United Arab Emirates (UAE): Issues for U.S. Policy

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven principalities or “emirates.” Its population is assessed at nearly 10 million, but about 90% of the population are expatriates from within and outside the region who work in its open economy. The UAE is a significant U.S. security partner that hosts about 3,500 U.S. military personnel at UAE military facilities, buys sophisticated U.S. military equipment, including missile defenses and combat aircraft, and supports U.S. policy toward Iran. The UAE’s August 2020 agreement to normalize relations with Israel might further consolidate the U.S.-UAE relationship and help both the United States and Israel counter Iran. UAE policy will likely not change after after UAE President Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayid Al Nuhayyan, who has been largely incapacitated since January 2014, passes from the scene; he is almost certain to be succeeded by his younger brother and de facto UAE leader Shaykh Muhammad bin Zayid Al Nuhayyan. With ample financial resources and a U.S.-armed and advised military, the UAE has been asserting itself in the region, including militarily. In part to counter Iran, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in a military effort to pressure the Iran-backed Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, a campaign that has produced significant numbers of civilian casualties and criticism of the UAE.

That criticism, coupled with UAE concerns that U.S.-Iran tensions could embroil the UAE in war with Iran, might account for an apparent UAE shift toward more engagement with Iran and a decision to remove most of the UAE’s ground forces from the Yemen conflict. UAE forces continue to support pro-UAE factions in southern Yemen and, alongside U.S. special operations forces, continue to combat Al Qaeda’s affiliate there (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP). The UAE’s involvement in Yemen, and U.S. sales of weapons the UAE is using there, have been the subject of congressional oversight hearings and some legislation. Congress might evaluate a U.S. sale of the advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the UAE if a sale is agreed; U.S. officials say that the Israel normalization agreement has made an Administration decision to approve that sale more likely. The UAE leadership’s evaluation of Muslim Brotherhood-linked organizations as regional and domestic threats is a significant factor in UAE policy. The UAE’s stance on those groups has contributed to a major rift with Qatar, another member of the Gulf Cooperation Council alliance (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman). Qatar supports Brotherhood-related groups as Islamists willing to work within the established political process. In June 2017, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in isolating Qatar until it adopts policies closer to the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the Brotherhood and other issues. In Libya, the UAE is supporting an anti-Islamist commander based in eastern Libya, Khalifa Hafter, who has sought to defeat a U.N.-backed government that derives some support from Muslim Brotherhood factions.  Purchase this Volume