The UAE’s Actions in the Middle East Strain its Alliance with the US

An article in the Washington Post analyzed the complicated relationship between the US and the UAE. The UAE’s desire for influence has driven it to enhance its international credibility by building up a sophisticated, capable military and increasing its involvement in conflicts. Much of the time, the UAE sides with the US: it leads in the fight against AQAP in Yemen and it has contributed troops in Western-backed conflicts such as in Somalia or Afghanistan. However, the UAE’s support for autocrats, its efforts in resisting peace, and its alleged illegal actions in conflict zones that risk US culpability have undermined the alliance between it and the US.


As a vicious civil war erupted in Yemen two years ago and triggered international alarm, the United States warned the combatants to step back. But its efforts were quietly undermined by one of the most trusted U.S. regional allies: the United Arab Emirates... “Yemenis should be firm, as [Secretary of State John Kerry] is a persuasive speaker,” Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan...said, according to a meeting summary...The meeting hinted at the UAE’s drive for influence across the Middle East, using military power, diplomacy and covert means to bolster allies and counter rivals. Its role in Yemen and other recent actions has caused friction with the United States, complicating their decades-long military relationship.   


Since the 1980’s, the UAE has built up its relationship with the US. It simultaneously contributed troops to US causes and formed a highly capable military, distinguished by its advanced weaponry, such as the THAAD missile defense system and F-16s, and its investment in logistics and training. US officials have praised the UAE for its counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East. The current administration’s anti-Iran stance, a view shared by the UAE government, indicated that the US-UAE partnership would be further strengthened. However, as the UAE’s tactics and long-term goals begin to diverge with those of the US, the alliance appears to be troubled.


One main source of disagreement between the US and the UAE is the conflict in Yemen. The UAE intervened as part of the Saudi-led coalition on behalf of the Hadi government against the Houthis. As the humanitarian conditions deteriorated, in part due to the tactics of the Saudi-led coalition, US officials expressed their discomfort with the “ill-conceived” intervention and their desire to hasten a political settlement. The UAE has continually undermined opportunities for peace talks, encouraging the Yemeni government and the members of the coalition to resist the US’ calls for negotiations. It also supports Salafists and separatists in southern Yemen who oppose the Hadi government supported by Saudi Arabia, further threatening a political settlement. Moreover, the UAE’s alleged illegal actions in Yemen have possibly exposed the US to legal responsibility. For example, the Associated Press reported that US troops were present in a secret facility run by the UAE where UAE troops tortured and illegally detained their prisoners. Although both the US and UAE claim to desire stability in Yemen and in the Middle East, the UAE’s actions often run counter to US wishes.


Yemen isn’t the only source of displeasure between the US and UAE. In Libya, the UAE supports General Haftar militarily and financially, violating a UN arms embargo and undercutting US attempts to bolster the UN-recognized government. The UAE hacked a Qatar government website, escalating a rift among US allies in the Middle East and forcing the US to attempt to mediate the situation. The UAE’s dedication to counterterrorism and its adverse stance against Iran might play well with officials in the current US administration, but its history of thwarting peace and assisting autocrats remains an obstacle to the alliance.