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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 same time, to boost its own influence, the UAE is looking to become a dependable, proactive ally of 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.
The UAE’s foreign policy is guided by Abu Dhabi, the capital city and undisputed leader of the UAE’s seven-member federation. In the city, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and his inner circle set the tone. The group’s leading figures have all contributed to the UAE’s intellectual and practical support for Jeffersonian politics, positions that have been particularly evident since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
In early 2011, the UAE and Qatar were active supporters of the Arab Spring. Both states were crucial to NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, the campaign that sought to defend Libya’s opposition from President Muammar al-Qaddafi. The UAE provided six F-16 and six Mirage 2000 jets to help enforce the Libyan no-fly zone and to demonstrate that the NATO operation in Libya was not just another case of Western coalitions bombing an Arab country.
Although Qatar and the UAE started off on the same page in Libya, they soon diverged. Qatar provided financing, training, military materiel, and political support for revolutionary Islamists. This included supporting Abdulkarim Belhaj, a militia leader whose backstory included leading a group associated with al Qaeda but who renounced his extremist past to start a new militia and political party, al Watan, after the Arab Spring started. In contrast, the UAE typically supported groups that were stridently anti-Islamist. These groups consisted of nationalist movements like the Zintan, al Sawaiq, and al Qaqa brigades. Similarly, the UAE emerged as an important backer of General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar by the spring of 2014. Haftar is a former Libyan military commander dedicated to rescuing the state from the control of Islamists after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. The UAE used its jets and special forces, likely in conjunction with Egypt, to help its proxy groups during battles against Islamists in Tripoli and Derna.
UAE’s divergence from Qatar deepened in Egypt. After the Arab Spring, the Saudis and Emiratis were horrified to see the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power. And after the July 2013 coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated president, Mohamed Morsi, from office, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE strongly supported the new military-led, anti-Islamist Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based media organization, bitterly criticized the Sisi government while the financial support the Qatari state provided the Morsi government was returned. And the UAE—along with other Gulf states—stepped in to fill the financial gap.
And after several years of low-level conflict between the UAE and Qatar, Abu Dhabi finally zeroed in on its Gulf rival. By March 2014, the Emirati crown prince had persuaded Saudi Arabia that Qatar needed to be reined in. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE subsequently removed their ambassadors from Doha to coerce Qatar into severing its links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the following days, press leaks suggested that Saudi Arabia was considering closing Qatar’s only land border—a move that would have cut off access to a quarter of the nation’s source of imports by value. After nine months of pressure, Saudi Arabia’s concerns mounted as to the fracturing of the Arab Gulf State’s regional organization, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the leadership in Riyadh deemed that Qatar had made enough concessions. By December 2014, the ambassadors returned to Qatar, and the GCC met for its scheduled annual summit in the nation. The GCC summit, however, only convened for one of its two scheduled days, and three Gulf leaders did not attend.
Throughout the spring of 2015, the UAE continued to involve itself in regional conflicts. In particular, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia and a coalition of regional states in a military intervention in Yemen that was larger and more complex than analysts figured possible. The UAE shared Saudi Arabia’s goals in Yemen: to prevent the Houthis, a local ethnic group, from gaining operational control of the Scud missiles that they had captured from the Yemeni government. The coalition also sought to prevent the Houthis, who had some limited support from Iran, from embedding their power in the Yemeni state to stop them developing into an Arabian Peninsula version of Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported militia group and political party that became so influential in Lebanese politics. The religious link here is as important as the geopolitical rationales. The UAE views Zaydism as analogous to Shiism, which they see as an important basis for Iranian support of the Houthis. Though this link is theologically simplistic, it is in keeping with the wider Emirati Jeffersonian approach. And as such, the UAE coalition has supported Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as a nationalist leader.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the UAE has maintained its Jeffersonian line as it fights against the Islamic State (ISIS). Emirati jets have supported coalition airstrikes and the wider campaign against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria from 2014 to the present. In the Syrian Civil War itself, the UAE is mostly notable because of its relative absence; it has been reluctant to significantly empower any of the hundreds of Islamist-motivated militias in order to have a say in the conflict.
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the UAE has pursued a broadly Jeffersonian approach as well. The emirates have long had an association with the former leader of the Gazan branch of Fatah, Mohammed Dahlan. Fatah is the secular Palestinian political party, and Dahlan is known for his anti-Islamist stance, as well as for providing the UAE’s crown prince with advice on establishing an internal security apparatus. Dahlan’s willingness to work closely with the Israelis—one of the things that contributed to his undoing in Palestinian politics—has evidently rubbed off on the Emiratis. In November 2015, Israel announced that it was setting up an official diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi. Although the office will have a lower status than an embassy or a consulate, the Israeli office at the International Renewable Energy Agency is nevertheless a significant step for both states to take.
Abu Dhabi is by far the largest and richest emirate in the UAE and discrepancies in wealth are stark. For example, Abu Dhabi’s GDP per capita is around $70,000. In three other emirates, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Quwain, per capita GDP lingers south of $20,000. It is at these margins where socioeconomic disparities are evident that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have thrived in recent decades across the Middle East. Concern that the Arab Spring could spread to the emirates in 2011 led Abu Dhabi to respond with aid packages, investment, housing loans, increased pensions for the military, and food subsidies worth several billion dollars. All of these initiatives were primarily aimed at helping the northern emirates deal with the financial pressure that could allow political Islam to spread.
But there are more fundamental differences between the rich and poor emirates within the UAE. Throughout the country’s history, the northern emirates have tended to be more politically and religiously conservative than Abu Dhabi. The UAE-based affiliate group of the Muslim Brotherhood, al Islah, was founded in Dubai in 1974 but soon developed more connections and patronage in the northern emirates. Leading members from Ras al Khaimah took ministerial positions in education; labor and social affairs; and justice, Islamic affairs, and awqaf (religious endowments) in the 1970s and 1980s.
Soon, perceptions that al Islah had too much influence and that it was acting like a Mafia that controlled employment in the ministries it oversaw stoked concern in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In the late 1980s, Dubai demanded that imams give advanced copies of their sermons to the government for pre-approval. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, which was striving to centralize and unite the emirates under its leadership, did not want any competition. It too began to circumscribe al Islah’s activities to limit its influence. After the attempted assassination of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by an extreme Islamist group in 1995, some members of al Islah were forced into retirement from ministerial jobs and prominent foreign Brotherhood members in the UAE education sector were deported.
But intra-emirate competition soon stymied Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s crackdown on al Islah. As Courtney Freer notes in her thesis examining the evolution of the Brotherhood in the Gulf, Sheikh Saqr al-Qasimi, the leader of Ras al Khaimah from 1948 to 2010, protected al Islah, which he believed was a force for good. Throughout this time, Abu Dhabi felt that it was simply trying to negotiate with al-Islah, but it was forced to escalate its approach in the face of the group’s intransigence. Eventually, Abu Dhabi wanted the group to roll itself back, renounce any external links or affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide in Cairo, and follow the example of its sister organization in Qatar, which had dissolved itself in 1999. But al Islah refused, and tensions escalated.
The September 11 attacks in 2001, which involved men from two of the emirates (one from Ras al Khaimah and one from Fujairah), confirmed to Abu Dhabi the perils of allowing such groups to operate and create a climate where radicalization could take place. The government arrested hundreds of members of al Islah and others were swapped around different ministries to mitigate their influence. In this crackdown, future Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed was emerging as a key national figure—he led discussions in 2003 to persuade al Islah to limit its domestic activities. The logic underpinning his approach was that, as Freer puts it, “if it were not a politically subversive group, it would not require independent organizational capacity.” Those talks went nowhere, however, and hundreds of al Islah members were fired from various government bureaucracies in 2006. And yet the group still refused to back down.
Things changed with the Arab Spring, which prompted a two-part reaction in Abu Dhabi. Alongside aid packages aimed at the northern emirates, the government also directly attacked al Islah: hundreds were arrested and sentenced to jail, al Islah was officially disbanded, and the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist group. Additionally, a range of civil society actors and think tanks were either banned, expelled, or did not have their operating permits renewed. Many of these groups, such as the Gulf Research Center and Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, had nothing to do with Islamism but were caught in the crossfire. Freedom of expression was curtailed as the government braced itself, fearing some kind of Arab Spring–inspired unrest.
Nothing happened, but the way that Islamists came to dominate the post–Arab Spring political arenas crystallized the working hypothesis among the elite in Abu Dhabi as to the fundamental untrustworthiness of Islamists. They see Islamists as opportunists who waited at the fringes of society for their chance to take power. And one only had to look at the catastrophes that befell Libya, Syria, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Egypt, to see what problems emerge when these groups take over. This was the central lesson of the Arab Spring for the UAE, and it has informed its domestic and international policies ever since.
Although the United States has been broadly aligned with Saudi Arabia for decades, the alliance has come despite, rather than due to, Riyadh’s approach to politics. The UAE’s Jeffersonian approach, however, mirrors fundamental American tenets of governance, and could indeed lead to a more enduring alliance between the two nations. The emirates’ stance on Islamism is music to Washington’s ears. The literature on political Islam frames this issue in terms of whether a relatively moderate group, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, is a “conveyor belt” toward greater radicalization or is a firewall against it. The UAE is a clear proponent of the conveyor belt theory, and it strives above all else to present this case cogently to the United States. A 2016 bill in the U.S. House of Representatives called for the Muslim Brotherhood to be designated a terrorist organization. It is unlikely to pass, but it demonstrates that there are influential constituencies in the Capitol who take a similar approach.
It also demonstrates the UAE’s success in its diplomacy with the United States. At the center of this push is the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba. A skilled politician who speaks in fluent, unaccented English, al-Otaiba has carved out an influential role in the Beltway. The UAE has retained lobbying firms that help shape and deliver key messages about the country as well. As a result, the UAE has won favorable news coverage that describes the country as a militarily sophisticated and responsible ally in the Gulf region. The lobbyists have also pushed Washington insiders to label Qatar as an Islamist-supporting state and an uncertain ally.
Although the United States has been broadly aligned with Saudi Arabia for decades, the alliance has come despite, rather than due to, Riyadh’s approach to politics.The UAE also takes a subtler approach: the state has become one of the largest philanthropic donors in the U.S. capital and has invested billions of dollars across U.S. industries. It opened a campus of New York University in Abu Dhabi, and has launched a well-respected think tank, the Arab Gulf States Institute, in Washington. The traditional accoutrements of lobbying, such as five-star junkets to the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, have deepened the impression for key decision-makers that the UAE is an attractive, modern country and added credence to its claims that Islamists like those in the Muslim Brotherhood are dangerous.
Aside from making the rhetorical case against Islamists, the UAE has bolstered its credibility as a moderate, capable, proactive Arab partner to the United States that is willing to shoulder some of the burden in maintaining Gulf security—unusual in a region where Washington has been repeatedly called on to act as a policeman. The UAE sent troops to join the NATO International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan, contributed jets to NATO’s mission in Libya, and joined the coalition against ISIS. It put its own troops in harm’s way in a risky and ambitious military operation with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. When it comes to regional security, the UAE is actively intervening and getting its hands dirty answering growing calls in U.S. politics for the Gulf states to do their fair share.
The UAE’s foreign policy, although it aligns the country with the United States, also comes with some major contradictions. The UAE fights Islamism, but it does not want to become a secular state. The construction of the gargantuan Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi at huge expense should be seen in this context as a way for the Abu Dhabi government to anthropomorphize the importance it sees for Islam in the UAE. It is also a small power that has, increasingly, sought to become a major political player. Nowhere is the tension starker than in the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s government was founded on an explicit and enduring power-sharing agreement between religious and political forces that the UAE cannot hope to alter.
The UAE has come to accept the contradictions for three reasons, though. First, Saudi Arabia is a large state with an extensive military and a huge population. Plus, it serves as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites. The UAE is thus in no real position to critique the core political bargain that sits at the heart of the Saudi state. Second, wherever the UAE has a foreign policy that is underpinned by Jeffersonian ideals, it is primarily concerned with state formation in the aftermath of revolution. Saudi Arabia is relatively stable, strong, and wealthy, and there is little prospect of a revolution during which religion could be extracted from the state’s DNA. Third, elites in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in agreement on key issues. They both were firm that Houthis in Yemen needed to be stopped, and that partnership sees larger questions of religious governance as secondary to more immediate security concerns in the region.
But even as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi cooperate in Yemen, some of their tactics are beginning to diverge. Both states use proxy forces to battle the Houthis, but the UAE tends to use tribes with familial ties to the emirates and South American mercenaries, while the Saudis have developed relations with the Yemeni branch of al Islah. Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia also designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, back in March 2014. However, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who ascended to the throne in January 2015, Riyadh has rekindled relations with various elements of the banned group to advance its aims in Yemen and elsewhere. It remains to be seen how tolerant the UAE can be—and for how long. Recent history suggests that the UAE will be loath to allow a group like al Islah to take a meaningful role in any post-conflict power sharing agreements.
The UAE’s difficulties in Yemen underscore its wider challenges when it comes to promoting secular governance in the region. Throughout the Middle East, an overtly religious discourse dominates the political and public spheres. The nationalist groups that the UAE supports against this wider tide are not products of foreign support, but neither are they approaching a quorum in the Arab world. And as well financed as the UAE is, it cannot continue to support them forever—especially as global oil prices stay near record lows. Abu Dhabi, of course, is well aware of these challenges. It realizes that it is swimming against the tide in the Middle East, and that undoing the ties between religion and politics in the region means unraveling deeply held philosophical positions.
Yet the Emirati leadership needs to resist becoming too zealous in the implementation of the state’s Jeffersonian policies if it is not to evidence the very dogmatic intransigence that they complain so often characterizes political Islam. The UAE has started to embrace shades of gray on this issue—particularly when Abu Dhabi did not oppose Saudi Arabia’s empowering of local al Islah commanders in the Yemeni city of Taiz. If the UAE is to continue its Sisyphean task of removing religion from politics in the Middle East, it must weave a delicate path between pragmatism and secularism.