MBZ’s Hot Foreign Policy Switch: From Interventionism to Regional Diplomacy

  • MBZ’s refusal to speak with Washington despite soaring oil prices alludes to a strained relationship, brought on by the revival of the JCPOA and reduced regional US commitment
  • MBZ has sought to diversify regional and international partnerships, notably as he parlays with Turkey and increases trade links with China
  • MBZ has led a strategic re-alignment of UAE foreign policy, from the interventionism that marked the 2010s to a diplomatic approach focusing on forging strong regional economic ties.
Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan
The White House Wikimedia public domain.

Why is MBZ Heat Level Hot?

Answer: Despite a weakening of relations between a key historical ally in the United States, MBZ has forged new regional agreements that bolster the UAE’s regional influence. 

Since Joe Biden’s 2020 election, the relationship between the United States and the United Arab Emirates has become increasingly strained. This is unprecedented given that the two have maintained an amicable relationship for a number of years, with the UAE being the biggest purchaser of American arms.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed’s (MBZ) refusal to speak with Biden earlier this month epitomises these tensions and is especially significant given the Ukrainian crisis. The White House is seeking to repair relations with MBZ as oil prices rise above $130 per barrel for the first time in almost 14 years due to US and EU sanctions on Russian gas. The UAE is one of two major oil producers that can match American demand for the commodity as prices in the country soar. 

However, MBZ’s refusal to pump more oil in favour of the production plan approved – which stipulates a gradual increase in oil production capped at 400,000 barrels per day – by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) alludes to cracks in the relationship. This is likely a result of Washington scaling back its security commitment in the region which has been historically important for the UAE.

For example, Emirati officials have expressed concerns about the lack of a response to the recent missile strikes by Houthi militants in Yemen. That being said, US officials have since sought to ameliorate the situation asserting that Washington will do “everything” they can to defend the UAE. There are also early indications of a potential revival of the Iran nuclear deal, which MBZ views as an accommodation of Iran. Finally, Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan further quelled the reliability of an over-reliance on the US.

Seeing the US as increasingly unreliable, MBZ has hedged his bets and created new relationships. Israeli PM Naftali Bennett, for instance, made a historic visit to the UAE last year; a move unfathomable a decade ago. The UAE has also sought rapprochement with long-time rival Turkey, and has even committed to new partnerships in defence and military cooperation. China has also formed an element of the UAE’s strategy with talks of a port that would form a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Winter Olympics served as an opportunity for MBZ to meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and discuss a strengthening of this partnership.

Today, China is one of UAE’s largest trading partners as well as the biggest consumer of Gulf Oil. Abu Dhabi has, simultaneously, accepted Huawei’s telecom infrastructure in a move widely criticised by Western officials. The $19 billion arms deal to purchase 80 Rafale jets from France further illustrates that MBZ has started looking elsewhere from Washington. Ultimately, it would appear as though MBZ is unfazed by Washington’s pivot away from the Middle East to focus on its tensions with China. Instead, he has used the opportunity to diversify relationships in the region and reduce his dependence on the US. 

Who is driving MBZ?

Answer: Competition with Saudi Arabia provides MBZ with further impetus to accommodate China. 

The current state of Saudi-Emirate relations is one that is underpinned by economic competition. The pandemic in tandem with reduced oil prices (pre-Ukraine) illustrated the dangers of an overreliance on oil and as a result intensified pressure on Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE to diversify. One of the avenues for this to occur is in the maritime transport and logistics sector in a bid to capture cargo trade volumes flowing west from Asia. 

Interestingly, this comes at a time when China is increasing its presence in the Gulf to create a network along the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Consequently, MBZ is striving to leverage China’s engagement in the region for its own goals in an attempt to expand the UAE’s shipping capacity. As things stand, China is the UAE’s primary economic partner in the Gulf and nearly two-thirds of Chinese exports to Europe and Africa travel through Emirati ports. Gulf countries have historically been the key hub between Europe and Asia, and MBZ is intent on bolstering the UAE’s regional standing. 

Regardless, it is likely that as the competition between the Saudi Arabia and UAE heats up, as evidenced by a case of rare public disagreement between the two over OPEC policy, leveraging strong ties with China will be significant advantage. MBZ seems intent on making the best of both worlds: maximising an economic relationship with China while remaining a major US security and strategic ally. He is cognisant of the fact that he has leverage over the US with the UAE’s oil and gas reserves, while the Emirates represent a major strategic hub for the Chinese Silk Road’s trade logistics. 

What is driving MBZ?

Answer: In the face of reduced American military presence in the region, MBZ has sought to maintain security through a more diplomatic foreign policy approach. There are also fears of getting caught in between the US and China. 

In Biden’s early days in office, he largely followed through on his promise to pull out of the Middle East and instead prioritised tensions with China. As a result, MBZ sought to deepen regional economic links and security commitments in an attempt to buttress stability in the region amidst a new reality of reduced American presence. ​​This was very much a reflection of MBZ’s general foreign policy shift away from proactive interventionism to one of diplomacy in the Middle East.

This would explain, therefore, why the leader has opted to put aside historical enmities with countries in the region such as Qatar, Turkey, Israel and even to a certain extent Iran and instead build economic partnerships for the long-term. Since then, however, the US has returned to the table and committed to replenishing the UAE’s missile interceptors in light of renewed Houthi attacks against the country. Consequently, MBZ has not just managed to strengthen regional ties, but has also reignited American security commitments. 

There is also a lingering fear of being caught in between growing US and China tensions. This is especially true as the UAEs relationship with Beijing deepens. It would appear as though these concerns are not baseless, notably given the newfound friction in US-Israeli relations as a result of Israel’s own relationship with China. Anwar Gargash, a top UAE diplomat, alluded to this reality at the end of 2021 when he said his country was worried by the “looming Cold War” between the US and China and even suggested that choosing between the two would be “problematic.”

It is, therefore, of little surprise that MBZ has engaged in this largely successful deconfliction. The concern for Washington will undoubtedly be that this process’ momentum is outside of its control.  This has already proven to be a complication for the United States given that the UAE suspended a $23 billion arms deal as a result of too many restrictions preventing Chinese influence in Abu Dhabi’s security. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: MBZ’s policy of diplomacy has already enabled the overcoming of historical enmities in the region. However, his relationship with Beijing could further complicate and even amplify US-China tensions.

Although the US reeling in its security commitments to conflicts in the Middle East has strained its relationship with a historical partner in the UAE, it could have provided further impetus for the deepening of ties in the region that would naturally lead to greater peace and stability. In fact, it has played perfectly into MBZ’s plans for a foreign policy of greater diplomacy and solving problems through economic closeness as opposed to the US’ military assistance.

This has already yielded positive outcomes for the region, including the establishment of ties between the UAE and Israel, as well as rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar. This could allude to a period of unparalleled cooperation between the Gulf Countries which is already proving to be beneficial for the region. 

That being said, MBZ’s bid to stay away from US-China tensions could ironically push the UAE further in between the two countries. The desire to further cosy up with China has already complicated an arms deal with the US which could be a foreshadowing of what is to come. Although MBZ has sought a formal security pact with the US, the lack of progress will likely push the leader to continue forging deeper ties with his partners, including China.

There is already evidence of this as US officials recently discovered a security military facility that was being built by China in the UAE. Sooner or later Biden will have to explicitly address this relationship which would not only further complicate his relationship with MBZ, but also potentially further destabilise the situation with China.

Ahaan Rai

Research and Analysis