What the Abraham Accords Reveal About the United Arab Emirates
On Aug. 13, President Donald Trump tweeted news of a diplomatic triumph. The United States had brokered the Abraham Accords, an agreement normalizing relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The accords earned the United Arab Emirates bipartisan favor in Washington: both from the Trump administration, which was handed a foreign policy coup on the eve of a presidential election, and from Democrats who have long criticized Arab ostracism of Israel and who pushed for normalization when they were in office. The United Arab Emirates also extracted a key military concession: access to F-35 jets from the United States which it has long sought, at a time when senators from both sides of the aisle seek to limit sales of weapons to traditional Gulf allies, concerned over their human rights records and involvement in the Yemen war.
While most observers interpret the United Arab Emirates’ decision to enter the agreement as driven by a desire to extract strategic benefits from the United States, a closer look at Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy ambitions reveals a broader range of calculations. The accords do not solely aim to bring the small Gulf state closer to the United States. They are also part of its long-term strategy to diversify its strategic relationships by developing security, military, and intelligence-sharing ties with other global powers such as Russia and China, as well as with Israel. This diversification, and the United Arab Emirates’ growing foreign policy activism, reflects its converging interests with other major players in an increasingly multipolar and fractured global landscape. It also reflects the United Arab Emirates’ concerns over the United States’ long-term reliability as its main security guarantor.
Diversifying Strategic Ties
Abu Dhabi’s decision to normalize its ties with Israel is a natural extension of its goal to deepen strategic and economic ties with significant powers. Its establishment of overt ties with Israel formalizes a preexisting reality: The United Arab Emirates has been covertly expanding security cooperation with Israel in areas of cyber security and intelligence-sharing over the past decade. During that period, Israeli businessmen have been active in selling spyware, drones, and cyber security technology to the United Arab Emirates, estimated to amount to “several hundred million shekels [roughly $50 million to $100 million] annually.” In 2016, the United Arab Emirates completed “Falcon Eye,” a citywide surveillance system built on Israeli technology. The United Arab Emirates also previously expressed an interest in Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system to bolster its defense systems. Still, normalization is likely to deepen this cooperation across a range of issues, such as cyber security, intelligence-sharing, technology transfer, and missile defense, all of which the United Arab Emirates views as essential to its regional security.
The United Arab Emirates has already taken advantage of the agreement with Israel to expand its stakes in global shipping facilities, a key target of its soft-power projection abroad. On Sept. 17, Dubai Ports World announced a plan to make a joint bid with an Israeli company for Israel’s Haifa port. As part of the agreement, the two entities propose to develop the Israeli port and free zones, and potentially establish a direct shipping route between Eilat and Dubai. And on Oct. 27, a delegation of twelve Israeli technology firms, including biometrics firm “Secret Double Octopus”, arrived in the United Arab Emirates to meet with senior Emirati officials, as well as other investors. The Dubai Ports World’s potential stake in an Israeli port and the courting of Israel’s technology sector signals the United Arab Emirates’ ambition to use economic opportunities to pair up with the kind of innovative, future-oriented, and highly securitized state that it has long viewed as a model for its own development.
Under the traditional framework of Gulf security, the United States acted as the central provider of security and military assets towards each of the smaller Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. This policy was rooted in an agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdul Aziz Al Saud onboard the USS Quincy in 1945, in which he promised to provide Saudi Arabia with military protection in exchange for unfettered access to Saudi oil. The United States applied this framework to each of the smaller Gulf states following their independence, creating one of the heaviest U.S. military footprints in the world outside the Korean peninsula: 13,000 troops in Qatar, the regional headquarters of the U.S. Central Command; 7,000 in Bahrain as part of the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet; 13,000 at two air bases and a naval base in Kuwait; and 5,000 in the United Arab Emirates, stationed mostly at Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra Air Base. Since 2019, the United States has also dispatched a small contingent of 2,500 troops to Prince Sultan air base, in the Saudi desert. The Gulf states spend billions of dollars annually on U.S. weaponry. In 2019, U.S. arms sales to the Gulf states increased nearly threefold from $5.8 billion to $14.2 billion from the previous year. The United Arab Emirates is one of the largest Middle East purchasers of arms from the United States in the region, responsible for $4 billion in sales — or 7.4 percent of all total arms exports from the United States in 2018.
While the United States remains by far the central provider of Gulf security, the United Arab Emirates is also diversifying its security portfolio by deepening its ties with other global actors. This coincides with a broader shift in the United Arab Emirates’ foreign policy since the Arab Spring from a conservative, insular approach towards greater activism, characterized, for example, by the supply of military equipment to one side in the conflict in Libya. The United Arab Emirates’ growing interventions in regional conflicts are broadly aimed at countering the influence of what it perceives as its most dangerous regional threat: the Muslim Brotherhood and the states that back it, namely Qatar and Turkey. This approach has, at times, brought its interests in alignment with those of other powers, including Russia. In Syria, the United Arab Emirates has moved closer to the Russian position to support and to eventually rehabilitate the Assad regime. And although the two states are likewise driven by divergent calculations in Libya, they have also found common ground in supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army against the nationally recognized government of Prime Minister Faiez Al Serraj.
A desire by the United Arab Emirates to develop its ties with global powers, particularly those gaining influence across the Middle East, has motivated it to further increase its military and economic partnerships with Russia. In June 2018, Abu Dhabi and Moscow ratified a strategic partnership agreement, enhancing their security and trade cooperation. The agreement was followed by a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Abu Dhabi, where leaders announced bilateral trade deals worth $1.3 billion. Russia has also increased its proportion of weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates. In February 2017, Abu Dhabi signed military contracts worth $1.9 billion with Moscow, which included provisions for the delivery of 5,000 anti-armor missiles, as well as training and logistics support. The United Arab Emirates has purchased ground weapons from Russia, including BMP-3 infantry combat vehicles. It has also purchased the Pantsir-S1 missile defense system, mounted on German trucks, which it has used in Libya, and the Kornet-E anti-tank missile system — worth $40 million — which it has deployed to Yemen. On the same day that the Kornet-E defense deal was made public, Russia announced that it would allow Emirati nationals to obtain visas on arrival, and that the Russian Direct Investment Fund had gained $2 billion from investments made by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Russia reportedly also offered its S-400 air-defense system and Su-35 air defense fighter for sale to the United Arab Emirates, along with relevant technology, as an alternative to U.S. systems, but the United Arab Emirates declined. For Abu Dhabi, arms purchased from outside of the United States have the added benefit of not being accompanied by the same restrictions on their deployment, or third-party transfer, as the United States requires. They are also not accompanied by calls to improve its human rights performance, as Congress has demanded.
The United Arab Emirates has also forged closer ties with China. The United Arab Emirates is China’s second largest trading partner in the Middle East, and Abu Dhabi views Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative as an opportunity to expand its capacity as an international trade, shipping, and commerce hub. In 2016, a Chinese firm signed a 35-year agreement with the Khalifa Industrial Zone in Abu Dhabi to double its container-handling capacity. In 2017, the Chinese Petroleum Company won a $1.77 billion bid to gain an 8 percent stake in Abu Dhabi’s onshore oil concession, representing a 40-year commitment. In 2019, the China North Industries Group Corporation announced plans to join forces with an Emirati defense company, International Golden Group, to set up a joint research venture. Under the agreement, the two companies will open a facility in Abu Dhabi, staffed by Chinese and Emirati engineers and supported by universities from both states, to develop weapons and training in cooperation with the U.A.E. armed forces. The center’s first project will reportedly focus on developing surveillance and battle drones. The United Arab Emirates has also purchased military drones from China. This move was likely in response to America’s refusal to sell its armed drones due to U.S. restrictions imposed as part of the Missile Technology Control Regime, and concerns that they may end up in the wrong hands. The United Arab Emirates currently possesses the Chinese Wing Loong II, which is intended for surveillance and capable of carrying missiles and laser-guided bombs, in addition to the CH-4, an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drone.
Abu Dhabi in a Multipolar World
Amid the expansion of its economic and security ties, the United Arab Emirates is effectively diversifying its sources of cyber security, weaponry, and military capabilities to a range of actors, including the United States’ foes and allies. It is also seeking to strengthen its bargaining power vis-a-vis the United States, by suggesting that alternative sources of support and cooperation are available in an increasingly multipolar landscape. While the Trump administration has proven to be a reliable partner, the United Arab Emirates worries that a Biden administration will be less likely to protect its security interests, including by rolling back sanctions on Iran and restricting its sales of weaponry. Thus, although the Trump administration believes it scored a public relations coup when Israel and the United Arab Emirates made their announcement on the White House lawn, the event also marked the Emirates’ subtle shift away from overreliance on the security umbrella of a superpower it no longer finds entirely trustworthy.
Over the past decade, the United Arab Emirates has propelled itself from a passive recipient of security from the United States, to an interventionist regional actor, with clear stakes in shaping the landscape in which it operates. While it remains dependent on the traditional security umbrella provided by the United States, its deepening of ties with other large and mid-size actors signals an ambition to secure a more independent role for itself beyond the shadow of a single superpower. In the context of an increasingly fractured and multi-power regional order, this strategy will see it further deepen ties with a range of traditional and rising powers.
Elham Fakhro is senior Gulf analyst with International Crisis Group. She previously acted as lecturer in international law at New York University-Abu Dhabi, and holds a D.Phil. from St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.