UAE, Saudi, and affiliated local forces have begun withdrawing from locations across southern and western Yemen; while couched as “redeployments,” together the moves suggest the Saudi-led coalition is actively looking for an exit strategy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent international tour – beginning with contentious meetings in North Korea and ending at the controversial NATO summit in Brussels – included a less dramatic but nonetheless very important stop in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. Pompeo’s meetings on July 10 with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and other senior UAE officials were evidently warm, friendly, and cooperative, and signaled the growing strength of U.S.-UAE relations. Although Pompeo did not visit the UAE during his first trip to the region as secretary of state, during this visit he stayed in the country overnight and granted an unusually detailed interview to Abu Dhabi’s flagship English-language newspaper The National touching on many aspects of U.S.-UAE affairs.
The length of the trip and breadth of engagement with what seems a geographically and demographically small ally involves some clear messaging about the disproportionate importance of the UAE to U.S. Middle East aims. The relationship was already deep and extensive, but since Donald J. Trump became president has grown closer on a range of issues, above all new U.S.-led efforts, strongly supported by the UAE, to increase pressure on Iran. Pompeo reportedly took the same Iranian-centered agenda to Brussels, where he arrived immediately after leaving Abu Dhabi. U.S.-UAE relations cover a wide range of other issues, including new U.S. aluminum tariffs that will negatively affect Emirati exports to the United States (the UAE is the second-largest global exporter of aluminum after Canada and the third largest to the United States after China and Russia); the UAE is seeking a waiver from the tariffs. It wasn’t clear, however, if the issue came up during Pompeo’s talks, which seemed to be dominated by a series of key regional strategic issues.
The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, was among the countries most supportive of the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. The UAE and other Gulf Arab countries’ anxieties never focused primarily on Iran’s nuclear agenda but rather its destabilizing regional conduct and, above all, support for violent nonstate actors in the Arab world. Trump and Pompeo have repeatedly emphasized that U.S. objections to the JCPOA centered on three failings: sunset clauses and other limitations on nuclear restrictions, a failure to address Iran’s missile development, and Iran’s “malign” regional activities. Therefore, the scope and shape of Washington’s emerging post-JCPOA Iran policy, which may more directly address their primary concern regarding Tehran, is of crucial importance to the UAE and its Gulf Arab allies. In the wake of Pompeo’s visit, U.S. and UAE officials have been stressing the need for closer cooperation on suppressing terrorism financing, including by Iran, and the enforcement of new sanctions against Iran, because the UAE serves as a financial hub between the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Despite the large volume of trade between the UAE and Iran, which may not persist, and the large Iranian expatriate community living in Dubai, the UAE has been very supportive of the emerging policy of maximum financial pressures against Iran. Abu Dhabi also welcomed recent U.S. assurances that Washington would not permit Iran to threaten shipping and commerce in the waters of the Gulf or attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, as it recently threatened it might. Washington has asked the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to help contain oil price rises by increasing production as the United States attempts to bring Iran’s oil export revenue as close to zero as possible.
The United States and the UAE have moved much closer on Iran strategy since Trump was elected, but whether the scope and range of U.S. pressure on Iran will ultimately satisfy Gulf Arab expectations, let alone achieve their goals, remains to be seen. That will be determined, to a large extent, by the U.S. approach to several key ongoing Middle East battlegrounds.
The UAE has been Saudi Arabia’s key partner in the Arab intervention in Yemen against the Houthi rebels and their allies. The United States and the UAE have been partners in a parallel campaign against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in the southern part of the country. UAE-backed forces have been at the forefront of an ongoing effort to seize control of the crucial Red Sea port of Hodeidah, which is controlled by the Houthis and is one of their most important assets. The coalition accuses the Houthis of using Hodeidah to smuggle arms and other military supplies from Iran, including missiles and rockets that have been used in repeated attacks against Saudi cities. International aid groups warn that any disruption in shipments of food and medicine through Hodeidah could imperil large numbers of civilians and a final push to seize the port has been repeatedly delayed.
Congressional Democrats recently urged the coalition not to go forward with the planned offensive and the United Nations is urgently seeking a compromise. The Trump administration has not opposed the Hodeidah operation, but has repeatedly expressed concerns about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. The UAE undoubtedly has the greatest outside influence on the Yemeni forces involved in this campaign and is unlikely to make a final push to seize the port facilities if Washington clearly opposes it. It seems that the coalition views Hodeidah as the key to reducing the war-fighting and missile capabilities of the Houthis in the immediate term and, in the longer run, to negotiating with the rebels on more advantageous terms for a political solution to the Yemen conflict. Both would be welcomed by the United States, if true. Yet Abu Dhabi and Washington appear to be hesitant to take the final step, and, because of the high risks at stake, will probably only do so with mutual agreement and when all alternatives are exhausted.
The UAE has been a key player in reconstruction in Iraq since the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Particularly important has been the UAE’s involvement in the rebuilding of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, which served as ISIL’s de facto capital, both of which were badly damaged by the group. At the U.S.-led Iraq reconstruction conference in Kuwait in February, the UAE pledged $500 million to the effort. While Washington is looking to Gulf Arab countries like the UAE to finance reconstruction and postconflict stabilization in Iraq, particularly in Sunni Arab-majority areas formerly under the control of ISIL, Gulf countries are counting on Washington to help to continue to foster greater Iraqi independence from Iranian control.
In particular, the U.S. military and diplomatic role is seen as essential in bolstering Gulf Arab efforts to rekindle a sense of independent Iraqi nationalism, including among key Iraqi Shia Arab leaders such as incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the most powerful national politician following the recent parliamentary elections, Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi politicians are currently negotiating the formation of a new government and jockeying for political position following the elections. This process, which is likely to take months, will be essential in determining whether much of Iraq remains under strong Iranian influence or the country is able to begin to find a more independent path and resurrect its Arab identity and relationship with other Arab countries, including in the Gulf.
Syria follows a similar dynamic. While Trump has said he is keen to withdraw all U.S. forces from the region as soon as possible, U.S. and U.S.-backed troops are still effectively in control of more than a quarter of Syrian territory. Much of this is in strategically crucial, although sparsely populated, areas along the Syria-Iraq border and several key crossing points that would be vital for any Iranian effort to create a secured military corridor or “land bridge” leading from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Longer-term Gulf Arab and U.S. efforts will seek to weaken Iran’s grip on Syria and begin to ease Hezbollah and other Iranian-dominated foreign militias out of the country. Again, the Gulf role in this process would be largely financial, and the UAE seems to be interested in strategically focused postconflict reconstruction in key parts of Syria.
But as Gulf countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait use their financial clout, they will be counting on Washington to continue to exercise the military, diplomatic, and political leverage that are beyond their abilities. In particular, new U.S. understandings with Russia and Turkey will be required to ensure that Iran and its proxies do not emerge from the Syrian conflict greatly empowered and with a tight grip over most of Syria and the government in Damascus. Indeed, the UAE has been carefully and systematically cultivating closer ties with Moscow, with Washington’s apparent encouragement, and one of the major goals of this engagement has been to enlist Russia in efforts to prevent Iranian domination of Syria.
If Iran’s adversaries, including Gulf Arab countries or Israel, seek to have their interests factored into the equation in postconflict Syria, cultivating closer ties with Russia is indispensable. The UAE has been building its relations with Moscow for that reason, with growing trade links and arms procurement. The two countries signed a “declaration of strategic partnership” in Moscow June 1, marking a new achievement for Russian diplomacy and outreach in the Gulf Arab region. Washington, too, is seeking to engage with Moscow in order to encourage Russia to fully recognize that Iran’s ambitions in Syria are not compatible with long-term Russian goals and start to act accordingly. This shared effort will be among the most important, complex, and difficult regional endeavors that Washington and its Gulf Arab allies will attempt to secure in the coming years.
One of the most significant differences between Abu Dhabi and Washington involves the boycott of Qatar launched in June 2017 by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. Trump originally seemed to side strongly with the quartet and criticized Qatar harshly, but U.S. policies toward Qatar did not appear to substantively change. Qatar has engaged in significant diplomatic efforts to mollify Washington, including a major memorandum of understanding on terrorism financing signed in July 2017, concessions regarding civilian aviation, and many other significant gestures. Qatar also made a significant effort to cast itself as an underdog and victim of regional bullying among the U.S. media, think tank, and policy framing constituencies.
For many months, the White House has joined the Pentagon and State Department in calling for a resolution to the boycott. The United States has significant military assets in Qatar, including the vast Al Udeid Air Base, and major assets in other countries involved in the dispute, including the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain. Cooperation among these allies and interconnectivity and interoperability among the U.S. bases and assets in the region are vital, so Washington’s position calling for an early resolution to the dispute was logical and predictable. However, the United States has not made any particular aspect of its relations with any of the parties involved contingent on a specific resolution. Therefore, Qatari hopes that Washington would intervene on its behalf appear to have been dashed for the foreseeable future.
The UAE has been a key player in conceptualizing and framing the boycott as a counterterrorism initiative and implacable in accusing Qatar of support for terrorist and extremist groups throughout the region. For many months, by contrast, Washington has been praising Qatar as an important ally in combating terrorism and appears to believe that major progress was made on curtailing terrorism financing from Doha. Therefore, while the United States is likely to continue to call for a resolution of the boycott, the UAE and the other quartet members will probably insist on real compromises and concessions by Qatar. Those do not appear to be imminently forthcoming. Given that the quartet, Qatar, and the United States have all lived with the boycott for more than a year, they all are likely to conclude that, as long as circumstances remain essentially stable, they can continue to treat this state of affairs as a “new normal” until some additional, and at present unknown, factor changes their calculations.
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