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The UAE’s ambitions backfire as it finds itself on the front line of U.S.-Iran tensions

The skyline of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. In recent weeks, the UAE has begun distancing itself from the Trump administration as Washington edges closer to a possible war with Iran. (Christopher Pike/Bloomberg News)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — One of America’s staunchest allies in the Middle East and a driving force behind President Trump’s hard-line approach to Iran is breaking ranks with Washington, calling into question how reliable an ally it would be in the event of a war between the United States and Iran.

In the weeks since the United States dispatched naval reinforcements to the Persian Gulf to deter Iranian threats to shipping, the government of the United Arab Emirates has sent a coast guard delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security, putting it at odds with Washington’s goal of isolating Iran. After limpet mines exploded on tankers off the UAE’s coast in June, the UAE stood apart from the United States and Saudi Arabia and declined to blame Iran.

It also announced a drawdown of troops from Yemen, where, alongside Saudi Arabia, it has been battling Iranian-backed Houthis for control of the country. That opened the door this past weekend to a takeover by UAE-backed separatist militias of the U.S.-supported government in the city of Aden, a further divergence from U.S. policy.

Former U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis once nicknamed the UAE “Little Sparta” because of its stalwart support for U.S. military ventures around the world, including in Somalia and Afghanistan. Much of the recent war against the Islamic State was launched from the U.S. air base located at al-Dhafra in the UAE, an integral part of America’s security footprint in the Middle East.

But as its relationship with Washington puts the UAE on the front line of a potential war, the Emiratis are shifting gears, calling for de-escalation with Iran and distancing themselves from the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric. 

President Trump says that sweeping sanctions have fundamentally changed Iran’s behavior. But have they? (Video: The Washington Post)

“The UAE does not want war. The most important thing is security and stability and bringing peace to this part of the world,” said an Emirati official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive foreign policy issues.

Whether the United States could count on Emirati support should the current tensions lead to war with Iran may now be in doubt, diplomats and analysts say.

“The UAE is increasingly tilting away from U.S. objectives,” said Theodore Karasik of the Washington-based Gulf State Analytics. “Is it the weak link in the Trump policy of maximum pressure? It may be.”

This is not the first time UAE policies have diverged from those of Washington. The small but fabulously wealthy country has over the past decade steadily expanded its reach across the Middle East in pursuit of an agenda driven largely by the staunch opposition of its powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, to all forms of political Islam.   

The UAE sponsored the 2013 coup in Egypt that overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood government was supported by the United States. It has backed the renegade warlord Khalifa Hifter against the U.S.- and U.N.-backed government in Libya, which is aligned with Islamist militias. It spearheaded a blockade alongside Saudi Arabia against Qatar, an ally of the United States that has promoted Islamist movements in the region.

Abu Dhabi has also embarked on an influence campaign in Washington that has given the UAE a potent voice in the White House, helping shape Middle East policy at the highest levels. The UAE was a vocal critic of the 2015 nuclear pact signed by the United States and other world powers with Iran, and it supported Trump’s decision to walk away from the deal last year. 

The UAE never intended the U.S. withdrawal from the deal to lead to confrontations such as those that have taken place in the Persian Gulf, Emirati officials say. Rather, they say, the UAE continues to hope, in line with Washington’s declared policy, that the tough sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration will bring Iran back to the negotiating table.

Iran's foreign minister also said the country will no longer turn a blind eye to maritime "offenses" in the Gulf, a day after it seized another oil tanker. (Video: Reuters)

Instead, Iran has pushed back, embarking on a campaign of threats and harassment against shipping in the Persian Gulf that has drawn U.S. and British naval reinforcements to the area — and appears to have caught the UAE off guard. 

The UAE’s location, economy and reputation as a safe haven for foreigners make it uniquely susceptible to the fallout from even a low-level confrontation, perhaps more than any other country in the region, analysts say. The Strait of Hormuz, where war is most likely to break out, envelops the Emirati coastline and the UAE depends on the waterway for the trade on which its economy has soared.

To build the skyscrapers and service the hotels that have attracted tourists and business executives less welcome in many other parts of the Middle East, the country has recruited foreigners from around the world. Expatriates account for about 90 percent of the UAE’s population, and they sustain almost all of its vital infrastructure, including hospitals and the armed forces.

The entire country could be brought to a halt if foreigners were to become frightened and leave, said Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group.

“The stakes for the UAE are stupendously high. An attack that hit Emirati soil or damaged their critical infrastructure would be devastating,” she said. “It would symbolically compromise the reputation of one of the region’s most economically dynamic countries.”

That the UAE would be considered a target should war break out was underscored by Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia and Iran’s closest regional ally, in an interview in July. “What will be left of the UAE’s glass towers if a war breaks out?” he asked, in a barely veiled threat. “If the UAE was destroyed . . . would that be in the interests of the Emirati rulers and people?”

Emirati officials dispute that they are switching course and say they intend to remain engaged in the wider region.

The troop drawdown in Yemen had been signaled by senior officials for months, they say, and came about because peace talks sponsored by the United Nations are underway, a goal of the military intervention.

The UAE delegation’s visit to Tehran came in the context of negotiations over fishing rights in the Strait of Hormuz and was not linked to the current crisis, they add. The appeals for de-escalation don’t change the Emiratis’ position on Iran: that its regional expansionism is dangerous and its program to develop an advanced ballistic-missile capability must be curtailed, according to the officials. 

But there have been whispered recriminations among Emiratis that the UAE has overreached, that the regional ambitions of Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto leader, have strayed too far from the country’s vision of itself as a beacon of prosperity and stability, according to residents and diplomats.

“It looks like it was overreach, and they didn’t calculate the consequences,” said a Dubai businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the UAE’s authoritarian system of government prescribes harsh punishments for those who criticize the leadership.

“Their military expansion destroyed the idea of the UAE being a safe haven, and now they’re feeling the danger of going along with the Americans.”

The UAE’s support for Trump’s retreat from the Iran deal is only the latest in a string of ventures that haven’t worked out quite as the Emiratis intended. 

The Yemen war bogged down, dragged on and drew international criticism for the high civilian death toll, even though it was Saudi Arabia that carried out most of the airstrikes that caused the casualties. The two-year-old blockade of Qatar has failed to isolate Qatar from the international community but helped drag down the UAE’s economy. The UAE’s military support for the Libyan warlord Hifter contributed to his stalled offensive on the capital, Tripoli, that has caused bloodshed but no shift in the balance of power in Libya.

In Washington, an apparent attempt by the crown prince to forge ties between Russia and the Trump administration backfired, drawing the UAE into Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election. Mohammed is the only foreign leader aside from Russian President Vladi­mir Putin to feature in the report, mostly in connection with a 2017 meeting he arranged at his Four Seasons hotel in the Seychelles between Trump associate Erik Prince and Russian financier Kirill Dmitriev.

Investigations into the actions of some of the crown prince’s associates are continuing, including those of Republican fundraiser Thomas J. Barrack Jr., who last week was accused by congressional Democrats of seeking to influence a Trump campaign speech by running parts of it by Emirati officials.

If the UAE made any mistake, it was to align itself too closely with Trump, who has proved highly unpredictable, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist who is based in Dubai. The Emirates welcomed Trump as an alternative to President Barack Obama, whose pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran ignored the concerns of the UAE. Trump has proved an equally unreliable ally, he said. 

“Do you really want to have all your eggs in Trump’s basket?” he said. When Trump threatened in June to retaliate against Iran for shooting down an American drone and then changed his mind, “it was a big moment for the UAE and for the region, too. Everyone assumed Trump is someone who carries through with his word, and when the moment came, he just pulled back.”

UAE officials appeared, however, to have been more dismayed by the fact that Trump claimed he was 10 minutes away from striking Iran but did not inform his Emirati allies, diplomats say. 

Emirati officials won’t comment on whether they will allow the United States to launch attacks on Iran in the event of a war. They have not yet committed to support a quest by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to form a global maritime security force under U.S. command to secure the safety of shipping. 

That has fed speculation about where the UAE stands in the dispute, said Karasik, the analyst. “It’s the big question. Is the UAE breaking away from the U.S.?” he said. “There are domestic economic problems and divisions over what do about Iran. But at the end of the day, the UAE sits under the American security umbrella, and that is what matters.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Jared Kushner participated in a 2017 meeting at the Four Seasons hotel in the Seychelles. Erik Prince participated in the meeting; Kushner was not there. The story has been corrected.

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