A small Arab Gulf State is not the first place in the Middle East that one might expect to fashion a foreign policy according to Thomas Jefferson’s dictum of the importance of separating church and state. Yet this is what the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is doing. Key leaders in the state believe quite deeply in the importance of separating where practical the influence of organised political Islam from political affairs. This central premise has been guiding and driving the UAE’s foreign policy particularly since the Arab Spring.
In Libya the UAE joined in NATO’s operation unified protector to protect the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. The UAE then became involved on the ground supporting specific types of groups and political actors. While Qatar, for example, tended to support Islamists of one variety or another, the UAE purposefully supported nationalist-orientated groups (such as the al-Qaqa Brigade and the conglomerate surrounding the Zintan brigades) ranged Qatar’s Islamists. More notably, the UAE emerged in mid-2014 as the central backer of General Haftar, the former Libyan military commander who returned from exile in the US to lead an anti-Islamist crusade – Operation Dignity. The UAE not only supported him and his movement diplomatically and with materiel, but the New York Times reported that UAE fast-jets and special forces were used to support Haftar in his fight against Islamists.
Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region, support for nationalists or at least actors other than Islamists, is also evident in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. Though there are exceptions, these are notable by their rarity and thus reinforce the overarching principle.
This Jeffersonian policy stems from lessons drawn by modern-day leaders from the domestic Emirati experience with political Islam. The local chapter of the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation – called al-Islah – opened in the UAE in 1974. It soon gained particular traction and influence in the northern emirates of the federal UAE that happen to be far poorer than those in the south (i.e. Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai). Al-Islah members from Ras al-Khaimah, one of the UAE’s northern emirates, even became federal ministers in the 1980s.
But this growth in power of a foreign-born social group unnerved leadership in Abu Dhabi. From the late-1980s onwards, leaders in Dubai and particular Abu Dhabi began to – as they see it – negotiate with al-Islah to lessen their overt influence on Emirati society. But these negotiations did not work and relations worsened between the two antagonists. Eventually, after foreign al-Islah members were deported and others were fired from their jobs, two Emiratis from the norther emirates took part in the attacks of 11 September 2011 and the fears of those in Abu Dhabi were realised. A greater crack-down ensued, yet still al-Islah refused to be cowed or follow its sister Muslim Brotherhood group in Qatar that dissolved itself voluntarily in 1999. But the Arab Spring was the final straw. It was proof positive for the Abu Dhabi elite as to the insidious nature of Muslim Brotherhood organisations that seemed to wait at the fringes of societies, preaching about social issues only to take power as soon as the opportunity emerged. In reaction to the Spring, the Abu Dhabi-led government instituted aid packages and extra subsidies aimed mostly at the norther emirates to forestall any early grumblings of discontent, and they banned groups like al-Islah, and arrested hundreds of its members.
This experience then came to guide the UAE’s foreign policy as a whole under the rubric that organised political Islam should not be supported but needed to be opposed. While such a policy based on a key tenet of US political thinking may curry favour for the UAE the beltway, there are two key problems with the thesis. Firstly, a Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy can never be applied towards Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s behemoth neighbour that institutionally mixed religion and politics. This rhetorical problem becomes a practical problem when both states are engaged in the same environment as with their intervention in Yemen. Here, the two states are operating with different tactical principles in important strategic cities like Taiz. Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to use local al-Islah commanders in their wider war, while the UAE appears to be far more reluctant to empower such groups.
Secondly, and linked to this point, is the fact that the UAE will need to compromise given that so much of the discourse is dominated by religion throughout the Middle East. Pursuing an active and pure Jeffersonian policy will be, in other worse, something of a challenge overall. Though the UAE can certainly support nationalists or other non-Islamist groups, they will rarely be in the majority.
This post is based on Mosque and State: The United Arab Emirates’ Secular Foreign Policy published by Foreign Affairs on 18 March 2016.