US relations with Gulf partner UAE are being tested, envoy says

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (left) listens alongside UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ( not pictured) during a Gulf Cooperation Council summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz

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  • UAE abstains in vote on US-drafted resolution on Yemen war in Ukraine, talks with Iran and terms of arms sale raise concern
  • UAE calls Washington’s response to Houthi attacks ‘timid’

ABU DHABI, March 3 (Reuters) – U.S. relations with the United Arab Emirates are being tested, a senior Emirati diplomat said on Thursday, in a rare admission of tensions in their strategic partnership that have been highlighted by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

The wealthy Gulf Arab oil exporter has expressed unease in recent years over what it sees as Washington’s waning commitment to the security of US partners in the region, while Abu Dhabi has deepened its ties with Moscow and Beijing.

Differences over the war in Yemen, Washington’s Iran policy and US conditions on arms sales have added to these concerns and resulted in the UAE not supporting a US-drafted resolution to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine – an abstention that showed Washington cannot accept UAE support for granted.

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“It’s like any relationship. There are strong days when the relationship is very healthy and days when the relationship is challenged,” said UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef al- Otaiba.

“Today we are going through a stress test, but I am confident that we will get through this and get to a better place,” Otaiba said at a defense event in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE and other Gulf states have tried to take a neutral stance between Western allies and Russia, their partner in a grouping of oil producers known as OPEC+.

Public investment funds in the UAE also have stakes in Russian companies and strategic ties to Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, while the two countries have largely shared geopolitical interests in the conflicts in Syria and Libya.

After abstaining in the Security Council vote against Russia, the United Arab Emirates this week backed a similar resolution at the United Nations General Assembly. This vote was non-binding and unlikely to mitigate the impact of the UAE’s initial position.

“It was damaging because it’s a very public sign of the tension” with Washington, said Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, contrasting abstention with more discreet channels that Abu Dhabi previously used to signal their displeasure.

Traditionally dependent on a US military umbrella for protection, the UAE and other Gulf Arab states fear the Biden administration has weakened its engagement in the region, especially after the US pullout from Afghanistan and its concentration increasing on the fight against China.

Their message to Washington is: “If you want to be a game changer and want less engagement with us, we claim the right to be less engagement with you,” Bianco said.

US “SHY” RESPONSE

Some UN diplomats also linked the UAE’s reluctance to condemn Russia to a vote days later, when Russia backed a UN arms embargo against Yemen’s Houthis aligned with the Iran, which launched drone and missile strikes on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia this year.

The UAE and Russia have denied a deal has been reached, but the Houthi issue remains a point of tension.

After Houthi missile attacks killed three civilians in Abu Dhabi in January, the United Arab Emirates pushed Washington to relabel the Houthis as a terrorist organization and to help the Emirates strengthen its defenses against such attacks.

“They view the US response as timid,” a Western diplomat said. “They were really determined to have them designated as a terrorist group.”

The UAE has been frustrated by the slow pace of a deal to buy US-made F-35 fighter jets and the terms attached to the sale. In December, he announced he would suspend talks on the F-35s, part of a broader $23 billion deal that includes drones and other advanced munitions.

Sticking points have been concerns over Abu Dhabi’s relationship with China, including the use of Huawei’s 5G technology, how stealth jets can be deployed and how much F-35 technology the Emiratis will be able to use. Read more

“PIVOT OF THE WEST”

The United Arab Emirates is also closely monitoring efforts to revive a world powers nuclear pact with Iran that could be concluded in the coming days and to lift sanctions against Tehran, giving a boost to its economy and consolidating the Iran’s regional weight.

In addition to Iran’s ties to the Houthis, Iranian-backed militant groups in the region have extended Tehran’s authority into Iraq and Lebanon. Partly to counterbalance Iranian might, the UAE has forged ties with countries like China and Russia and moved to build up its own defense capabilities.

“This pivot to the east naturally means that the UAE is moving away from the west,” said Andreas Krieg, associate professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, adding that the UAE would pursue its own national interest.

Ayham Kamel of Eurasia Group said Ambassador Otaiba’s comments showed the limits of the relationship with Washington, which he described as a partnership but not a formal alliance fixed by treaty.

“Abu Dhabi’s rulers don’t want to be a proxy power. They are not a branch of the United States in the Middle East,” he said. “There is no treaty”.

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Written by Lina Najem, Ghaida Ghantous and Dominic Evans;

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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