The long list of powerful world leaders who attended Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s funeral on May 14 reinforced what Middle East observers should know – the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an influential country with networks worldwide.
With Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) now the UAE’s third president and the 16th ruler of Abu Dhabi, voices in the Emirati press are optimistically looking to the future.
“The UAE he’s building is something of an armed business hub, using force to push back against regional trends like Islamism that might upend the economic strategy at home or threaten the country’s political model. This is quite different to the UAE of Sheikh Zayed [Sheikh Khalifa and MBZ’s father], which favoured pan-Arabism and internationalism while quietly building up at home.”
Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founder, who died in 2004, was a defender of the Palestinian cause, and opposed the normalisation of relations with Israel. MBZ, on the other hand, sees Israel as an important partner for the UAE, in particular when it comes to opposing the perceived threats of political Islam in the region.
Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other top US officials attending this month’s royal funeral in Abu Dhabi said much about the White House’s desires to put the bilateral relationship back on track after it grew quite frosty since Biden entered the Oval Office last year.
As the Biden administration sees it, the US’ longstanding partnership with the UAE is important to the advancement of Washington’s interests in the Middle East. The White House has grave concerns about how a continuation of tension between the US and the UAE could result in Abu Dhabi moving closer to China and Russia at the expense of Washington’s influence in the region.
“Some of the deeper cleavages that have soured US-UAE and US-Gulf relations at large no doubt still exist, but this high-profile visit marks a major pivot from Washington to gauge the UAE’s appetite and space for cooperation,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Al Jazeera. “This is particularly the case with the war in Ukraine, where the US aims to garner a more united, concerted anti-Russia front in the Gulf after disagreements over oil production levels.”
But MBZ is also a known quantity to the US, and the problems that have existed between the two countries will not necessarily go away.
Fundamentally, the UAE is working to gain greater autonomy from Washington.