05 September 2019

Emirati-Iranian tango on Gulf’s waves

Claudiu Nebunu

Due to increased tensions in the Persian Gulf, United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials have met, at the end of July, with their counterparts from Iran, to discuss on maritime security. Abu Dhabi and Teheran still have different perspectives on critical maters, like the Yemen war and the sanctions against Iran, which UAE decided to support. The Emirati delegation’s official visit was the first made in the last six years, which highlights a possible future coordination on certain fields, including cooperation at the maritime borders, the maintenance of opened transport routes and navigation freedom protection, as well as the establishment of bilateral contacts between the coast guard and these countries’ border security forces.

Image source: Mediafax

This is a news that’s less considered by others, however is suggesting that, unlike their ally, Saudi Arabia (SA), UAE chose a less hostile stance and is trying to eliminate tensions with Iran through a more firm diplomatic position.

Despite these discussions’ results, it is noteworthy UAE’s approach- a true tango!

Retrospective… UAE against Iran!

Less than four years and a half now, UAE decreased its relations with Iran. By doing so, Emirates’ leaders increased their support for Riyadh in the Saudi-Iranian fight. This change in the diplomatic relations emerged after UAE and SA launched military operations against Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran, in Yemen.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, Abu Dhabi strongly supported White House’s efforts to combat the Iranian influence in the Middle East, making UAE a true critical actor on Americans’ agenda of “maximum pressure” over Teheran. In May 2018, Abu Dhabi supported Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement, and then UAE’s leadership started to firmly support American sanctions’ re-imposition over Iran.

Teheran developed many low-intensity military actions against UAE and their interests in Oman Sea, like sabotaging oil tanks, as an answer to UAE’s support for Trump’s anti-Iranian agenda.

Topical… UAE and Iran!

Despite such differences, two of UAE’s delegations went, at the end of July, in Teheran. On 26th of July, Emirates’ “peace delegation” (as described by the Iranian government in mass-media) visited Teheran for discussions’ whose topics are still unknown.

Four days later, another delegation led by the coast guard commander, the brigade general Mohammed Ali Musleh al-Ahbabi, went to Teheran. During the second delegation’s visit, both sides’ officials discussed about the maritime security given the dangerous evolutions who made Persian Gulf’s security environment became even tenser.

Essentially, this was the first time in six years when Abu Dhabi and Teheran officials have organized such meeting, raising major questions on a possible foreign policy change of the Emirates in terms of the Islamic Republic.

An Emirati official stated that the 30th of July reunion has approached topics related to border’s security and the navigation in the waters shared by Persian Gulf’s countries. This shows that the discussions were “nothing new” and have nothing to do with the political tensions between Abu Dhabi and Teheran.

UAE’s Foreign Minister said the meeting focused on illegal entries, illegal activities, fishing, common borders and maritime issues in bilateral businesses. UAE’s international security cooperation department director, Salem Mohammed al-Zaabi, said he’s satisfied with meeting’s results.

Etemad (Iranian newspaper) confirmed the meetings was about improving bilateral cooperation in maritime security field and that UAE’s delegation met with General Ghasem Rezaei, Iran’s border police commander.

What made UAE send these delegations to Iran?

If Abu Dhabi has been very supportive with Trump administration's efforts to isolate Tehran, wouldn't such public involvement with Iranian officials, especially in Iran’s capital, be a maneuver to undermine this agenda?

Two directions have been spread in the public space: one says that Abu Dhabi is trying to fundamentally change its relationship with Tehran, wanting to be "closer". The latter says the meetings are relatively insignificant, usual, and solely related to fishing problems.

The truth is, probably, somewhere between. UAE wants a dialogue with Iran to better manage the risks of a major boiling conflict in the Persian Gulf, which would have extremely serious consequences on Abu Dhabi's economic and security interests. To that end, Emirati leaders pragmatically use their communication channels with Iran, which have remained open despite recent increasing political tension between Abu Dhabi (and other Arab capitals) and Tehran.

At the beginning of 2016, UAE (unlike Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan) did not completely cut off diplomatic relations with Iran, but reduced them. By assuming this balance, the UAE kept its Embassy in Tehran open, while Dubai continued to receive Iranian tourists. Although Abu Dhabi manages much of UAE's foreign policy, the concerns of Dubai and other northern emirates have tempered the policy towards Iran, especially compared to Saudi Arabia.

Based on strong economic and cultural ties, Dubai's ties with Tehran have been historically distinct and significantly distinct comparing to the Abu Dhabi and Tehran’s relationship. Dubai leaders look at Iran's relationship through trade lens, prioritizing business relations over politics. However, Abu Dhabi leaders, who have strengthened their control over UAE, after the 2009 financial crisis, are looking at Iran through security lens.

These fundamental differences between Abu Dhabi and Dubai have complicated the bilateral relationship between UAE and Iran. Sanctions imposed on Iran, as well as Qatar’s blockade, were differently received in Dubai comparing to Abu Dhabi. Dubai has suffered financially both because of the US-led "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran and because of the Doha embargo, also both issues strongly supported by Abu Dhabi.


In particular, Dubai’s leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, welcomed the idea of ​​lifting sanctions on Iran shortly after the Iranian nuclear agreement was signed.

However, despite the close alignment between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh against Tehran, UAE and Iran have kept the communication channels between the two countries. Currently, UAE is trying to take advantage on it to promote dialogue. Doing so, from Abu Dhabi’s perspective, is essential to avoid scenarios that could lead to Emirates being caught in the middle of an international armed conflict.

Despite appearances…

Indeed, these meetings in Iran’s capital happened amid developments in the region targeted by Abu Dhabi. Emirates delegation’s visit to Tehran must also be seen through the lens of the military withdrawal from Yemen. Also, Abu Dhabi's cautious response to attacks on oil tankers in the Hormuz Strait area further demonstrates a refusal to join the Washington and Riyadh allegations, in order to avoid a military confrontation which could potentially escalate.

Although they support the Trump administration's pressure on Tehran, Abu Dhabi officials will not want a new war in the Persian Gulf. As Foreign Minister, Anwar Gargash, said, "we need to clearly address Iran's behavior, but at the same time, we must not go into crisis ... This is the region we live in and it is important for us to manage the situation to avoid an open conflict.

Gargash’s statement is pragmatic, as any escalation in the Persian Gulf could seriously undermine UAE’s vital interests. From Abu Dhabi's perspective, there is an incentive to engage Tehran and try to ease tensions through dialogue, rather than risking for UAE's interests to become Iran's future targets.

Time will prove to what extent the recent maritime talks between UAE and Iran can turn into something more consistent, and if this happens, how Washington and Riyadh will react. Trump administration’s lack of any official response so far suggests that the White House is likely to have taken a wait-and-see approach.

If UAE's move to Tehran succeeds, it may be something Trump will work on. If it fails, it will bring no cost for US.

A look back to Riyadh…

As for SA, it is unclear how the Kingdom leadership looks at Abu Dhabi's approach on the Iranian government. On the one hand, it is easy to imagine that the Saudis could see this as Emirates’ bigger "betrayal" after their withdrawal from Yemen. Indeed, there are still unanswered sensitive questions, on how UAE's withdrawal will influence the relationship between the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and his mentor, Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ).

Emirates' vision of establishing an independent Southern Yemen inevitably faces Riyadh's interest in keeping Yemen within the 1990 borders. But, beyond that, Riyadh may see in the Emirati-Iranian meetings a potential opportunity to assess the extent to which Iranian officials may be willing to negotiate to demonstrate their dialogue commitment. The door between the UAE and Iran, although never fully closed, has remained rather cracked over time, which could transform a dialogue between the United States or Saudi Arabia and Iran into a feasible scenario.

On the other hand, Saudi media promotes its own stories, stressing three key points: UAE does not abandon Yemen; any discussion of a breach in the Saudi-Emirati alliance comes exclusively from Qatar and Iranian propaganda; any disagreements between the Kingdom and UAE are merely tactical.

Is it?!!

Analytical estimation

Indeed, UAE and Iran will remain stakeholders in countless regional interest points, from Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain to Lebanon. The dispute over the sovereignty of the two countries over islands in the Persian Gulf also remains a major obstacle in terms of the bilateral ties’ significant improvement.

MBZ and those in its immediate circle will continue to see the current Iranian regime, in power for the past 40 years, as a threat to UAE and other Arab states. Ultimately, UAE's approach to Tehran was determined by an assessment of the Emirati strategies to combat regional crises involving Iran.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are exploring potential options for increasing maritime security in the Gulf, although specific plans for a broader coalition, including other Western countries, have not yet been materialized. As a sign of firmness, Washington has increased troop deployment in the region, while London has dispatched a second warship to help guard merchant vessels operating in the area.

After rumors about Israel being part of a US-led maritime security initiative in the Persian Gulf  were spread, Iran responded immediately by calling Israel's participation as a "clear threat" to Iran's national security.

However, what does UAE want?

Unlike the SA ally, UAE appears to be heading for a conciliatory posture that seeks to eliminate tensions with Iran through a firmer diplomacy. This change suggests a wider divergence between UAE’s leader, MBZ, and the Saudi crown prince, MBS. The emirates have reconsidered their position in Yemen, where the Saudi-led war seems to have gotten out of control. Yemen's internationally recognized government forces have lost Aden to the advantage of the UAE-backed secessionist troops.

SA's foreign policy’s main topic remains the campaign against Iran to win regional hegemony. Both Riyadh and Tehran sponsor various proxies and provide support to a number of military, war commanders and armed militias to project their influence in the region.

But Abu Dhabi seems to be reconsidering MBS's Saudi foreign policy, which has been noted for few successes, but also for increasing Riyadh's reputation for brutality and human rights violations.

The Trump administration has continued to provide unconditional support to Saudi Arabia, despite reports of human rights abuses and the destabilizing effects of Saudi’s intervention in the Middle East and North Africa. But if Washington's "maximum pressure" goals against Iran is making the regime surrender, it seems to have the opposite effect.

Instead of turning Gulf countries against Iran, it determined states like UAE distance themselves from Saudi Arabia and try to strengthen more consistent and regulated relations with Iran’s leadership…

The Gulf is on fire… but actors in the region do not just sit around…they are looking for ways to open diplomacy’s doors and use the opportunities!

Translated by Andreea Soare