The recently-held meetings between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iranian officials have caught many by surprise, particularly given that, not long ago, the UAE – along with Saudi Arabia – was one of the main opponents of Tehran and a vocal supporter of the US administration's policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran.
Despite long-lasting tensions between Tehran and Abu Dhabi, the UAE has dispatched two delegations to the Islamic Republic this summer, immediately raising questions about the reasons behind such a direct meeting between two arch-enemies.
The meetings come amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran as a result of the "tanker crisis". Attacks on UAE tankers have made clear to Abu Dhabi's authorities that Gulf countries would find themselves in the line of fire in the event of war between Iran and the US. The meetings should thus be understood as a response to Abu Dhabi's support for the anti-Iranian agenda of Saudi Arabia and US President Donald Trump.
"The UAE had played with the lion's tail, only to realize it would face the lion alone once he woke up," Trita Parsi, the former president and founder of the National Iranian American Council, said of the situation.
According to Parsi, once the UAE realised that President Trump is not ready to engage in direct war with Iran, it decided to act preventively in order to secure its interests, making a gesture of goodwill towards Iran.
Yet according to Jonathan Cristol, a research fellow at the New York-based Adelphi University, these changes in regional relationships – for better or worse – are driven more by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) than by President Trump.
It is also likely that "Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ) realizes that being wedded to MBS's KSA [Saudi Arabia] is not really paying the dividends that he thought it might," Cristol explained.
He continued: "The reputation of KSA in the US, which was never good, is worse than it has ever been (outside of the White House), and MBS's failed regional gambits were starting to damage the reputation of the UAE in the US."
However, the UAE's manoeuvre has triggered opposing reactions. Some analysts have interpreted it as a sign of significant change in its regional foreign policy and evidence of a willingness to open up to Iran. Others, such as Theodor Karasik, a Middle East specialist at consultancy firm Gulf State Analytics, are convinced that the meeting is only about the UAE and Iran's Coast Guards and "deals with fisheries and fishermen and nothing else".
Both opinions are partly true. While it is undeniable that the UAE has lately demonstrated changes in its regional behaviour – especially in its decision to partly draw-down its troops in Yemen – it is premature to make any general conclusions as to whether these decisions, including maritime meetings with Iranian officials, may lead to a different foreign policy approach.
Yet, according to Cristol, "the UAE's moves could be understood as an acknowledgement of reality, rather than changing their strategic approach." As for Parsi, it all depends on whether this is a tactical play by the UAE or a strategic shift.
After all, two meetings with Iranian officials do not automatically lead to a strategic shift. One should not forget that both sides still see each other as great rivals in the region and hold opposing views on a number of regional issues. Moreover, a territorial dispute over three islands in the Gulf seriously blocks their capacity for bilateral cooperation.
Nevertheless, it seems that that the UAE is carefully trying to reassess its current policy, including is relations with a close ally – Saudi Arabia.
Matteo Colombo, associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), said that it is important to understand the current political context in which the decision was made. The UAE's reconciliatory tone towards Iran should thus be understood in the context of each state pursuing its policy more autonomously than in the past.
Moreover, with President Trump who, in Cristol's words, "changes his mind at the speed of a tweet," so unpredictable when it comes to foreign policy, "it makes good sense for regional actors to explore all options and to have at least cordial relations with every actor, which is good practice for any small state".
Although officially Riyadh remained silent about the UAE's two missions to Iran, it is very likely that the move is seriously testing the strength of the Saudi-UAE alliance. The Kingdom is also unsure how the UAE's latest diplomatic manoeuvres will affect the relationship between Saudi Crown Prince MBS and his mentor, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince MBZ.
According to Colombo though there might be significant behind-the-scenes tension between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, none of the experts contacted believe their historical alliance will collapse. While the Saudis may feel betrayed and offended by the unilateral shift of its close ally, they may also use the UAE to test Tehran's will to commit to constructive dialogue, which would ease tensions in the region.
"I do not think Saudi Arabia is in a position to lose such a key ally in the current context, meaning it will 'forgive' the Emirates and turn a blind eye towards Abu Dhabi," Colombo told MEMO. At the end of the day, he added, "to have a mediated line of communication with Tehran might also be in the Saudi interest in the future".
For his part, Colombo does not rule out the possibility of the UAE acting as mediator between the US administration and Iran in the event of a worsening political crisis. Distancing itself from Saudi Arabia would make the UAE a more credible broker in this scenario.
This would also be a win-win situation for Abu Dhabi, given that "if the crisis grows worse, it could still side with the US and the other Gulf States, and if it gets better, it can launch an initiative to ease the tension," Colombo noted.
To sum up, the UAE's recent decisions regarding Iran and Yemen, according to Colombo, form part of an ongoing trend which has seen the main states in the region adopt a more-autonomous foreign policy. This trend has also seen increased fragmentation, in which traditional alliances are less stable and states tend to pursue their policies more independently.
This trend will likely continue in the case of the UAE, albeit within certain limits. While the UAE will probably not make any U-turns, one may expect more carefully balanced initiatives that will not always be met with sympathy by their powerful neighbour.
Above all, it seems that the UAE is introducing a "UAE-first approach", primarily focusing on its national interests which could sometimes oppose Saudi Arabia and even the US. This is, according to Colombo, quite a change in the worldview of the Emirati leadership.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.