and as the economic ties deepened, the China-Gulf relationship has flourished into one that today is far more than just about crude.

Overall, The Office of the United States Trade Representative details that U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) in United Arab Emirates (stock) was $17.2 billion in 2019, a 1.6% decrease from 2018.
These broad and growing relationships appear to make the UAE a prime candidate to serve as a strategic powerhouse. “Trust in America is deteriorating day by day,” Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor of Emirati politics, told the Financial Times in September 2021. “The trend is more of China, less of America on all fronts, not just economically but politically, militarily and strategically in the years to come. There’s nothing America can do about it.”

Conclusion:

– It is not expected that the UAE-US relations will return to their previous era, despite the huge investment in that relationship, which dates back nearly five decades. The cause of the current tension is not due to an Emirati coup in its international relations as much as the experience of the past decade indicates fluctuations in US policy in the Middle East, which is no longer an American priority compared to the rest of the files. The partial US withdrawal from Syria and Iraq and the complete withdrawal from Afghanistan provided messages of insecurity and anxiety in allied Arab circles, therefore, the policy of “either unconditional alliance or hostility” is no longer useful in contemporary international relations.

– The UAE cannot accept the technical or political conditions requested by the United States, whether with regard to the F35 aircraft deal, the 5G network, cooperation in the fields of digital technology, or its participation in the Chinese road and belt project, as shown when Abu Dhabi did not hesitate to make a deal with France to buy Rafale Fighter jets.

– There are very important indicators of the wise management and the cold mind of the UAE in its relations to the United States. The political leadership of the country is well aware that China is unconcerned with being an umbrella or security guarantor for the UAE and the wider Gulf countries, just as China will not engage in negotiation issues. Mediation in regional conflicts is not on its agenda nor is the need to find a competitive military and political equivalent for its increasing commercial and economic weight, at least for the time being. Hence why China is maximizing the returns of its spread and economic influence, without practical political commitments towards these countries.

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