Last year’s “Abraham Accords” agreement, under which the United Arab Emirates officially normalised ties with Israel, was seen largely as an unmasking of the UAE’s long-standing covert links to the occupation state. How important, though, has Abu Dhabi become for the US in Middle East affairs?
The UAE’s active role in shaping the region to suit the US and Israeli colonial interests cannot be understated. With its newly-signed weapons deals and additional trade agreements on the horizon, the Emirates looks increasingly like a duplicate Israel as far as Washington is concerned. Just look at the way in which it exerts its influence in favour of US policy and its largely under-reported role in helping pressure other Arab states to normalise ties with Israel.
In order to comprehend the UAE’s role in Sudan’s normalisation with Israel, for example, it is important to understand what a former Trump administration official said in 2019: “You turn over any rock in the Horn of Africa, and you find the UAE there.” Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE took advantage of the 2018-19 uprisings which led to the ousting of Sudanese President Omar Bashir. After failing to win Bashir over from his alignment with Turkey and Qatar, the UAE threw its weight behind the Transitional Military Council (TMC) which was to replace him.
The TMC went on to repress demonstrations with great brutality as ordinary people on the streets sought to bring civilians rule to Sudan. What ensued was a power-sharing agreement, with a three-year interim government called the ‘Sovereign Council’, under which generals now play the primary role in the control of Sudan, many of whom are backed by Abu Dhabi.
When it came to the decision to join the Trump era normalisation deals, the civilian element of the interim government was opposed, but the TMC pushed it through under the pressure of having to secure the country’s economy. The US promised to remove the country from its “state sponsors of terrorism” list, meaning that sanctions would be lifted and Khartoum would receive an economic lifeline from Washington. In return, Sudan had to pay compensation to the families of US citizens killed in the 1998 Al-Qaeda bombings of the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The UAE then stepped in and promised to pay a reported $335 million to Sudan to cover this cost, through Saudi Arabia, in return for Khartoum securing its normalisation deal with Israel.
The UAE’s influence in Morocco’s normalisation with Israel has been all but ignored but is perhaps one of the most important factors in forcing the Kingdom’s hand. This should also be understood in the context of both the UAE’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance and its own growing influence in North Africa.In April 2019, Abu Dhabi withdrew its ambassador from Morocco, in what was dubbed as retaliation for Rabat’s decision not to join the blockade of Qatar, imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt over Doha’s alignment with the Brotherhood. In March last year, Morocco reciprocated and withdrew its own ambassador from the UAE.
Tension was exacerbated when Morocco, which has been seen as a neutral player in the ongoing conflict in Libya, reaffirmed its support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The Libyan National Army led by renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, which opposes and has been trying to overthrow the GNA, is backed by the UAE.
Last February, the UAE signed a strategic deal to invest $2 billion in Morocco’s southern neighbour Mauritania, one of the poorest countries in the world. The move prompted anger from Rabat, as Morocco feared that the UAE’s investments in Mauritania’s port facilities at Nouadhibou would threaten its own Dakhla Port and Tangier Med projects.
In August, reports emerged that Morocco had accused the Emiratis of backing the Polisario Front in the Sahrawi-Moroccan dispute over the control of Western Sahara. In a sudden twist, the UAE had by October decided to be the first Arab State to open a consulate in Western Sahara. The government in Rabat welcomed this with open arms in the hope that it would pave the way for further Arab recognition of Moroccan control over the disputed region.
Less than a month later, the Polisario Front declared that the 29-year ceasefire between the Sahrawi liberation group and Morocco had officially ended. When Morocco announced in early December that it was normalising ties with Israel, the US said simultaneously that it would officially recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This break from the previous US and UAE stances on the issue happened within a matter of months. Not surprisingly, the UAE openly praised the Morocco-Israel normalisation deal.
A degree of international legitimacy for Morocco’s rule over this territory is essential in the event of any large scale military escalation, especially with its more militarily capable neighbour Algeria backing the Polisario Front in Western Sahara.
The UAE has emerged as a powerful player in the Middle East, right across the region. In Yemen, its backing of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) has given the UAE leverage over Saudi Arabia, even as they sought simultaneously to assassinate members of the Yemeni Al-Islah Party and others linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Using deeply divisive figures such as former Palestinian Authority figure Mohammad Dahlan — now known as the right-hand man of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan — the UAE’s influence is widespread. Dahlan is wanted in Turkey for his alleged role in the 2016 failed coup which sought to depose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The former Fatah security chief also stands accused of working with the then Egyptian Defence Minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2012 to plot the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. UAE influence is found in Syria too, as Abu Dhabi looks to align itself with anyone and everyone who opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and those connected to the movement.
It is of concern to many, however, that the UAE intends to revive the Hejaz railway project and connect its cities with Haifa port in Israel. This would undermine other regional players, such as Egypt, when it comes to trade. It is unlikely that this will happen without the backing of Saudi Arabia, which has yet to announce any normalisation with Israel. Nevertheless, it is clear from its vast intelligence network, modern armed forces and alignment with both the US and Israel, the UAE is not a state to be underestimated in regional or even global affairs.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.