U.A.E. Flexes Muscle Reaching Beyond Finance-Hub Role

When Mariam Al Mansouri, a female fighter pilot from the United Arab Emirates, made headlines in September for leading airstrikes against Islamic State, she put a public face to her country’s ambitions.

Best known for its financial allure, symbolized by Dubai’s skyscrapers, the U.A.E. is starting to flex its military and diplomatic muscles too. In the past year it has helped consolidate an army-installed government in Egypt and is said to have sent planes to bomb Islamists in Libya, as well as joining the U.S. campaign against militants in Syria.

With traditional Arab powers mired in war or political turmoil, and U.S. attention drifting elsewhere, there’s room for oil-rich Gulf states to exert more influence over the Middle East. The U.A.E. promotes itself as a template of economic success built on a liberal social model, though oil wealth and a small population may limit its relevance as a regional model, while rights groups question the extent of its tolerance.

“The role the U.A.E. wants to play is to be a leader of ideas,” said Mishaal Al Gergawi, managing director of the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi. “You look at the U.A.E. and it breaks the taboo that Arabs can attempt something and not mess it up.”

The U.A.E. is a confederation of seven emirates, with Dubai as its business hub and Abu Dhabi the capital. It holds about 6 percent of global oil reserves and its $420 billion economy is the Middle East’s second-biggest, after Saudi Arabia.

Proclaimed Narrative

Analysts say Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, is behind the bolder stance. Known locally by his initials MBZ, he’s often cited as de facto national leader since his brother Sheikh Khalifa, the president, suffered a stroke last year.

“It’s very clear who is in command,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati academic and author of “The Gulf Regional System,” said of the crown prince. “He’s somebody that is young, that is ambitious, that is taking the U.A.E. to a new stage.”

Emirati leaders envision their country as part of a new axis that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Largely behind-the-scenes operators in the past, they’re now going public, appearing on U.S. television and writing op-eds in international newspapers. Al Mansouri, the female pilot, fits the proclaimed narrative of a progressive Arab nation that doesn’t hold women back.

‘No Tolerance’

“We’re going to promote a more moderate, tolerant, acceptable ideology, and you can see this ideology in place, in practice, in a place like the U.A.E.,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., said in a telephone interview.

Human rights groups, though, regularly slam the U.A.E.’s record of prosecuting activists and suppressing criticism as well as failing to protect the rights of the migrant workers who make up most of its population. The government has repeatedly rejected the criticism.

“There’s no tolerance at all if you don’t agree with their model of moderation,” said Christopher Davidson, professor of Middle East politics at the U.K.’s Durham University and author of “After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.”

Low Threshold

Like its bigger neighbor and ally Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. bars political parties. It classifies organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which says it seeks power via the ballot box, as terrorists on the same spectrum as militant armed groups like Islamic State.

“Our threshold is quite low when we talk about extremism,” Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the U.A.E. foreign minister, told Fox News in November. “For many countries, the definition of terror is that you have to carry a weapon and terrorize people. For us, it’s far beyond that. We cannot tolerate even the smallest and tiniest amount of terrorism.”

The desire to defeat Islamist groups, which officials say threaten the U.A.E.’s stability and values, lies behind the country’s most ambitious foreign policy ventures. In Egypt, it backed the overthrow of elected Islamist leader Mohamed Mursi by the military in 2013, and has poured in aid to help the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the general who replaced him.

Biggest Decision

“This was probably the biggest political decision the U.A.E. has taken in recent years,” Abdulla, the Emirati academic, said.

The U.A.E. is developing projects valued at $10 billion in Egypt, from building homes and bridges to expanding bus fleets. U.S. officials say the U.A.E. also teamed up with Egypt to launch airstrikes against Islamists in Libya in August, though the government didn’t acknowledge the raids.

The U.A.E.’s more assertive role comes amid turmoil in the traditional Arab powers, with Egypt preoccupied by internal affairs, and sectarian conflict spreading from Syria to Iraq.

“There’s a vacuum in the leadership in the Arab world,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. That’s “allowing small states to play a major part.”

Qatar’s Isolation

One that has sought to do so is Qatar, which took the opposite political line by using its energy wealth to back Islamists after the 2011 Arab uprisings. That riled Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies, and led to Qatar’s isolation. The U.A.E. has acted in concert with the Saudis.

Whatever their regional ambitions, Gulf states like Qatar and the U.A.E. have “no political model to export” to countries like Egypt or Syria that have larger populations and lack energy wealth, Davidson said. The oil slump of the past six months, with crude prices dropping by about half, may also limit their ability to project power.

In the past, the U.A.E. kept a low profile when it backed U.S. military operations such as the 1991 Gulf War.

“In my day, I used to have to ask them questions to get them to express some doubt about our policies, they would be very reticent,” David Mack, a U.S. ambassador to the country in the 1980s, said by phone. Now “they’re just much more open about challenging our views when they disagree with them, but they’re also not afraid to tell the world when they agree with us,” he said.

Last year, the U.A.E. introduced mandatory military service for men, and effusive displays lauding the army have become common. “Thank you, guardians of the nation,” read a popular Twitter hashtag in the country this week.

Military Ties

The military has close ties with the U.S., hosting American forces at the Al Dhafra air base and joining the coalition fighting Islamic State. Yet as with other American allies in the region, relations have been strained in recent years.

“Those countries see the United States as wavering on what they had assumed to be an unshakable commitment to the partnership,” said Adam Ereli, U.S. ambassador to Bahrain from 2007 to 2011.

U.A.E. and Saudi leaders blamed President Barack Obama for acquiescing in the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood there, and for the absence of intervention against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Unsure of the U.S. stance, the U.A.E. has been drawn into an “activist foreign policy” to protect key interests, said Al Gergawi of the Delma Institute.

Its leaders are aware that Saudi Arabia will remain the Gulf’s dominant power, and are shaping the country as a proactive partner who can nudge their larger neighbor to act, according to analysts and former diplomats.

“The U.A.E. has found its niche, found its way to work as a major player,” said William Rugh, a U.S. ambassador to the U.A.E. from 1992 to 1995.

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