The fabric of America’s strategic ties to the Gulf region is fraying. The leader of its most consequential nation, Saudi Arabia, has essentially told the Biden administration with regard to oil supply, arms sales or nuclear power, “If you want to work with me fine, but if not, there are others who will.”
Less visible but hardly less consequential is the troubling and persistent rift between Washington and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Twice in the last two years, America’s senior-most officials have sought to mollify the UAE’s leader, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known as MBZ, in a bid to get relations back on track. When he was in Jeddah last July, President Biden personally invited MBZ for an official visit to Washington before the end of the year.
That hasn’t materialized. Instead, nearly a year later, MBZ’s brother, who serves as the UAE’s national security advisor, met in Washington with his U.S. counterpart, Jake Sullivan, to see if they could restore a degree of normalcy to the relationship.
Emirati pique with Washington goes back at least a decade, beginning with President Obama’s secretly negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran behind the backs of its Arab Gulf allies. Technology restrictions by the State and Defense Departments under both Trump and Biden pushed the UAE to call off the $20 billion purchase of advanced F-35 aircraft. A tardy U.S. response to missile attacks against the UAE from Yemen further antagonized Abu Dhabi.
The Emiratis eventually concluded that with friends like these, who needs enemies, and they gradually turned to Russia and China for economic growth and diplomatic leverage. The UAE has become both Russia’s and China’s largest trading partner in the Arab world.
China is the UAE’s largest non-oil trading partner globally, and the UAE is China’s second-largest trading partner.
Beneath the surface of these improved commercial ties with America’s adversaries lies a web of security relationships that has led senior U.S. officials and members of Congress to question the UAE’s reliability as a strategic partner.
The UAE’s collusion with Russian interests has been a point of friction with the U.S. government for some time. Its ties to the Wagner Group in Libya and supply of arms to that country’s renegade warlord Khalifa al Hiftar have long rankled Washington policymakers, prompting them to sanction UAE-based entities in January. Abu Dhabi’s subsequent involvement with Wagner’s activities in Sudan have added fuel to that fire. According to reports from the region, Wagner and the UAE have been working together to export gold from Sudan to Dubai, where proceeds from its sale fill the coffers of Wagner, Sudanese rebels and UAE middlemen.
Since abstaining from a February UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UAE’s consistent pattern of turning a blind eye to or facilitating sanctions evasion for the benefit of Russia has prompted the Biden administration to take aggressive action. According to data collected by the Free Russia Foundation, the value of electronic parts shipped from the UAE to Russia increased by a factor of seven from 2021 to 2022. Over the same period, the UAE exported 15 times more microchips to Russia, along with over 150 drones.
The Treasury Department publicly lambasted the UAE for “poor sanctions compliance.” This year alone, the U.S. has sanctioned numerous Emirati entities for sanctions busting. In one case, a pair of Emirati firms collaborated with Iran to transfer Iranian drones, personnel and support equipment from Iran through the UAE and on to Russia.
In another move, the Treasury Department sanctioned a Russian bank operating in the UAE under license from the Emirati Central Bank. The MBZ’s brother, who’s also the deputy prime minister, is facing investigations by U.S. and British authorities over reports that he has helped Russian oligarchs evade sanctions. To top it all off, U.S. spy agencies have documented a disturbing and deepening intelligence relationship between the UAE and Russia.
Perhaps more alarming from Washington’s perspective is the increasingly close security relationship between the UAE and China. Two years ago, U.S. intelligence became aware that China was secretly building a military facility at a port in the UAE. In more than one conversation with MBZ, President Biden expressed alarm and urged him to stop the project, which bin Zayed agreed to do.
At the end of 2022, and despite Emirati assurances to the contrary, the U.S. detected renewed activity at the site, including the connection of water and power to the facility and the construction of a perimeter wall for a People’s Liberation Army logistics site. It seems to many in Washington that the UAE leadership is going out of its way to thumb its nose at American concerns.
Critics of the Emirates point to its rejection of entreaties from the United States over its increasingly close ties with China’s telecoms giant Huawei. Long recognized as a stalking horse for the Chinese state, Huawei’s penetration of the UAE, as well as the growing partnership between the two countries’ intelligence agencies, present serious challenges for America’s national security establishment.
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