The UAE Is Playing Both Sides in Israel and the US; But That Has Limits
by James M. Dorsey
The United Arab Emirates has mastered playing both sides against the middle.
In the game’s latest iteration, the Gulf state earned significant brownie points in Washington this week by withdrawing a draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity.
The replacement of the draft resolution, which if adopted would have been legally binding, with a non-binding statement by the Council’s president, allowed the Biden administration to appear to be criticizing Israel without creating a political storm. Moreover, the UAE maneuver shielded President Joe Biden from potential allegations of hypocrisy as he focused attention on the first anniversary of the Ukraine war with his visit to Kyiv and in the United Nations.
The United States would not have emerged from a Security Council vote smelling like roses, irrespective of whether it abstained or vetoed the resolution. Voting in favor was never an option.
At the same time, the UAE was offering Biden a helping hand, and as the US president made his historic visit to Kyiv, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese-made DJI drones were being sold to Russia via the UAE.
In a video posted in June on social media, one of many viewed by the Journal, a group of gun-toting, khaki-clad, pro-Russian volunteers in southern Ukraine said they were about to receive “heroic shuttles” — a term for DJI drones — from the UAE paid through Russia’s sanctioned state-owned Sberbank.
Konstantin Kuznetsov, a gun dealer in Orenburg, Russia, who supplies the Russian military, said on social media that DJI drones were available in the UAE for 500,000 Russian rubles ($6,800).
The disclosure of the drone sales came three weeks after a US Treasury Department official visited the UAE and other Middle Eastern nations to warn that they could lose US and European market access if they do business with entities subject to US sanctions.
Last month, the US sanctioned a UAE-based firm, Kratol Aviation, for support of the operations in Africa of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force linked to President Vladimir Putin that plays an important role in fighting in Ukraine.
The Journal report was the latest incident in which the UAE, like with the withdrawal of its Security Council resolution, has capitalized on its political capital in Washington, which was significantly boosted by its recognition of Israel in 2020, to pursue policies that diverge from the US approach.
The UAE’s expanding military cooperation with Israel further enhanced the Gulf state’s political capital. The UAE and Israel this week unveiled a jointly developed unmanned vessel that boasts advanced sensors and imaging systems for surveillance, reconnaissance, and the detection of mines.
Meanwhile, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed used this month’s devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey and northern Syria to further the Gulf state’s goal of returning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the international fold, despite US opposition.
Earlier this month, Bin Zayed became the first senior Arab official to visit Damascus after the earthquake, his second trip to the Syrian capital in 16 months. He was followed within days by Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi.
In a reversal of Saudi opposition to conciliatory moves toward Al-Assad, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said this weekend that Arab states agreed that isolating Syria because of its brutal conduct of the country’s civil war and ties to Iran was not working. Al-Saud advocated opening a dialogue with the Al-Assad regime.
Since Bin Zayed’s first trip to Damascus in November 2021, Al-Assad has visited the UAE and, this week, traveled to Oman. Similarly, the UAE has so far flown under the radar in a European Parliament corruption scandal that implicates Qatar and Morocco in bribing deputies. Radoslaw Sikorski, a Polish assembly member, did not deny that he had received monies from and paid travel to the UAE, but insisted that he had reported his ties to the Gulf state in line with European Parliament regulations.
So far, the UAE has successfully leveraged its political capital in Washington to hedge its bets to pursue an independent, at times opportunistic, foreign policy.
However, that may become increasingly tricky as the United States tightens its screws.
Moreover, a crisis in US-Israeli relations provoked by Netanyahu’s judicial reform and/or his potential inability to keep his coalition’s far-right and ultra-conservative religious members in check would narrow the UAE’s ability to project itself as a shining knight.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey..