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The UAE’s Foreign Policy—A Dangerous Balancing Act?

While speaking at the World Policy Conference in Abu Dhabi in 2021, Anwar Gargash, the former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs for over a decade and a current diplomatic adviser to the president of the United Arab Emirates, described the brewing Cold War between the United States and China as “bad news for all of us because the idea of choosing is problematic in the international system” and predicted that “this is not going to be an easy ride.” Fast forward to 2024, and it only seems fair to state that Mr. Gargash was right to express his anxieties. Despite G42’s—the UAE’s flagship technology corporation for artificial intelligence—divestment from China and increased cooperation with Microsoft, the direction of the UAE’s foreign policy remains undecided.

To illustrate this, consider that while the news of the G42-Microsoft partnership in Kenya might be perceived as an attempt to curtail China’s presence in Africa’s digital sphere, indicating that the UAE has decided to limit its ties with China, several recent developments suggest otherwise. These include Major General Saleh Mohammed bin Mejren Al Ameri meeting with his Chinese counterpart in China last month, during which he called for closer cooperation between the two countries’ air forces, the U.S. decision to suspend the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE and the resumption of China’s construction of an alleged naval base in the UAE. These events collectively indicate that the UAE is still in the process of devising its strategy for managing its relations with both China and the United States.

The underlying and, indeed, the complicating factor is that both Abu Dhabi and Washington have valid reasons for demanding concessions from each other as a prerequisite for improved relations. The U.S. government is justified in its refusal to sell advanced semiconductors to the UAE or assist in establishing a manufacturing hub for advanced chips due to concerns that critical U.S. technology might end up in the hands of adversarial states like Iran and China. Notably, some high-ranking Emirati officials have even publicly acknowledged such concerns.

However, it is also impractical for Washington to expect the UAE to limit its relationship with China to basic commercial interactions that exclude high technology, especially if Washington itself cannot completely fulfill the UAE’s technological needs. This was evident in the case of Etisalat’s use of Huawei 5G technology, where no comparable Western alternative is available. 

Unlike the UAE-U.S. relationship, which is underpinned by extensive defense and security cooperation, the UAE and China have principally developed a wide-ranging trading relationship. This relationship transcends direct investment and energy, encompassing diverse sectors such as agriculture, technology, electric vehicles (EVs), and finance. Consequently, it is no surprise that the UAE has become Beijing’s gateway to the region and beyond, including into Africa.

Most importantly, regarding technological cooperation, it should not be overlooked by American officials that Abu Dhabi’s views on sovereignty, the role of government in the digital space, and the legitimate uses of AI and cyber surveillance are more closely aligned with the values of Beijing. This normative convergence is a critical facilitator of technological cooperation between the two nations. Unlike the United States and its allies, China does not impose stringent conditions on the sale of technologies or technological cooperation. Even if it did, it would not limit the scope of its collaborations with the UAE, as both countries share similar views on issues such as human rights and individual privacy or freedom of speech.

The UAE faces several significant dilemmas in managing these dual relationships. The need to maintain robust economic ties with China while simultaneously depending on the United States for security creates a delicate balancing act. While still in its initial trial and error phase, the UAE’s strategy appears to involve compartmentalizing its relationships, aligning closely with U.S. interests in critical sectors such as AI and digital governance. This approach is exemplified by the UAE’s efforts to grant the United States oversight rights in these areas, thereby mitigating some of Washington’s concerns.

However, this strategy also carries inherent risks. The policy of leveraging ties with China to extract concessions from the United States is fraught with danger. Such an approach might encourage a belief among some Emirati officials that the UAE can secure what it desires from the United States by threatening to deepen its ties with China. This notion is perilous, given the UAE’s substantial dependence on U.S. military support. Unlike other small countries such as Singapore, which do not have a security guarantee yet keep close relations with Beijing, the UAE relies heavily on the American military presence and aid for its defense, making it particularly vulnerable to any deterioration in U.S. relations.

To navigate these complexities and fine-tune its great power management strategy, the UAE can undertake several policy initiatives. Continuously compartmentalizing its relationships by identifying sectors of primary concern to the United States and aligning closely with American interests in those areas can help mitigate risks. For example, maintaining oversight rights for the United States in critical sectors such as AI and digital governance, as demonstrated by the G42 initiative, can alleviate American concerns. 

Furthermore, the UAE could seek to diversify its defense partnerships to reduce its over-reliance on the United States while ensuring robust security arrangements. To this end, it could try to expand its relationships with countries like Israel and South Korea, both of which have vibrant and advanced domestic defense and security sectors. Given their close collaboration with American firms, Abu Dhabi could potentially source some of its needs from them instead of the United States while also retaining a high degree of confidence in quality and compatibility.

For its part, the United States should use the current situation with the UAE to develop an approach for dealing with other regional countries regarding their technological cooperation with China. To this end, Washington should leverage the affinity of these countries’ elites with Western commercial and strategic standards or practices, a byproduct of their Western educational background, and push for the expansion of ties between its major private sector actors and their local counterparts. 

Major private actors in the region are either owned by members of the royal families or have close ties with them. As such, they are essentially an extension of the state, and hence, adopting a private sector-led approach would still allow Washington to develop a more comprehensive understanding of its regional partners’ needs and interests. Such a calibrated approach may be enough to deter outreach to China without leaning too hard on the existing security relationships.

Nima Khorrami is a Research Associate at the Arctic Institute and the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.

Image: Aleksandr Melnikov /


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