Emirates foreign policy has gone through a dynamic change in recent years. The change is apparently broad and indeed fundamental. It encompasses the very content as well as the style in which the UAE deals with external opportunities and challenges. The relatively small but oil-rich UAE is noticeably more assertive and active regionally and globally than it used to be during the first three decades of its establishment as a federal state on December 2, 1971.
This is the principal finding of the 10,000-word, newly-submitted master dissertation with the lofty title Dynamic Process Model: Of Identity and Foreign Policy Production, the Case Study of the United Arab Emirates, written by a young Emirati scholar.
The writer, who has done extensive field research and met with some top foreign policy experts, cogently argues that the 40 years of UAE foreign policy can be neatly divided into two distinct stages — the Zayed and the post-Zayed UAE foreign policy.
He maintains that during the time of the late founding father and first president of the country, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan, UAE foreign policy was predominantly “idealistic” in its orientation and essentially Arab world-centred. The main drive at the time was limited to preserving the country’s sovereignty and newly-won independence. However, since 2004, a confident and ambitious UAE has been pursuing a more “global” and palpably a more “realistic foreign policy”. The dissertation uses a theoretical framework called ‘the Dynamic Process Model’, which asserts that the UAE essentially pursues a tripartite foreign policy, namely: identity, security and economy. The Arab world is needed for identity, the West for security and most recently Asia for the economy.
However, in the current tripartite foreign policy, the economic leg looms large. Economic interests and not identity, not even security, are the new anchor in this mainly realistic approach to international politics.
According to the findings of this timely dissertation, which could easily be a book project, the growing emphasis on economic interests constitutes a fundamental shift away from the mostly idealistic and humanistic UAE foreign policy of the Shaikh Zayed era with its preoccupation with “Arabness”. The Arab world is still needed for the identity and affinity, but it is no longer the main focus of the UAE’s current foreign policy. The US and the West also remain as indispensable, strategic allies. Yet their importance is increasingly reduced to serve as a security insurance.
Asia, on the other hand, is the new centre of interest in the present UAE foreign policy. The UAE, like the rest of the world, is going East to discover China, the second biggest economy in the world, South Korea, the fourth biggest economy in Asia, and all the other Asian tigers. They are the new destinations for economic, energy and security diversification policy.
The UAE foreign policy priorities are sensibly changing to accommodate the contemporary global and regional realities. However, external influences aside, the noticeable change in UAE foreign policy is mainly a reflection of the “formal and the informal domestic sociopolitical structures” of the present state.
The UAE has changed massively and beyond recognition since December 2, 1971. The UAE at 40 is no longer the small, young, vulnerable and oil-centred country that it was in 1971. The 21st century UAE is an economic and financial power house, a rising military actor, a regional hub and a global brand that rubs shoulders with big powers and has friends and allies all over the planet. Some might still think of the UAE as a relatively small oil-state, but it is, as the dissertation claims, “a small state with a positively big ego”.
The dissertation also notices the emergence of new foreign policy elites in the UAE. Unlike the old guardians of UAE foreign policy, the younger elites come strictly from the realist school with emphasis on economics and balance of power as the new anchor for UAE foreign policy today.
They are ready to defend the country’s national interests frontally and decisively. They are not shy to pick up the fight when it is needed to defend the country’s vast global investments. Canada’s refusal to give the UAE carriers landing rights is a case in point. Another sign of the more confident and assertive post-founding father UAE foreign policy is the UAE’s adherence to the strict UN economic sanctions against a characteristically difficult neighbour like Iran.
The message coming out of this freshly submitted master dissertation is that the mature and self-assured UAE should not be taken for granted and is no longer the state anyone messes with anymore. The world is well advised to take the UAE more seriously. The dissertation soundly concludes that “the UAE is more than a line in the sand”.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is a professor of political science. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE