On February 10, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, announced a Cabinet reshuffle. Anwar Gargash was replaced as minister of state for foreign affairs by Shakhbout bin Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, while Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh was replaced as minister of state for public and cultural diplomacy by Khalifa Shaheen al-Marar. These changes raise the question of a possible redirection of UAE diplomacy, given how central Gargash has been in the country’s evolving position on the regional and international stage. Notably, he has been the face and voice of the UAE on Libya, Yemen, and the normalization agreement with Israel.
The reshuffle may be little more than a generational change – Gargash himself is still fairly young, in his 60s, but he has been replaced by Shakhbout bin Nahyan, who is in his early 30s – and a way to grant a senior and respected politician a well-deserved and honorable retirement. This was evident in the Emirates Diplomatic Academy being renamed the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, which the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, announced on Twitter right after the Cabinet reshuffle.
However, it could also signal a step further in the federation’s consolidation of a coherent multifaceted diplomacy. In this regard, that two ministers were replaced and not simply Gargash is rather telling. As Mohammed bin Rashid characterized another Cabinet reshuffle in 2017, this one might also represent both “a renewal of blood and a catalyst for change” as the country continues its path toward the UAE Centennial 2071.
Since the UAE gained independence 50 years ago, it has had a bicephalic, or two-headed, power structure, with Abu Dhabi and Dubai having specific identities and priorities. Throughout the years, this has manifested in contrasting foreign policy dynamics. Gerd Nonneman notes that during the Iran-Iraq War, for instance, the UAE “featured two camps,” with Dubai leading a “a clearly neutral group” (with Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain), while Abu Dhabi followed the newly formed Gulf Cooperation Council’s pro-Iraq line (along with Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, and Fujairah). More recently, as analyzed by Giorgio Cafiero and Khalid al-Jaber, “fundamental differences between Abu Dhabi and Dubai have complicated the bilateral relationship between the UAE and Iran.” They suggest that Abu Dhabi’s approach resembles the firm and oppositional stance of the Saudi leadership toward Tehran while Dubai’s leaders “look at their relationship with Iran through a commercial lens, prioritizing business relations above politics.”
Rather than being a problem, these diverging attitudes between the two main emirates gave the UAE some room to maneuver within the Gulf regional security complex. It indeed allowed the smaller Gulf country to implement policies diverging from its larger neighbor without appearing to challenge Saudi Arabia’s views. This is perhaps best illustrated by the UAE merely downgrading, but not halting, its relations with Iran when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Sudan broke ties in early 2016 following attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
Nonetheless, Abu Dhabi has tried to check Dubai’s ambitions on several occasions. Karim Sadjadpour explains how the 2008 global financial crisis, during which Dubai was badly hit and bailed out by Abu Dhabi, gave Abu Dhabi both “economic and political clout over Dubai,” with a direct result being that the UAE increasingly spoke with one voice, “that of Abu Dhabi, in its dealings and disputes with Tehran.” Peter Salisbury also notes that Abu Dhabi is working quietly “to reduce certain emirates’ economic ties with Iran, including Dubai’s role as a financial hub for sanctions-busting Iranian businesses … albeit with limited success.”
Throughout 2020, the coronavirus pandemic took a particularly harsh toll on Dubai, which explains the different plan it adopted to tackle the virus, conflicting with Abu Dhabi’s. Quoted in a Washington Post article, Jim Krane notes that “Dubai just falls apart if you have to shut down travel and social distance and Abu Dhabi is almost unaffected.” This led Dubai to reopen itself up to tourism early on, compared to a much stricter approach in Abu Dhabi. Added to the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, this economic hardship in Dubai created a context in which it could be expected that Abu Dhabi would similarly try and solidify its power in the federation. However, instead there have been increasing elements of the two emirates’ specific approaches consolidated within a unified strategy.
This has been illustrated over the past decade in the increasingly coherent articulation of the UAE port strategy. Dubai Port World invested in many ports around the world, ensuring Emirati outreach, and Abu Dhabi later militarized some of these locations in the Horn of Africa. There has been a similar articulation of the two emirates’ foreign policies during the pandemic in the making of a new, medical-cyber arrow “within the UAE’s ‘smart power’ diplomatic quiver.” It combines humanitarian diplomacy, in which Dubai has an instrumental role (through the International Humanitarian City), and efforts to bolster capabilities in global surveillance, cyber warfare, and artificial intelligence, the linchpin of which is Group 42, an Abu Dhabi-based company close to the royal family.
This hybrid strategy not only bridges differences in approaches between the two traditionally rivaling emirates, but it also helps create new bridges with external powers – particularly China, as demonstrated by the cooperative approach in some locations between the UAE’s port strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the links between the two countries amid the pandemic response. Today, the Cabinet reshuffle could further consolidate this multifaceted foreign policy strategy to help the UAE navigate another crucial international relationship: that with the United States, which recently had a major change in leadership, bringing about significant foreign policy recalibrations.
The timing of the new appointments, less than a month after the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., may in itself be significant. Beyond this, the backgrounds of the new appointees suggest that the UAE’s foreign policy might evolve to align more with that of the new U.S. administration.
The Biden team seems keen on putting its weight behind international efforts to end the wars in Yemen and Libya as well as resume diplomacy with Iran. During his long diplomatic career (started in 1978), Khalifa Shaheen al-Marar was the UAE’s ambassador to three pivotal countries in the foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration: Iran, Turkey, and Syria. These positions could make him a real asset in a diplomacy focused on mending relations and building bridges across the region to consolidate the UAE’s role as an instrumental regional mediator and actor. Marar also held a position at the Permanent Mission of the UAE to the United Nations in New York, giving him experience with multilateral negotiations on several issues on the administration’s agenda, including Yemen and Libya.
Shakhbout bin Nahyan is the former UAE ambassador to Saudi Arabia. When he held that position, he declared that “the sky is the limit” in terms of UAE-Saudi relations. He was widely praised for strengthening relations with the Saudis, which UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan recently underlined. Beyond bringing a fresh face to the UAE’s diplomacy, Shakhbout bin Nahyan’s appointment could be a sign that efforts to confirm the UAE’s power in the region should not be interpreted as a challenge to Saudi Arabia’s position. This appears particularly important against the background of increasing suggestions that the Gulf neighbors might be drifting apart, given their divergent and sometimes conflicting approaches to issues such as the intervention in Yemen, normalization agreements with Israel, or recent reconciliation with Qatar. Last, but not least, the appointment of a member of the Al Nahyan family, from the powerful Bani Yas tribe, reconsolidates sovereign functions of the state around the royal family (whereas neither Gargash nor Nusseibah were from the Bani Yas tribe).
While it will probably take some time to see if Marar’s past positions translate into a renewed diplomacy with Iran and Turkey, the Cabinet reshuffle can more immediately be seen as a message to regional and national audiences that there are not as many tensions as it seems among their leaders’ policies (between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as between Abu Dhabi and Dubai). At the regional level, the UAE was already careful to be discreet in expressing disapproval with Saudi positions and Dubai continues to play a role in this. Mohammed bin Rashid’s attendance, instead of Mohammed bin Zayed’s, at the Al Ula reconciliation summit with Qatar in January was, for instance, such a subtle signal. At the federation level, appointing Marar, a career diplomat from Dubai, suggests a convergence between the two heads of the UAE. The photos of the ceremony with Mohammed bin Rashid and Mohammed bin Zayed together presenting Gargash and Nusseibeh with the Order of the Union were in this sense also highly emblematic – albeit less dramatic than the ones regarding the Mars mission. As the UAE approaches its 50th birthday, such a demonstration of the powerful alliance between its two main emirates, complementary and united within the shifting regional and international environment, is certainly timely.