The Arab Gulf is characterized by regimes that blend church and state in their foreign policy. Saudi Arabia hosts Islam’s two holiest sites, and its ruling family’s power stems from a bargain its forefathers made with a fundamentalist Sunni religious sect. Iran is the world’s largest Shia state and has backed Shia groups throughout the region since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Both states have been irresponsible in their tactical and strategic use of Islam in order to further their own foreign policies and to boost domestic political support.
But in between these regional behemoths lies the United Arab Emirates, a small state that is rich in oil and gas. Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1971, the UAE has emerged as an influential actor in the Middle East, one less interested in sectarian geopolitics. Instead, the UAE often supports nationalist groups and strives to enforce a Jeffersonian separation between institutionalized religion and politics, both domestically and abroad.
Emirati decision-makers hold a deep belief in the importance of separating the church and state in the Arab world. They see cautionary lessons in the evolution of political Islam within the UAE. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is perceived as an international group that seeks to incrementally and indelibly spread its influence across the Muslim world, exerting pressure on the political class using Islam itself. The Brotherhood, UAE thinkers argue, takes advantage of financial inequalities to amass a following and claim a divine mandate. In this line of reasoning, the Muslim Brotherhood and its peers seek power for their own ends, do not respect national boundaries, and inevitably stoke the slow but sure radicalization of society. The Emirati response has thus focused on countering Islamists who seek to exploit religion for their own aims and demonstrating (and enforcing, where possible) an alternative mode of rule in the Middle East—one in which the decisions of ruling elites are informed and shaped, rather than mandated and sanctioned, by Islam.
At the United States. And there, its avoidance of mixing religion and politics—in addition to its well-financed and professional political messaging in Washington, D.C.—has won it support in the Beltway. This approach, however, will be harder to sell within the UAE’s own backyard, particularly as other regional powers ramp up their own use of Islamism in foreign policy.
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