Background of the Study
From its inception as a state, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has provided humanitarian assistance to several countries around the world. Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Madagascar, Sudan, and Mali are a few nations that have benefitted from its generosity (Washington DC Embassy of the United Arab Emirates 1). Compared to other countries, the UAE is the world’s third largest donor of humanitarian aid, relative to its Gross National Income (GNI) (Gökalp 1). The Middle Eastern state offers aid in several forms, including advocacy, partnerships, and direct financial assistance (UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation. 1). By offering such help, the nation’s main agenda is to help reduce poverty and promote peace and stability in various parts of the globe.
Recently, the focus of UAE’s foreign policy has expanded further to providing nations with medical assistance due to humanitarian challenges emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, it has donated medical supplies and food aid to more than 130 countries around the world, including Somalia, the US, Colombia, and the Caribbean to cope with the crisis (Washington DC Embassy of the United Arab Emirates 1). To promote its humanitarian goals, the UAE government has also worked with several regional and global bodies, such as the United Nations (UN), World Food Program (WFP), and African Union (AU), to improve the capacity of developing countries to solve their social, political, and economic problems (Washington DC Embassy of the United Arab Emirates 1). This strategy has been aimed at improving local capacities to manage crises (UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation 2). This document highlights factors affecting UAE’s foreign policies on aid and disaster relief management. Its main tenets will assess issues that have contributed to the evolution of its foreign aid strategies, subject to regional, domestic, and international developments influencing humanitarian assistance.
- Which domestic factors have affected the development of UAE’s foreign policies?
- What regional factors have influenced the development of UAE’s foreign policies?
- How have international factors affected the evolution of UAE’s foreign policy?
Significance of Topic
Humanitarian action has a political character in the sense that those responsible for the advancement of its growth are guided by a set of rules governing how different actors or players interact with one another. Focus on the development of UAE’s foreign policy agenda, as it relates to humanitarian action, stems from this background and defines the rules governing interactions between humanitarian aid and government agencies (Gökalp 5). At a domestic level, the findings of this study will be pivotal in addressing the conceptual and bureaucratic challenges that have inhibited the UAE from providing aid to countries. Regionally, the discussion is relevant in developing the relationship that aid organizations have with government agencies, and donor organizations (Saouli 121). Globally, the findings of this study will help to develop new approaches in developing a closer relationship between aid and political responses to emerging humanitarian challenges around the world.
The process of analyzing a country’s foreign policy falls within the purview of international relations. This scope of analysis seeks to understand how nations interact with their external environment and their main motivation for developing strategies to address this relationship (Saouli 121). Several schools of thought have been proposed to understand foreign policies of various nations. The first one is the neorealist approach, which presupposes that foreign policies are the result of international actors who exert pressure on governments to follow set guidelines of global relations (Shahrour 5). The second approach is the Marxist philosophy, which views foreign policy development from a political economy point of view. It suggests that the process is a product of an uneven distribution of resources among different countries (Shahrour 2). Therefore, countries develop their foreign policy agendas to address this imbalance of economic power. A review of the foreign policies adopted by countries, which make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), suggest that the above-mentioned schools of thought are insufficient in explaining the foreign policy directions taken by most Arab countries. Consequently, alternative models have been proposed to bridge the gap.
The multimodal and multilevel analysis of foreign policy development have emerged from this background as alternative models for understanding the foreign policy directions of Arab countries. Some notable scholars that have advanced this school of thought include Nonneman, Hinnebusch and Ehteshami (Shahrour 2). They argue that foreign policy analysis should be examined from three perspectives. The first one is the domestic level, which highlights local interests in policy development by reviewing elite interests, histories of nations, and sociopolitical dynamics affecting their development (Axon and Hewitt 16). The second level is regional, which includes a review of interests affecting countries of similar geographical positioning. In the context of the present study focusing on the UAE’s foreign policy, these countries are located in the Middle East. Their interests are economic, security-related, and economic, based on their socioeconomic dynamics (UAE Ministry of Cabinet Affairs 7). The third level of analysis is international, which highlights the role of global actors in the development of a country’s foreign policies.
The multilevel analysis of foreign policy development is hereby chosen for the present study because of its holistic nature. Therefore, when analyzing factors affecting the UAE’s foreign policy, emphasis will be made to review key drivers from local, regional, and international perspectives. Additionally, given that the UAE is a tribal autocracy, emphasis will also be made to understand the views adopted by its rulers in the development of the country’s foreign policies. Therefore, the overall analysis of the state’s foreign policy development will be based on a hybrid understanding of the multimodal and personalized nature of the country’s foreign policy framework.
Domestic Factors Influencing Foreign Policy Development
Internal politics within the UAE are partly responsible for its foreign policy background. Particularly, competing interests among rulers of different Emirates, before the formation of the nation-state, affected its foreign policy direction. Historically, the country was shielded from the interests of these competing powers, thanks to its relationship with the United Kingdom (UK) (UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation 2). Therefore, most of its Emirates operated as semi-autonomous states with military and security interests protected by the UK. However, the withdrawal of the UK from its overseas interests in the late 1970s forced most of the semi-autonomous regions to unite into a federation (UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation 2). This move explains the consolidation of the country’s foreign policies on aid assistance.
The unification of different Emirates brought an Arab-centered philosophy in the development of the country’s foreign policy. Based on diverse interests held by their rulers, the country’s foreign policies were largely neutral and balanced (Axon and Hewitt 23-24). The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s best demonstrates this fact because the UAE adopted a neutral stance on the conflict (Barhouma 3). The varying positions that some of its leaders held regarding the conflict informed this position.
On one hand, some leaders in the UAE supported Iran, while others promoted Iraq’s interests. For example, the rulers of Dubai, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain shared a close relationship with Iran and refrained from taking a position that would jeopardize this relationship (Shahrour 2). Comparatively, the leaders of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah shared a close relationship with Iraq and did not want the war to affect it (Axon and Hewitt 23-24). At the same time, some Emirates openly supported one side or the other and did not care for the neutrality of the state. For example, the leaders of Ras al-Khaimah openly promoted the interests of Iraq and went so far as to support the setting up of military bases in its territory to aid its military strength (Shahrour 3-4). These conflicting positions suggest that the UAE had a history of internal disagreements among its leaders, which necessitated the development of a neutral foreign policy. These factors are largely representative of Sheikh Zayed’s regime, which ended in 2004 after his death (Shahrour 3). During his time, there was an intense concentration of foreign policy administrative powers in Abu Dhabi.
Prior to 2004, the UAE used the country’s oil revenues as a tool to consolidate its foreign policy agenda, opting for a peaceful resolution of conflicts and a preference for soft power in promoting the interests of the state. Sheikh Zayed’s foreign policy agenda was focused on promoting a localized foreign aid policy, which was designed to promote the interests of the UAE as a sign of solidarity with rulers of different Emirates because they all shared a common heritage (Shahrour 2). This foreign policy direction explains why most of the foreign aid offered by the UAE government to other countries during this period was intended to advance its domestic interests. Reports suggest that up to 10% of the country’s GDP was directed to fulfilling this agenda (Shahrour 2). However, the rise of Mohammed bin Zayed in the politics of the UAE created a shift in the country’s foreign policy from being overly local to regional in nature.
Regional Factors Affecting Foreign Policy Development
The UAE is an important player in the regional politics of the Middle East because of its geopolitical positioning on the Arabian Persian Gulf. The country is one of the most militarized, securitized, and volatile nations in the region because of past conflicts and geopolitical interests held by various countries around it (UAE Ministry of Cabinet Affairs 7). Particularly, neighbors that are competing for dominance in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Iran surround the UAE and exert undue influence on its foreign policy (Barhouma 3). Managing these competing interests has been a key objective of the UAE government.
The Arab Spring of 2011, which saw the overthrow of several governments in the Middle East, had implications on the UAE, which survived the onslaught. According to the UAE, the aftermath of the revolution had a negative consequence on the security of the region, such as the installation of a new political order, founded on strong religious doctrines, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which UAE considers detrimental to the region’s prosperity (Gökalp 2). Particularly, the ouster of Egyptian and Libyan governments through the 2011 revolution affected the UAE’s foreign policy focus.
Following the ouster of the Egyptian government, under Hosein Mubarak, the UAE collaborated with Egyptian military rulers to depose the newly formed regime that assumed power after the revolution because of its connection with the Muslim Brotherhood (Gökalp 2). Despite opposition from the US, the UAE government supported a Coup de Tat by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, which led to the ouster of the newly installed regime. The UAE government feared that the regime’s association with the Muslim Brotherhood had far-reaching implications on the security of North Africa and the wider Middle Eastern region (Gökalp 2). Afterwards, in 2013, the UAE sent foreign aid to the Egyptian government, which was in excess of $4 billion (Shahrour 8). Two years later, it increased the aid to $14 billion – an amount, which was substantially higher than the cumulative aid given to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (Shahrour 8). Therefore, the UAE has used aid to promote its political agenda in the Middle East region.
To undermine the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, the UAE’s foreign policy on humanitarian assistance has shifted from being largely passive to active, especially in the deployment of military power to countries under threat of its influence. This strategy was demonstrated when the UAE led a coalition of other Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to impose sanctions on Qatar, which was deemed a sympathizer of the religious outfit (Barhouma 3). Stated differently, they tried to isolate it for being one of the regional supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This strategy is controversial because of its potential in creating instability in the region. Therefore, albeit successful, some people regard the UAE’s involvement in the isolation of Qatar as a foreign policy setback (Shahrour 9). They deem it as such because its decision to impose embargos on the small Arab nation helped the country to strengthen its relationship with rivals, such as Turkey (Barhouma 3). Indeed, Qatar increased its imports from Turkey from a low of about $600 million to about $1.2 billion within a two-year period that spanned between 2016 and 2018 when the embargo was imposed (Shahrour 11). Turkey also increased its military presence in Qatar from about 300 to 3,000 soldiers within the same period (Shahrour 11). This outcome shows that its foreign policy plan on Qatar had failed.
Based on the UAE’s participation in the embargo on Qatar, its strategy to position itself as a nexus state in the Middle East has been undermined by the rerouting of supply chain linkages by the latter. The effect of this action has been the erosion of UAE’s influence in Jebel Ali, which was a linchpin location that supported its position as a nexus state in the Middle East (Gökalp 3). Additionally, UAE’s position as the main commercial hub in the Middle East has been undermined by its foreign policy strategy of isolating Qatar because the latter rerouted its supply chain processes from Dubai to Oman, which is a rival location.
Regionally, the UAE has also been pursuing an aggressive foreign policy against Iran, which it has accused of undermining the region’s security interests that prevent humanitarian disasters (Gökalp 2). This position has seen some of its allies turn into foes. For example, in 2018, the UAE was caught in crossfire between Iran and US (Shahrour 6). This threat was further escalated when oil tankers belonging to the UAE and allied forces, such as Saudi Arabia, were attacked on Emirati territory. Iran was accused of sponsoring the attacks because of its close proximity to the UAE (Gökalp 2). The latter was forced to re-evaluate its foreign policy by scaling down its aggressive stance on its neighbor (Shahrour 6). This change of tact has seen the country engage directly with Tehran on various maritime issues (Barhouma 1). Additionally, recently, it offered medical support to Iran to manage COVID-19 based on this strategy refocus.
The UAE government has also taken an active military role in the region to undermine the influence of Iran in the Middle East. In addition to foreign aid, it has sent ground forces to Yemen to restore the authority of the government, which was under attack by extremist groups (Shahrour 11). Some observers question the justification for the UAE to involve itself in the Yemeni war because they believe it negated its foreign policy progress (Al-Masri and Curran 193; Balci and Monceau 112). For example, they say it undermined its security because enemy forces are now capable of manipulating military technologies to pose a direct threat to the UAE (Balci and Monceau 112). This is possible using ballistic missiles and drone technology by Houthus who are a ragtag military group capable of launching such attacks (Shahrour 12). Despite being geographically distant, the group has shown its capability to attack key targets within Saudi Arabia (Balci and Monceau 112). It has also shown its potential to target Emirati interests in the region, including airports in Abu Dhabi and nuclear plants in the region.
The involvement of the UAE in addressing factors causing humanitarian crises in its region highlight the transformative nature of the country’s foreign policy, which has evolved from being locally-centered and passive to aggressive and forceful. However, the change of strategy has been followed by increased foreign aid to affected countries. For example, the UAE helped the Yemen administration with financial and technical support to build more than 150 schools after the war (Shahrour 12). Additionally, it sent soldiers and personnel to help in the rebuilding efforts – an undertaking that is ongoing to date.
The position of the UAE as a nexus state in the regional politics of the Middle East has also influenced its foreign policy strategy. This mostly happened after the year 2000 when the government set up an ambitious plan to cement its relationships with partner countries in the Indian Ocean trading route, including East African states, Europe, and Asia (Shahrour 12). By focusing on East Africa alone, its foreign aid to the region has accounted for more than 80% in 2013 (Shahrour 12). The UAE has also strengthened its relationship with China by declaring its support for the Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to connect Asia, China, and Europe (Shahrour 12). Based on this strategy, the UAE is one of the most powerful forces in the west of the Indian Ocean.
International Factors Influencing Foreign Policy Development
Globally, the UAE has made a significant impact in shaping the policy direction of Gulf countries in humanitarian assistance. Researchers opine that the government is striving to act as a bridge between the ideological interests of the East and West, especially when it comes to foreign aid development (Balci and Monceau 112). After the death of Sheikh Zayed in 2004, the UAE has aggressively pursued this policy direction by playing an active role global politics (Gökalp 5). This shift in policy focus was occasioned by internal, local, and regional political dynamics.
Changes in global oil prices have informed the UAE’s involvement in global politics. They have also influenced its ability to provide financial aid to countries around the world. For example, in 2002, the global oil price was $20 per barrel, but this price increased to $140 in the year 2008, meaning that the country experienced a windfall in financial gains that enabled it to provide more financial aid assistance to countries that needed it (Shahrour 6). Indeed, its asset portfolio increased from around $100 billion in 2002 to more than $627 billion by the end of 2013 due to this reason (Shahrour 6). Today, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) reports that the country’s assets are in excess of $820 billion, which makes it one of the largest in the world (Gökalp 1). This portfolio of assets is associated with the rise in global oil prices and is largely responsible for the increase in the country’s potential to offer financial aid to not only Arab countries but also other nations around the world that need aid.
The increased influence of Eastern allied nations, such as China and India, in global politics has also affected UAE’s foreign policy to the extent that it is offering a new form of assistance to developing countries. For example, its financial support to countries is not contingent on how they organize their governance systems or politics, as was the case with the West (Washington DC Embassy of the United Arab Emirates 1). This strategy is part of a new form of leadership in the world that is not dependent on human rights records or accountability standards, as has been practiced by the west for decades (Barhouma 3). In line with this vision, the UAE government has strengthened ties with several Asian powers, such as China, and aligned its foreign policies to mirror theirs.
The declining influence of western powers in global politics has implications on the wider Middle East region because it has created a vacuum in in leadership that is yet to be filled by emerging superpowers. For example, the gradual withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East and selected countries, such as Afghanistan, illustrate this trend (Barhouma 3). This development started during the Obama administration and has been perfected by the current regime under Biden. It has led to a foreign policy shift in the UAE where the country has become increasingly self-reliant and autonomous (Gökalp 3). Nonetheless, the alignment of UAE’s foreign policy with western powers has proved to be an invaluable asset in the development and support of the country’s foreign policy. In this regard, the country has positioned itself as a nexus state in the Arab world, thereby giving it prestige in the global political stage.
UAE’s positioning as a nexus state can be examined from two perspectives. The first one is its strategic positioning as a security guarantor in the Red Sea region. This is why the country has maintained a strong military presence in the Bab al-Mandeb strait region (Shahrour 12). Additionally, its involvement in the Yemeni war expanded its military presence within the region, especially around the Socotra and Perim Islands regions (Gökalp 3). It has also supported some East African countries, in terms of foreign aid and military support. For example, it has collaborated with Eritrea, which controls part of the Red Sea, to establish a military presence in the region (Shahrour 12). This positioning partly contributed to its success and involvement in the Yemeni war. At the same time, the UAE has worked with Somaliland to improve its military capability to establish peace and security in North Africa by reducing incidents of piracy within the Red Sea (Gökalp 2).. These developments have also improved the status of the UAE as a dominant military power in the Western Indian Ocean.
The negative press that the UAE has received in western media has also influenced UAE’s foreign policy. The country has worked to change this perception, which was partly fuelled by September 11 attacks in the US (Gökalp 3). Therefore, its foreign policy has been designed to project soft power on the international stage by engaging in acts of kindness and support to various countries around the world. Efforts to boost the nation’s image have been focused on the tourism industry. Particularly, the projection of Dubai and Abu Dhabi as safe tourism destinations has been a key part of this strategy. This plan explains why the two cities feature prominently in some western Hollywood movies, such as Mission Impossible and Star Wars (Shahrour 10). The cities have also been projected as safe destinations for sports events, especially in Tennis and Golf. The apex of this foreign policy direction is best demonstrated by the visit of the Pope to the UAE in 2019 to demonstrate the country’s tolerance for diversity.
The diversification of UAE’s defense and security agreements in the global stage has also played a key role in the development of its foreign policy agenda. This plan is informed by the need to move away from its reliance on the US to meet its security needs. In line with this goal, the UAE signed the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which was originally conceived as a security agreement involving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies (Shahrour 11). The Arab nation has also signed security arrangements with partner states in the Middle East region, such as Saudi Arabia, to bolster its international image as a humanitarian state (Balci and Monceau 112). It has additional security and defense agreements with other countries, including Russia and India (Balci and Monceau 112). Overall, international developments have catalyzed UAE’s foreign policy changes, as it continues to push for the development of the country’s positioning as a nexus state. These foreign policy developments have played a key role in improving the country’s global image as a humanitarian nation.
Prognosis of Future Regional and International Contexts
The policy direction adopted by the UAE government in the development of its foreign policy agenda will be largely shaped by two main factors. The first one is “nation branding,” which focuses on the development of a positive international image of the country (Balci and Monceau 112). The government’s current focus is to project the image of a young, vibrant, dynamic, and liberal state that is willing to promote western ideals of freedom, diversity and humanitarianism (Barhouma 3). From this outlook, the country is showing its willingness to cooperate with western powers and other international players to promote a world of peace and harmony.
The second policy direction likely to be taken by the UAE is the systematization and institutionalization of its foreign policy strategies. This may be intended to build trust with its international partners and to demonstrate the government’s commitment to promote shared values of transparency and accountability in the pursuit of its foreign policy interests, regionally and internationally (UAE Ministry of Cabinet Affairs 1). This policy direction is likely to be pursued by the UAE government because it defines the bedrock that the country will use to develop close partnerships with western governments, such as the US, and some of its allies in Africa and Asia (UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation 2). This move is likely to consolidate its pro-western philosophy in the advancement of its foreign policy agenda around the world. The UAE is also likely to benefit from a consolidation of its position as a power actor in international politics by pursuing this strategy.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The findings of this paper suggest that three priority areas have influenced foreign policy development on humanitarian aid in the UAE. The first one is the improvement of the nation’s security interests, especially given the fact that several conflicts have affected the Middle East in the past century. These developments have influenced UAE’s foreign policies because it is in its interest to be a beacon of peace, hope, and prosperity in the region because of competing interests between Eastern and Western powers in the region that have led to past conflicts. The presence of several militarized groups in the region, including Houthus, Hezbollah, AL Qaeda, and ISIS, highlight this fact.
The second area of priority for UAE’s foreign policy is the promotion of its economic interests. It is consistent with the Marxist philosophy, which views foreign policy development from a political economy point of view. To recap, it suggests that countries develop their foreign policies to mitigate the uneven distribution of resources in their economies or among different regional blocs. Based on this background, the economic interests underpinning UAE’s foreign policies are facilitated by the diversification of the country’s economy from the oil to the non-oil sector. To this end, diversification has been a key hallmark of the country’s foreign policy development agenda and it underscores the need to project the country as a liberal nation willing to engage in various progressive economic sectors supporting socioeconomic global development. At the same time, the UAE has partners who have vast interests in the country’s economy and wish to see it flourish and develop. Therefore, its foreign policy agenda seeks to safeguard such progress.
The third area of interest that has emerged in this study and that underpins UAE’s foreign policy growth on humanitarian aid is the development of a good international image. Indeed, in the past two decades, Arab nations have suffered negative stereotypes in western media due to their perceived association with terrorism. To this end, the UAE has committed itself to overcome these stereotypes by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to paint the nation as a progressive state that is tolerant of western ideals by engaging in humanitarian assistance, locally, regionally, and globally. For example, its foreign policy contributions have helped to improve skills and knowledge development in many countries around the world, thereby addressing domestic, regional, and global interests affecting human welfare development.
Broadly, the findings of this study suggest that the UAE government has helped countries that are in need of help by investing in human capital growth, infrastructure development, promotion of political stability, and the improvement of accountability and governance structures. Stated differently, its foreign policies have focused on three critical areas of humanitarian assistance: infrastructure growth, administrative improvements, and the promotion of geopolitical security interests. The latter has been achieved through the development of regional alliances that are aimed at limiting the influence of rogue nations and quasi-military groups in regional and global politics. These critical areas of foreign policy development have helped to address issues that cause humanitarian crises and empowered nations to address challenges that affect their development.
Overall, the UAE’s foreign policy has transformed from a background of mildness and Arab-centeredness to one that recognizes the global nature of humanitarian issues. In this regard, its present foreign policy focus is more assertive and self-reliant than it was in the past. This is why its impact has been felt around the world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Broadly, the analysis of multilevel factors affecting UAE’s foreign policy development demonstrate that the Middle Eastern state is looking to position itself as a nexus state that can converge western and Eastern humanitarian interests in global politics. To improve its international positioning, the following recommendations can be adopted
This study has highlighted the successes of UAE’s foreign policy plan based on its local, regional, and international access. However, there is a need to enhance innovation and accountability in the development of future policies. This will help in improving trust and collaboration with partner states around the world. This recommendation stems from the current policy focus of the UAE to build alliances and partnerships with several states around the world. Additionally, it pivots on the goal of promoting the UAE as a nexus state that merges both western and eastern ideals in international diplomacy.
The UAE should also work with international organizations and other governments in promoting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of its future policy direction. This vision is built on the importance of SDGs in improving human welfare around the world. Championed by global bodies, such as the United Nations (UN), collaborating with humanitarian organizations to promote SDGs will contextualize UAE’s humanitarian goals, such as the eradication of poverty within a broader legal and socio-political context, thereby further entrenching its foreign policy strategies within the broader global political system. This strategy will not only help to stimulate economic growth in less developed countries but also improve its standing in the community of nations.
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