Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan always showed commitment to the principle of nation-building, maintaining the UAE’s place in the global community of nations, and ensuring that it played an active part in the Arab and Gulf region.
In the 1970s, the UAE was a young nation, and many around the world were unsure about where it stood on important global issues of the time. As Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa supported his father Sheikh Zayed in the task of building relationships with the international community. This ensured that by the time Sheikh Khalifa became president, he had acquired considerable experience in the realm of foreign affairs.
For example, Sheikh Khalifa visited France in 1972 and pushed for strengthening of military and economic ties. He thanked the French for supporting Arab causes as laid down by their great leader General Charles de Gaulle.
The same year, Sheikh Khalifa visited Egypt and visited several important economic and military sites in the country, including the Zayed Village, which was then being built on the banks of the Suez Canal.
As early as 1976, Sheikh Khalifa spoke about the importance of the UAE reaching out to all nations and that no nation should shut the door on itself. He took the emerging nations of Africa as an example of this global policy when he told the Syrian newspaper Tishreen that “the UAE has moved to boost cooperation with others and uphold liberation movements in Africa”.
He added: “It has also condemned the apartheid policy of racial discrimination, and called for bolstering cooperation between the Arab world and Africa and has allocated aid to developing nations.”
As chairman of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development, he observed that “the fund has disbursed Dh548 million in the first nine months of 1976,” adding that the political and social thinking behind the fund was encapsulated by Sheikh Zayed’s belief that “no one can be happy if his neighbour is poor and that cooperation between people means that the rich give to the poor”. The UAE, and Abu Dhabi in particular, have always been aware of the responsibilities that great wealth imposes, and that this national asset was to be used to improve the lot of mankind.
The willingness to give generously became a hallmark of the UAE’s relationships with other countries, and generated goodwill because it was given freely, especially in remote parts of the world.
A dominant part of Sheikh Khalifa’s foreign policy was promoting Arab unity. In 1976 for example, he spelt out the details of the UAE’s participation in the Arab peace-keeping force required in Lebanon when he made it clear that the 700-strong force would be drawn from the UAE’s three military zones and Al Yarmouk Brigade.
“The UAE supports any joint effort to save Lebanon and end its tragedy which has sapped Arab resources needed to face the Zionist enemy,” Sheikh Khalifa said.
This commitment was further tested in the early 1990s in the process that led to the Madrid talks on finding a roadmap for a two-state solution for the Palestinians. The process did not get very far, but in 1991, the UAE was willing to help find a way forward.
During a meeting with Davis Mack, then US deputy assistant secretary of state, Sheikh Khalifa reiterated the UAE’s consistent support for the Palestinian people when he urged the US to continue supporting the cause of international legitimacy and self-determination for Palestinians.
Importance of the GCC
The coming together of the six Gulf states as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was a vital development for the UAE. These six nations shared a world view from their common cultural and economic situation, which made them natural partners from the perspective of security and development.
The UAE has always been committed to the principle of GCC unity, which was why it reacted strongly to Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and was willing to send its troops to participate in the coalition to liberate Kuwait in 1991. This was a major test of GCC military and political will, and in 1992 at the height of the crisis, Sheikh Khalifa made a point of putting regional cooperation at the heart of any response.
In March 1992, he told the graduates of the Second Zayed Military Academy that these critical events demanded better cooperation, and that unity among the GCC nations was the only real guarantee to overcome the new challenges. He added an important point of UAE foreign policy when he made clear that any military action was against the Iraqi government and not against the people of Iraq.
He said: “We were shocked when we saw this brother turning into a treacherous force directing weapons at a neighbour and dearest friend, and firing weapons at the wrong target in the wrong place.
“The battle for the liberation of Kuwait was not a battle against the Iraqi people and their hopes and resources, but against those who oppressed them, forged slogans and played on their feelings. The UAE places all its resources in cooperation with other Arab and friendly states at the start of the crisis in order to safeguard security.”
In the same speech, Sheikh Khalifa commented on the excellent support the UAE’s intervention to help liberate Kuwait received from UAE citizens, formulating what was to become one of the hallmarks of his presidency, which was the leadership encouraging active participation by citizens in the UAE’s policies.
Policy of peace
Sheikh Khalifa made it clear that the UAE has always sought peaceful resolution whenever possible. In an interview with Egyptian magazine Sabah Al Khair, he said the UAE’s security was linked to Gulf security. “We hope the Gulf crisis will be solved peacefully and Kuwait will return to its people through peaceful means and not through war,” he said.
The fact that a peaceful outcome did not materialise does not dim the UAE’s determination to keep the region away from violence and its unpredictable consequences.