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The UAE is expanding its reckless policies and interventions

June 24, 2024 at 3:30 pm

Protestors, holding banners, take part of a rally against “UAE interference in Sudan’s internal affairs” in front of the Embassy of United Arab Emirates in Washington DC, United States [ Mostafa Bassim – Anadolu Agency]

The past few years have marked the ascendancy of the UAE as a geopolitical power. The oil-rich country is now expanding its influence by operating key ports, signing corrupt gold mining deals, establishing military bases, raging wars and supporting counter-revolutions aiming at killing democratic experiments in other countries fearing that they could be exported to the UAE itself.

These reckless interventions, however, are now being met with popular rejection. In many countries, it’s not uncommon to see protests by local activists and media articles opposing the UAE’s unjust policies.

In Sudan, the UAE has been backing the notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF) with funding and arms; its goal is to help the militia to seize power so that it controls the country’s agricultural and economic resources, while also preventing the Islamists from returning to power. During the ongoing war against the Sudanese army, the RSF has committed countless crimes, including looting, ethnic cleansing and shutting down the whole telecommunications network, to mention but a few. Last December, protesters took to the streets of Sudan demanding the expulsion of the UAE ambassador for his country’s support for the RSF.

The UAE also recruited Sudanese citizens as security guards, then sent them against their will to fight in Libya. After their families protested in front of the UAE Embassy in Khartoum, dozens were returned to Sudan. In Chad, where the UAE has been using airports to channel arms to the RSF, people organised against this presence. The UAE had to sign a multi-million dollar deal with the Chadian president to gain his backing, and this resulted in diplomatic tension between Chad and Sudan.

Moreover, the UAE has been playing a destructive role in Libya by sponsoring warlord General Khalifa Haftar to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, the UAE’s political foe. According to several independent reports, the UAE’s support for Haftar has included launching direct air strikes on his behalf as well as transferring arms in violation of the UN arms embargo. Libyans have demonstrated against the UAE’s sponsorship of Haftar and its interference in the political dialogue.

When Ethiopia started the war against the Tigray separatists, the UAE provided Addis Ababa with drones and other arms that helped him to tip the balance and eventually win. This military aid continued despite countless violations and atrocities committed by the Ethiopian army. Civil society in Ethiopia urged the UAE to re-evaluate its support in light of these violations. Moreover, Ethiopians protested in front of the Emirates airline office for helping to transfer arms to the country.

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Fearing that the wave of Arab Spring uprisings might reach its own territory, the UAE exerted every effort to undermine them.

In 2018, it tried to influence how major news outlets such as the BBC covered events, and also resorted to military interventions. For example, the UAE sent troops to crush the Bahrain protests which demanded reformation and a democratic system in the country. In Tunisia, the beacon of the Arab Spring, the UAE could not tolerate the promising democratic experiment that brought the Muslim Brotherhood into government, so it supported a soft coup that sent the North African country into political turmoil. In June 2018, thousands of Tunisians demonstrated against the UAE-backed coup and called for foreign intervention. In Egypt, the UAE backed a counter-revolution that brought a military regime to power and killed the democratic state.

Control of ports and natural resources, as well as the establishment of military bases represent a focal point of the UAE’s foreign policy, which aims to control maritime routes and expand its influence. The UAE is alleged to have bribed politicians and engaged in controversial deals to accomplish these goals. In October 2023, it signed a $250 million agreement with the Tanzanian government that was criticised for violating its constitution and endangering its national sovereignty. The government detained activists who protested against the deal. In other countries, such as Somaliland, the UAE is said to have bribed politicians and government officials to pass a deal to establish a military base. After an Emirati plane was stopped for regular security checks in the country, the UAE retaliated by shutting down a charity hospital that it had built in Mogadishu which used to treat poor people for free. The UAE has also been reportedly engaging in illicit charcoal trading, in violation of a UN resolution. Eager to develop its gold markets, the UAE has sought to control mining in countries such as Congo through long-term contracts that were often unfair to the locals. The Congolese government signed a 25-year deal that gives exclusive rights to an Emirati mining company. However, a watchdog group challenged this contract in Congo and criticised its duration and advantageous tax terms.

After strengthening its relations with Israel, the UAE tried to export and market the normalisation deal, also known as the Abraham Accords. Normalisation did not address the root cause of the Palestinian issue, the Israeli occupation, so there was a backlash with protests across the Middle East.

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The UAE has pitched itself as a serious player in the climate change and carbon credits industry. In November 2023, a newly-founded UAE company secured land in Africa to offset the Emirates’ carbon emissions. The deal was examined by an independent local group in Liberia, which called for the Emirati company not to be given exclusive rights there; other environmental campaigners ultimately rejected the agreement due to its conditions. In June 2023, activists gathered in front of the UAE Embassy in London calling for it not to be allowed to host the climate conference, citing its record of abusing human rights and its contribution to the climate crisis.

After the invasion of Ukraine, Russia sought many illegal channels to bypass Western sanctions. Despite being a Western ally, the UAE was ready to assist Putin and continued to export goods, thus helping him in his war efforts.

Disturbingly, the UAE has allegedly utilised militias and mercenaries to execute its interventions in other countries.

In June last year, for example, the US imposed sanctions on several companies in the UAE for facilitating the smuggling of gold from Africa to aid Russia’s infamous Wagner mercenary company, In November 2022, a report by the Pentagon said that the UAE was possibly funding the same group in Libya. Most recently, it has been revealed that the UAE is working to create an elite corps of three thousand foreign recruits to support the ongoing wars raged by its allies in Africa.

The UAE’s response to the protests and public pushback against its policies has varied. It has hired a PR company to polish its image and repeatedly denied entry to human rights experts and UN sanctions investigators. In other examples, it has used force or defamation campaigns to silence dissidents. In Yemen, where the UAE has been fighting the Houthis for years, it has funded political assassinations of activists who openly opposed its policies. Moreover, secretive detention centres were established in Yemen by the UAE where dissidents were tortured and sexually abused. Most recently, the UAE was sued for $2.8bn in Washington by activists who claimed that they were defamed when a smear campaign said that they were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. In July last year, news reports exposed that the UAE hired a private intelligence company to spy on individuals from eighteen European countries.

Rather than building normal relationships with other countries based on mutual benefits, the UAE appears to favour the shorter yet destructive path that, while it may help to achieve some of its goals, will have a long-lasting negative effect. The cost of all the UAE’s expansionist dreams is high: natural resources are abused, massacres are committed and dictators and warlords are supported. Democratic aspirations are killed, and too many political orders are destabilised. It’s time for the UAE to stop acting as a rogue state, rethink its foreign policies, and consider fairer alternatives for all concerned.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.