President Barack Obama met with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in Washington on Tuesday. Although the meeting was private and the two leaders made no public remarks, they likely discussed the unrest in the Middle East.
Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is the younger brother of Abu Dhabi’s ruling monarch and therefore next in line to the presidency of the United Arab Emirates.
America’s relations with the emirates date back decades to when it replaced the United Kingdom as the preeminent foreign power in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s. Cooperation between the two improved dramatically after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Since, American military forces have routinely deployed off bases in the emirates while in order to contain Iran, the United States have sold advanced military equipment to all of its allies in the region.
The UAE purchased as many as eighty F-16s, four C-17s and $3.3 billion worth of Patriot Advanced Capacity (PAC-3) surface-to-air missiles last year. It also acquired six French Baynunah class corvettes and was the only Arab nation besides Qatar to commit warplanes to the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya last month.
While the Libyan intervention was an attempt on the part of Western powers to protect part of the “Arab Spring” in that country, the UAE and its fellow Persian Gulf kingdoms attempted to crush a coinciding anti-government revolt in Bahrain.
Under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops into Bahrain to suppress Shiite dissent there and prevent the monarchy from collapsing. They suspect that Iran is inciting the uprising and fear that a weakening of the Bahraini royal family could herald their own demise.
While the Obama Administration criticized the GCC’s intervention, it wouldn’t condemn it. America’s interests in the region coincide with those of the ruling Sunni families, including the safe and steady flow of oil from the peninsula to the West and the fight against Islamic terrorism.
The UAE’s intermediary role in Yemen, where longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh is reportedly negotiating a transfer of power, is critical in this regard for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a powerful base in the country. Its strategy there has been aimed at exploiting the sectarian divide as it did in Iraq. Coupled with the country’s secessionist threats in the north and the south, Yemen could be on the verge of civil war; a calamity that Saleh has only narrowly avoided.
Despite these short-term interests in maintaining autocratic rule in the emirates if not all of the Gulf, President Obama recognized at least as early as August of last year that their repression of political dissent could leave America “with fewer capable, credible partners who can support our regional priorities.”
In a memorandum circulated among senior members of his administration, the president warned that his nation’s credibility in the region could be undermined if it was “seen or perceived to be backing repressive regimes and ignoring the rights and aspirations of citizens.”
Along with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates have been the only country in the Middle East without popular uprisings recently. While a lack of economic freedom stirred revolts elsewhere, the emirates have maintained an exceptionally free climate for business and trade. Notably, there are almost no taxes while government spending as a share of the economy increased slightly in the wake of the global economic downturn to 26 percent.
While corruption is present in the UAE, it is not perceived as systemic as is the case in neighboring Saudi Arabia. The people may not have democracy but do enjoy far greater freedoms than in most of the Arab world. The purview of orthodox Islamic law is limited to the settlement of inheritance and certain crimes. Christians and Jews are able to practice their religions freely.