The writer is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region.
When people think of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), what often comes to mind are the fancy touristic hotspots and shopping malls in Dubai, futuristic skyscrapers, renowned companies like Emirates airlines, and abundant financing of professional football. Yet beneath this glamorous guise, within the capital Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed plots how he can secure the UAE as a dominant powerhouse, even if it means destabilizing countries and turning millions of people’s lives into a living hell along the way.
After pro-democracy uprisings continuously emerged throughout the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab Spring, the UAE has aimed to repress such changes. It ultimately fears that such regionwide transformations would challenge the region’s status quo, and eventually inspire Emirati reformists to confront the UAE’s own rigid system. Abu Dhabi therefore supports reactionary and authoritarian political actors to prevent such transformations from occurring.
Yet the UAE does not just seek to protect reactionary regimes; it also aims to become a dominant regional hegemon itself. It has therefore played a significant role in driving the wars in both Yemen and Libya for its own geopolitical influence, therefore enflaming two of the region’s worst humanitarian crises.
While intervening alongside Saudi Arabia’s destructive campaign in Yemen, claiming to shore up the internationally-recognized Hadi government, Abu Dhabi rather takes a diverging stance and backs  separatist forces against Hadi in southern Yemen to secure its own proxy state so it can control natural resources and ports to bolster its maritime trade. Yemen’s independence would also allow Aden’s port, which has potential to become a key international trading hub, to compete with Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s trading ports, showing the UAE’s counter-revolutionary motives to achieve its goals.
This mirrors its policies in Libya, with its empowering  of Khalifa Haftar’s forces in its offensive to control the country and undermine international peace efforts, while creating a worsening humanitarian catastrophe. Yet though Turkey’s intervention in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) has pushed Haftar back and therefore thwarted the UAE’s plans, Abu Dhabi still supports Haftar, which may result in a de facto split within Libya. A continuation of Emirati support which Haftar depends on may trigger such a result after Haftar declared  in a speech on May 25 that he “will fight and fight” despite his recent setbacks. This would also benefit Abu Dhabi’s plans of keeping Libya — an oil-rich country and potential economic rival should it become stable — weak and divided, even if Haftar’s takeover of Libya fails.
The UAE has also sought  to empower Somalia’s autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland in a ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy, as Mogadishu’s central government, which is friendly with Qatar and Turkey, opposed the UAE’s port building plans in the Somali peninsula and therefore threatens its maritime trade ambitions in the strategic Bab al Mandeb. It even ended  its humanitarian and security projects in Mogadishu as “punishment” for its ties with Qatar. These moves have ultimately risked further instability in Somalia and undermine its efforts to contain its humanitarian crisis and security threats like Al-Shabaab. Evidently, the UAE is prepared to keep governments which it cannot influence weak and their countries destabilized, to secure its economic and geopolitical dominance.
Meanwhile, per its crackdown on democratic transitions, the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia bankrolled  General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup against the democratically elected government in Egypt in July 2013, effectively helping secure an anti-democratic and counter-revolutionary military regime. To this day, Sisi has won sham elections, repressed civil society and effectively killed the Egyptian revolution, crushing democratic hopes there for now, showing the UAE has successfully achieved its primary objectives in Egypt.
Abu Dhabi meanwhile turned its attention to Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, seeking to replicate the “Sisi model” there to undermine its democratic transition and weaken the soft Islamist Ennahda party. It supported  the secular, nationalist and reactionary-leaning Nidaa Tounes party, and then encouraged it to launch a coup against Ennahda after the 2014 presidential elections which resulted in a power-sharing coalition with the two parties. Among a further campaign of interference in the country’s affairs, it had even reportedly  threatened to destabilize Tunisia. Though Tunisia survived such attacks on its democratic transition, Emirati and Saudi media recently targeted  Ennahda’s intellectual leader Rached Ghannouchi, seeking to tarnish his image, revealing Abu Dhabi’s continued political assaults on its rivals in the country.
Yet achieving this “Sisi model” has been a key aspiration of Emirati policy elsewhere. While it unsuccessfully pursued this with Haftar’s attempted takeover of Tripoli, the UAE, alongside Saudi Arabia, sought to empower Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC), after the country’s revolution in April 2019. They offered  it $3 billion worth of “aid”, which really helped to secure soft power over the country, shore up military rule and block Sudan’s democratic transition. However, protestors continued their pressure in the face of an Emirati-backed TMC crackdown, which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, and with eventual US pressure , they managed to achieve a power-sharing agreement between the military and the pro-democracy opposition.
Abu Dhabi, however, still seeks influence in Sudan to secure mercenary recruitment, to support its military operations in Libya and Yemen. Local Sudanese media reported  in January that Abu Dhabi hired Sudanese mercenaries into exploitative contracts to fight its wars in these countries, lured in under the false pretense of “comfortable security jobs” in the UAE.
While the UAE has cooperated closely with its close ally Saudi Arabia in these endeavors, it ultimately seeks to overtake Riyadh’s dominant status, as shown by its diverging policies in Yemen and assuming the role of Haftar’s greatest patron.
In the meantime, the UAE has attempted to vilify any states that stand in the way of its agenda. This largely comes with Qatar following the 2017 Gulf crisis, where the former, alongside Egypt and Bahrain, sought to punish Doha for its independent foreign policy. The UAE now even arguably seeks  to prevent any diplomatic reunion between Saudi Arabia and Qatar since Doha’s foreign policy still differs from that of Abu Dhabi, as a reunification would not only legitimize Doha’s independent policies, but keeping these divisions enables the UAE to emerge as a more dominant and independent actor itself.
Though the UAE has faced setbacks in multiple scenarios, its determination to achieve its objectives will lead to more human suffering and repression of positive civil reforms within the region. This will continue in the event global powers fail to reign in on Abu Dhabi and its false pretenses of humanitarianism, which it often presents to the international community, whereas its actions undermine the international community’s stated values in various regional settings.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
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