Three Broken Teacups: The Crisis of U.S.-UAE relations Published June 27, 2022 By Lt Col Christopher Michele and Prof. Joshua Goodman Wild Blue Yonder -- The United States’ strategic pivot to great power competition in Asia and Europe has led to declining U.S. attention in the Middle East. As a result, America’s reduced presence in the region and under-investment in maintaining key partnerships have plunged multiple relationships into crisis. This is especially evident with the United Arab Emirates, whose relationship with the United States has hit historic lows. Recent U.S. behavior towards the UAE, and in the region more generally, has led Emirati leaders to call its security partnership with the United States into question and conclude that it needs to rebalance diplomatic ties and security efforts away from its traditional reliance on U.S. security guarantees. Three recent U.S. policy decisions have particularly alarmed Emirati leaders. U.S. reluctance to transfer advanced weapons and technology to the UAE is viewed as a lack of trust in the UAE as a partner and has undermined the UAE’s sense of security. Second, U.S. policymakers have failed to maintain diplomatic relationships with the UAE, undermining cooperation and communication and generating resentment in Abu Dhabi. Finally, negative perceptions of wider strategic maneuvers, connected to the reprioritization of U.S. policy away from the region, threaten to increase regional instability and insecurity and amplify fears that the U.S. will abandon its partners in the region. The UAE's increasing frustration with the US and its declining confidence in the US commitment to regional security has triggered a rebalancing effort, where the UAE is now looking away from a security strategy predicated on US protection towards alternative security arrangements with U.S. strategic competitors—including China and Russia. This “rebalance,” a pragmatic decision by UAE leaders seeking to ensure their national security, signals decreasing U.S. influence in the region in the wake of a rising China while also undermining U.S. attempts to isolate Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Without a significant show of support from the United States, the U.S.-UAE relationship will continue to falter, and U.S. influence in the Arabian Gulf and the wider Middle East will continue to decline, benefitting U.S. competitors such as China and Russia. The Pivot to Asia: Abandoning the Middle East? The United States’ strategic rebalance towards the Indo-Pacific and great power competition has coincided with a shift away from a “two war” doctrine that informed how the U.S. military postured itself to be able to fight two major wars at the same time.1 The shift from planning and structuring to fight two major, concurrent conflicts to planning for one major war and multiple minor conflicts coincides with changes to the defense budget and has limited the number of troops and equipment available for deployments. Consequently, the pivot to great power competition (from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific) necessitated the movement of limited forces, equipment, and finances to support activities outside of the Arabian Gulf area. In the eyes of the UAE, this pivot amounts to regional abandonment at a time when the Middle East remains unsettled and the UAE continues to perceive acute threats to its national security.2 This is reflected in three events in particular that have called into question both the U.S. commitment to its partners and its competence. The rapid and uncoordinated U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and the subsequent fall of the country to the Taliban created negative perceptions of U.S. commitments. The United States has also been drawing down its military assets in the region. The United States has enjoyed a presence in the UAE since 1983, namely at Al-Dhafra Air Base, which has historically housed various U.S. platforms, including MQ-1 Predators, F-22s and F-35s, Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), and the U-2 reconnaissance plane. Today, America’s presence at Al Dhafra seems almost hollow with only the emergency F-22 squadron and a squadron of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs for over-the-horizon operations in Afghanistan.3 Finally, the Biden administration’s negotiations with Iran for a return to the nuclear agreement has continued the U.S. practice of excluding its partners and ignoring their concerns, driving a further wedge between the United States and its allies. Regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks, the UAE and other regional states remain deeply concerned with conventional and political aggression from Iran, which has continued attempts to expand its political influence throughout the region. Iran has supported proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, has launched missiles against U.S. forces in the region, and has acted aggressively towards shipping in the Arabian Gulf. Recent attacks on the UAE, carried out in February and March by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen with missiles and drones supplied by Iran, demonstrate that Iran continues to be the primary security threat facing the UAE. U.S. Defense Technology and the UAE Emirati fears of U.S. abandonment, combined with the persistence of serious threats to UAE security emanating from Iranian aggression, have increased its desire to procure advanced weaponry and expand its arsenal, especially as the United States draws down its forces in the region. For the past decade, the UAE has requested from the United States armed unmanned aerial systems, including the RQ-21A Blackjack and the MQ-9 Reaper, and the new F-35 joint strike fighter.4 U.S. opposition to Emirati participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has contributed to widespread human rights violations, has been used as the reasoning to deny the Emirates access to this technology.5 When the Trump Administration approved a deal to transfer the F-35 and MQ-9 systems, it raised hopes of a breakthrough in the relationship, yet concerns about UAE procurement of Chinese communications technology with Huawei led to new U.S. concerns regarding technology security. Subjected to increasing scrutiny, restrictive conditions on the acquisition and use of U.S. systems, and pressure to roll back ties with China, the UAE halted the deal in December 2021.6 Finally, the slow delivery of missile defense assets adds the proverbial nail to the coffin of U.S.-UAE relations. Over the past decade, the United States has added Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense technologies to the Emirati Air Defense Command. Unfortunately, as the use rate has continued to rise, the replenishment rate of the associated munitions has not met the expectations of Emirati leadership, leading to a deepening concern of a lack of U.S. commitment.7 Neglecting Relationships In addition to the failures in policy, the U.S.-UAE relationship has suffered from a series of diplomatic failures. In January 2022 UAE was subjected to a barrage of missile and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi and Dubai launched by Iranian proxies in Yemen and Iraq. Although the U.S.-supplied air defense systems, including THAAD and Patriot, intercepted most of the missiles and greatly reduced the damage, the attacks led to three fatalities and highlighted vulnerabilities in the Emirati air defense system, training, and execution.8 As the first even marginally successful attack on UAE soil, it was also a deeply traumatic for the Emiratis, who have come to consider it their 9/11. However, despite the success of U.S.-supplied air defense, the U.S.-Emirati relationship was further damaged due to the Emirati perception of a weak, or even absent, U.S. response. The F-22 squadron dispatched to Al-Dhafra Air Base to support the Emiratis arrived on February 12, almost a month after the initial attacks on January 17 and only after a further three waves of drones and missiles.9 According to various sources, U.S. officials failed to call Emirati leadership to express condolences and support after the attacks; in a cultural environment built on personal relationships, this gaff served to further weaken the relationship. The Biden Administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to the UAE, which sends a signal, intentional or not, that the UAE is a lower priority to the United States. In addition, the UAE has been the target of increasing criticism by U.S. officials in Congress and the State Department for human rights abuses and continued involvement in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.10 Together, these events have strained relations between the United States and the UAE and diminished American influence. The Emirati Response: A Pivot of Their Own The UAE has responded to this wave of perceived failures with their own pivot—away from the United States toward U.S. strategic competitors including Iran, China, and Russia. Diplomatically, the UAE is seeking better relations with the Iranian bloc and is not cooperating with U.S. efforts to isolate Russia in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine. In December 2021, the Emirati national security advisor visited Tehran to meet with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Emiratis have begun to seek friendlier ties with Iran to deescalate tensions. In March, Syrian President Bashar Assad was invited to visit the UAE, where he met with Mohammed bin Zayed in a bid to begin normalizing relations and reintegrating Syria into the region. Both moves appear to be cases of hedging, as the UAE is worried about the prospect of facing hostile neighbors without U.S. backing. Additionally, the UAE has expressed its displeasure with U.S. behavior through the refusal of Muhammad Bin Zayed (MBZ), then the de facto ruler who recently became the emir of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE following the death of his brother Khalifa in May, to meet with CENTCOM Commander General McKenzie during his visit in February. Similarly, MBZ reportedly refused a call from President Biden when he sought Emirati assistance in lowering oil prices by increasing UAE production following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sore publicly, the UAE abstained from voting for a U.S.-sponsored United Nations resolution condemning the Russian invasion. The negative impact of U.S. policy and American reluctance to follow through on weapons sales has pushed the UAE to rebalance its military technology procurement strategies to include more significant Chinese and Russian sources.11 Although the UAE has historically sought balanced technology procurement from multiple sources, it prefers to buy U.S. technology due to the total system delivery (system, training, spares, support, etc.) that is not always included with other countries.12 The UAE has recently concluded the purchase of French Rafale fighters and Chinese L-15 trainers,13 and has signed a deal to purchase Chinese UAVs.14 The UAE is rumored to be discussing a partnership with Russia to produce parts for the SU-75 Checkmate, a potential competitor to the F-35.15 In addition, the United States recently accused China of building a secret military facility outside of Abu Dhabi, raising questions about Emirati knowledge of the project and their willingness to tolerate Chinese military presence in the country.16 These deals demonstrate the failure of U.S. influence on the UAE to maintain security cooperation with the U.S. and to cease cooperation with competitors such as Russia and China, and it indicates both the declining attractiveness of operating exclusively with U.S. systems and the weakening leverage the United States retains over its partners in the region. Implications The U.S.-Emirati relationship is floundering, and U.S. ties to other key partners, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt, are rocky. Emirati leaders continually chafe at U.S. missteps and perceived slights, reflecting to them their relegation as a secondary partner for the United States. Since the late 1990s, the UAE has been the only Arab state to support and deploy alongside U.S. forces in all operations, which should indicate UAE’s value as a core U.S. partner in the region.17] The United States has never accused the UAE of mistreating or mishandling any U.S. technology that it has been entrusted with, while Israel—which has been so accused—has gained access to the latest in U.S. technology, including the F-35, in essence snubbing the Emiratis and suggesting the U.S. views the UAE as a second-tier partner. All this, combined with the U.S. pivot at a time when the UAE continues to perceive significant threats to its national security, has triggered the Emirati rebalance, which has benefitted Iran, Russia, and perhaps most of all, China. As the Emiratis increasingly pivot towards technological and diplomatic cooperation with China, China has expanded its economic footprint in the region and increased its political influence, which in turn fuels China’s growth and its ability to compete with the United States for global dominance. Declining U.S. influence with the Emiratis and Saudis, has weakened its position vis-à-vis Russia. Saudi and Emirati agreement to raise oil production would significantly lower global oil prices, increasing economic pressure on the Russians, so their refusal to do so is not only a symbolic diplomatic jab at the United States, but a material aid to the Russians, demonstrating how the Middle East is an important arena for great power competition. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s apology to the UAE over the weak U.S. response to the Houthi attacks, followed by a high-level U.S. delegation for the funeral late President Khalifa Bin Zayed which included Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin, may begin to heal the diplomatic rift, but there is still a long way to go to address Emirati perceptions of abandonment and insecurity. Without significant support from the United States, the U.S.-UAE relationship will continue to falter, and U.S. influence in the Gulf, as well as in the wider Middle East, will give way to increasing Chinese influence. The looming question is whether China be a responsible actor helping to preserve stability in the region or will it serve to disrupt any current stability and rebalance power towards countries such as Iran and Syria. Either way, diminished U.S. influence in the region due to a reduced military presence and weakened partnerships with key allies such as the UAE will undermine the security system upheld by U.S. influence since the Gulf War and undermine the ability of the United States to pursue its regional interests. Moreover, as China expands its foothold in the Arabian Gulf, it will likely gain more access to vital resources that will aid its growing industrial activities, enhance its economic power, and promote its global interests. The irony is that by increasing its focus on great power competition through its policy pivot to the Indo-Pacific, the United States has allowed Chinese expansion in the Middle East, which has undermined its regional influence and weakened its ability to compete effectively with China and Russia. Lt. Col Christopher Michele Lt Col Michele is an acquisition program manager with over 15 years in acquisition program offices supporting the United States Air Force, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and the Director of National Intelligence. Lt Col Michele is a graduated Materiel Leader and an alumnus of the USSOCOM GHOST program. He led the GHOST program as the GHOST handler from 2018-to 2021 and has deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to his acquisition experience, Lt Col Michele is a graduate of the Air Force Regional Affairs Specialist/Political Affairs Specialist program and has worked security cooperation portfolios under the Secretary of Defense for Policy supporting the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Oman, and Yemen. Lt Col Michele is currently assigned to the National Security Agency, Ft Meade, Maryland. Dr. Joshua R. Goodman Joshua Goodman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Security Studies at Air War College. His research and teaching interests including the strategies and politics of asymmetric warfare as well as regional security and state-society relations in the Middle East. His first book examined tribe-state relations and identity politics in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt, looking at the impact of globalization on Bedouin culture and identity. Currently, he is working on a book about Saudi involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process and its relationship with security in the Arabian Gulf. He teaches the Arab World RSS, and has previously taught classes on Middle Eastern politics, the Arab Spring, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Dr. Goodman holds a PhD from Yale University in Political Science and a Masters in Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University. NOTES 1. 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