Friends With Benefits

What the UAE Really Wants from NATO

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Abu Dhabi.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, February 17, 2014. (Kevin Coombs / Courtesy Reuters)

The United Arab Emirates has said and done all the right things to prove that it wants a stronger partnership with NATO. In addition to appointing an ambassador to NATO, the UAE has also supported prominent NATO missions, for example, by contributing airpower to Operation Unified Protector, which defended civilians during the 2011 Libyan civil war, and by participating in the International Security Assistance Force, a program that trains Afghan security forces.

In turn, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has on several occasions expressed his desire to strengthen ties with the UAE and other states in the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is clear what NATO wants from the UAE: help combating terrorism, funding military operations, and protecting regional sea-lanes, energy supply routes, and cybernetworks. It might be less clear, however, what the UAE wants from NATO.

The UAE’s interest in the alliance stems from its pragmatic approach to national security and defense. That approach has a long history in the UAE. When the United Kingdom withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971, the country quickly partnered with the United States for regional protection. The U.S.-UAE relationship grew even stronger when, in 1990 and 1991, they officially joined forces to push Iraq out of Kuwait. Then, after the first Gulf War, Abu Dhabi looked to Washington to balance against Iran. On July 25, 1994, the two signed a defense agreement, the terms of which remain classified, and today, the United States considers the UAE to be one of its most reliable partners in the Middle East.

The strength of that relationship notwithstanding, the small but oil-rich Gulf state still wants other security partners to insulate itself from regional volatility. Abu Dhabi prefers not to rely on Washington exclusively, especially since it has had serious qualms about U.S. Middle East policy since President Barack Obama assumed office in 2009. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a political and economic union of Arab states in the Gulf, cannot meet the UAE’s security needs, at least for now, because it is plagued by political rivalry and mistrust, and its military capabilities, though significant on paper, are largely unintegrated. China and Russia would be poor partners as well: the former is too insular and the latter is too hard to trust.

Enter NATO.

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