UAE races to dominate Middle East power politics

Saudi Arabia dreams of global influence, but the UAE is just as power-hungry
5 min read
23 July, 2018
Analysis: The UAE has established spheres of influence from the deserts of Libya to the shores of Yemen, flying under the radar amid headline-grabbing Saudi interventions elsewhere, writes Austin Bodetti.
The UAE has backed militias and built or seized shipping infrastructure across the region [AFP]
Though often portrayed as second fiddle to Saudi Arabia in the anti-Qatar axis, the United Arab Emirates may in fact be outpacing its much larger neighbour in the race to dominate Middle East power politics.

The Abu Dhabi-headquartered federation has established spheres of influence from the deserts of Libya to the shores of Yemen, flying under the radar amid headline-grabbing Saudi interventions elsewhere.

The Emirates' rise as an ambitious behind-the-scenes regional powerbroker should concern the international community as much as Saudi Arabia's ill-fated expeditions across the Arab world, given that Abu Dhabi has far less to lose from its international adventurism and much more to gain.

Abu Dhabi's allies extend from Aden, where Emirati-trained Yemeni militias are fighting Iranian-backed rebels and Qaeda-aligned militants, to Benghazi, where the Emirates have launched airstrikes against the Islamist rivals of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar.

These campaigns have endeared the Emirates to powerhouses such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia without attracting the ire of the international community, which has rarely criticised Emirati interventionism.

Read also: Saudi Arabia and UAE's dangerous rivalry over Yemen

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is leading the war against the Houthis, whom it accuses Iran of arming and directing, but the Emirates seem to be wielding the most influence there with the fewest consequences.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, which has focused on ousting the Houthis from the north and west of the country, the Emirates have invested their time in building militias across the east and south, where secessionists intent on recreating the twentieth-century communist state of South Yemen enjoy close relations with the Emirates and its proxies in the former South Yemeni capital of Aden.

While this example of power politics has only further divided Yemen, the Emirates are reaping the rewards of a sphere of influence in the country.

They have conducted operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), alongside commandos from the United States, which the Emirates considers one of its most important allies.

Earlier this year, the Emirates even felt confident enough to attempt the colonisation of Socotra, the Yemeni island renowned for its ecological diversity, which the Yemeni government, though dependent on Emirati and Saudi support, protested.

These protests barely seem to have affected the Emirates' influence in Yemen, with Abu Dhabi benefiting from the perception that the Emirates stemmed the rise of AQAP in the country.

"The Emirates has been able to confront the terrorism of al-Qaeda with the help of America in a great way, which was shown to us through the liberation of Mukalla and the attempts to purge Aden and Abyan of Qaeda elements by killing most of the organisation's leadership," Olfat al-Dobai, a professor of sociology at the University of Taiz, told The New Arab.

Emirati support for Haftar in Libya offers a similar story.

The Emirates' rise as an ambitious behind-the-scenes regional powerbroker should concern the international community

Backed by Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes, Haftar has captured the city of Benghazi and threatened Tripoli in his campaign against opponents backed by Qatar - the most formidable rival to the UAE and Saudi Arabia after Iran.

The Emirates have even bankrolled the campaigns of Haftar-friendly candidates participating in elections across Libya, undercutting the country's already-fragile peace process.

Much about Emirati involvement in Libya and Yemen could exacerbate the same conflicts that the international community is trying to solve.

Human rights groups have condemned Emirati soldiers and Emirati-organised Yemeni militias for subjecting detainees to sexual torture, and Haftar, who owes his military successes to Egypt and the Emirates, has faced criticism for his opposition to on-again off-again peace talks and his involvement in war crimes in the cities of Benghazi and Derna.

Read also: Tortured, detained, disappeared: UAE abuses rife in southern Yemen

"The arrests and forced disappearances conducted by militias under the Emirates' supervision as well as human rights violations are strengthening al-Qaeda again after its weakening," said Dobai.

"It is finding an opportunity to remarket itself by exploiting these violations committed against innocent people under the pretext of fighting terrorism - especially since these violations are undertaken illegally and extrajudicially." AQAP still operates in Emirati-secured regions, he noted.

The same could happen in Libya, which hosts franchises of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, and where Islamists have made a point of capitalising on anti-Haftar sentiment.

While the Emirates may have nothing to fear from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group outside Libya and Yemen, given that neither has expressed an interest in conducting an attack in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, the continuation of civil wars across the Middle East and the evolution of Libya and Yemen into breeding-grounds for terrorism will have consequences for the international community.

"The ultimate success of the Emirates in the fight against terrorism in the east of Yemen depends on its ability to maintain security, provide better services to citizens, and enable Yemenis to build their national project, given that al-Qaeda depends on its relationships with tribal sheikhs and gaining the implicit sympathy of some local people," Dobai told The New Arab.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have overshadowed the Emirates in Libya and Yemen, but the aftermath of Emirati involvement in the Libyan and Yemeni Civil Wars will likely prove no less significant.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.