The US’ Zero-Sum Game In The New Cold War Against The UAE


Thu, 03-03-2022 11:45 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko*

Axios reported that the US State Department just recalled a cable that was sent to its Emirati embassy urging its diplomats to describe their host country’s neutral stance towards Russia’s special operation in Ukraine as supposedly placing the United Arab Emirates (UAE) “in Russia’s camp.” The reported template shared by that outlet was as follows: “Continuing to call for dialogue, as you have been doing in the Security Council, is not a stance of neutrality; it places you in Russia's camp, the aggressor in this conflict.” 

Even though it was recalled because “The language in question was never intended for clearance and the cable was released in error” according to a State Department spokesperson on Wednesday, it nevertheless reveals the perspective through which the US is interpreting Abu Dhabi’s position towards the conflict. Objectively speaking, the American approach can be described as a zero-sum one since it eerily resembles former US President George W. Bush Jr.’s declaration shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that “you are either with us or against us”. 

The times have changed since then though because the US is no longer the uncontested global hyperpower that it once was. Its unipolar hegemony over International Relations has been in decline for some time, which in turn accelerated the rise of multipolar Great Powers like Russia and China as well as made space for others like the UAE to become more internationally relevant too. About that Gulf country, it practices a pragmatic foreign policy aimed at multi-aligning between various partners in pursuit of shared interests connected to peace, stability, and development. 

The author explained this a bit more at length in his prior analysis for South24 describing the “UAE’s Growing Geo-Economic Strategy In Asia”. Although Russia doesn’t play a primary role in this aspect of that country’s grand strategy, these two countries still succeeded in cultivating very close relations in recent years. This has mostly taken the form of military-technical cooperation but it also has promise to comprehensively expand into other realms such as energy coordination and bilateral investments. Russian-Emirati relations are mutually beneficial and aren’t aimed at any third party like the US.

The respectful nature of their ties contrasts with the recent challenges that have become undeniable in the American-Emirati relationship. Axios also earlier reported that “UAE abstained from UN Security Council vote due to U.S. response to Houthi attacks”. Citing three Emirati, US, and Israeli sources, the journalist who wrote that piece claimed that Abu Dhabi was disappointed that Washington didn’t redesignate the Houthis as terrorists following their latest attacks against their country. The sources also said that the US response to Russia’s special operation was swifter than its response to the Houthis. 

Readers should also remember that Russia solidly stood in support of the Emirates after it was attacked by the Houthis, which the author analyzed for South24 in his prior piece at the time “Interpreting Russia’s Response To The Houthis’ Abu Dhabi Drone Attack”. Moscow never designated the Houthis as terrorists though but it also isn’t a major player in the diplomatic process for resolving the Yemeni War so its reluctance to do so isn’t anywhere near as meaningful as Washington’s refusal to resdesignate them in support of its regional ally out of solidarity with its anti-terrorist concerns. 

Back in December, the UAE signed a $19 billion defense deal with France for the purchase of 80 Rafale jets and 12 military helicopters despite its Defense Ministry saying that this agreement isn’t intended as a substitute for its stalled F-35 deal with the US that Washington was earlier accused of politicizing. That same Ministry of Defense revealed on Wednesday that it’ll also purchase 12 L-15 advance trainer and light combat jets from China. Late last year, Russia’s Rostec made a pitch for the UAE to jointly produce its Su-75 Checkmate jets, which shows how successfully the UAE is diversifying its defense partnerships. 

Suffice to say, the US must certainly be displeased at the Emirates’ confident flexing of its strategic autonomy in recent months. America has a regrettable tendency to view all of its partners as junior ones, not equal partners, and therefore expects them to comply with all of its demands. Those who refuse to do so are viewed with disfavor, exactly as the UAE is increasingly being seen in Washington due to its active defense diversification policy and its neutral stance at the UNSC towards Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. 

Whether it’s defense, investments, tourism, trade, or whatever else, the UAE’s leadership will always prioritize enhancing their national interests in ways that complement their respective partners’. It won’t ever do anything unilaterally in a manner that threatens anyone else’s interests. Those who interpret various policy decisions in any other way are inaccurately assessing its motivations and the impact of its respective policy. Unquestionably, such a perspective is equivalent to an outdated zero-sum one that condescendingly seeks to pressure others to sacrifice their own interests for someone else’s. 

The UAE still respects the US as a time-tested strategic partner but it’s Washington and not Abu Dhabi that’s complicating their historical relationship. The US must abandon its zero-sum policies towards the UAE lest it risk further worsening their ties. Although it’s a welcome relief that the reported cable falsely describing the UAE’s neutral stance at the UNSC as supposedly being akin to that country being “in Russia’s camp” was recalled, it should never have been dispatched in the first place. This reveals how the US really looks at the UAE and plans to treat it, which is worrying for the future of their ties.  

America’s gradual disengagement from West Asia in response to its new grand strategic goal of more assertively “containing” China in the Indo-Pacific and now Russia in Eastern Europe is occurring at the expense of its traditional regional partners’ security. That’s one of the reasons why the UAE’s grand strategic diversification policies have accelerated in all domains across the past few years, especially the defense and political ones as evidenced by its respective growing relations with Russia, among others like China and France. 

These newfound relations aren’t occurring at the US’ expense but are intended to fill the strategic void left by the US’ withdrawal from the region. Instead of acknowledging that its ill-thought-out geostrategic reorientations are inadvertently creating instability and voids in West Asia, the US is ridiculously blaming the UAE for such as can be understood through a simple reading of its recalled cable. The Emirates, like all countries that value their sovereignty in accordance with their international rights as enshrined in the UN Charter, will continue defending its national interests amidst foreign pressure to compromise on them no matter which direction that pressure comes from.

Andrew Korybko
is a Moscow-based American political analyst (The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.)

- File:  Lana Nusseibeh, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the UN and President of the Security Council for the month of March (official)

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