Emirati course correction.

                      Between the summer of 2017 and January 2021 the quartet of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Emirates imposed a total blockade over Qatar with the clear aim to break it as an independent power center in the region. After the initial intimidation and economic coercion this economic war went on largely uneventful until the 41. GCC Summit in the Saudi city of al-‘Ulā. And in this summit Qatar largely came out triumphant, as all previous sanctions were lifted, while Doha sacrificed practically nothing.

            This was a major shift in the regional dynamics, even though the blockade ran out of steam long before. The reason for that is that while the “war” was a largely Emirati-Egyptian initiated one, the sudden reconciliation in al-‘Ulā was a Saudi move with little regard for the interests of the former partners. And that sparked such tensions between the four that the former quarter practically splintered, causing almost all of them to seek separate ways in the region. While Bahrain has little room to maneuver independently both Egypt and Saudi Arabia largely parted ways both from each other, and from the Emirates.

            Since al-‘Ulā Egypt largely consolidated its relations with Qatar and there are indications that the same can be expected with Turkey. Though the results for the latter is yet to be seen. Riyadh started to concentrate its efforts on ending it costly war in Yemen is a face saving way. While that has also not yielded success Saudi Arabia became a largely passive player in the region, mostly bogged down with internal power struggles and accommodating to the new American administration. But there was still the question, what will the Emirates do after quartet started to fall apart. How will Abu Zabī adapt to these new realities, as for its ongoing struggle with Qatar it lost its most potent allies.

            We had to wait until November for possible answers. A set of sudden moves started to show the new path Abū Zabī is taking. First its foreign minister visited Damascus, then its Crown Prince took to Ankara and a number of signs were given that the Emirates is ready to consolidate its relations with Iran. And the groundbreaking meetings are only continuing now. But why is this sudden change? What does it mean? How big is this coarse correction, and what can this mean for the region?


The sources of isolation

            These changes are clearly indicating that after years of confrontative policies against Qatar, Iran, Turkey and Yemen finally the Emirates is ready to rearrange its policies. One of the most confrontative regional players suddenly took a path of conciliation and mediating peace initiatives all around. The easiest explanation is that the Emirates is trying its best to break out of the isolation it ended up in. But why is this relative political isolation of the Emirates? How severe is that?

            It should be understood that what happened in January 2021 in al-‘Ulā was the defeat of the former policies largely promoted by Abū Zabī. That was characterized by close cooperation with Egypt, an economic-political struggle against Qatar and its biggest supporter Turkey, and keeping Riyadh in line with these policies. But since Riyadh reconciled with Qatar in a way in which Cairo felt itself betrayed, the breakup of the former coalition was inevitable. So the Emirates had to formulate new policies for its interests and by now largely on its own. The main factor of this rearrangement was the logical understanding that the Emirates cannot fight on all former fronts at the same time, while also pushing its agenda.

            The rivalry with Qatar still plays a pivotal role, but the time for direct confrontation came to an end in al-‘Ulā. Hopes for putting pressure on Turkey with economic warfare, and in conflicts in Libya, Azerbaijan and Syria also came to an end after Egypt started to reconcile both with Qatar and Turkey. All previous efforts to drive a wedge between Doha and Ankara came to a failure, while at the same time its own regional power group practically broke up.

            The other path the Emirates took, which also failed to meet the expectations was the so called “normalization process” with Israel. The new American administration of President Biden is much less keen on pushing for this policy than that of Trump, meaning it will be difficult to push this process ahead. And after Netanyahu lost his position in Tel Aviv, the understanding with the new Israeli government is also less cordial than it was with the previous one. The new leadership in Tel Aviv is also less active in the normalization process. And where it still pushes this agenda, like with Morocco, it also does it with less cooperation with Abū Zabī. Many of the expectations for economic and security cooperation also turned bitter, which is clearly shown by a set of cancelled meetings between the Emirati and the Israeli leaderships. Yet the result of the former push for normalization now largely running out of steam also meant that the regional states turned away from this process and the Emirates – apart from Morocco, and to some extent Bahrain – was largely left alone. But with regional sentiments after Trump largely changed now, this showed the Emirates in a dark and suspicious light. As if all the blame for promoting Israel in the region was due to the Emirates, which is now taking a negative stigma. Especially that the biggest rival Qatar – at least officially – was clearly against the normalization, now putting it in a more positive light.

            And all these complications were met with a series of older, still open conflicts. Which were all promising endeavors at a given time, but by now the Emirates clearly afford them. There was the antagonistic relations with Turkey. There were conflicts with Oman. There were ongoing disputes with Iran, which were only exacerbated by the newfound “alliance” with Israel. And the war in Yemen is still not over, while it is getting more difficult to bring to conclusion, as Riyadh is pursuing a more independent policy here.

            The result of all these open fronts was that in the region the Emirates was left with almost no reliable allies, but with a set of conflicts hard to solve, and in a light an “Israeli agent”. Therefore it rapidly  needed to close fronts and uplift its tarnished reputation. That is why we see a rapid change now, as probably the new policy was formed. Though the desired outcome is still not entirely clear.


Mending fences

            Now that the Emirates is on a path of improving relations and breaking out of this relative isolation Abū Zabī benefits from two key factors. On the one hand in most regional disputes the Emirates was largely moving behind the curtains promoting ideas and mediating policies rather being directly in the forefront. Thus a reverse, like now with Iran, Turkey, or Syria is much easier. On the other hand it still has a massive economy with enough reserves to use economy as a tool for political reconciliation.

            With Oman for example, the reconciliation started even before al-‘Ulā, as already in 2020 the Emirates restarted its massive investments in Oman. According to a recent report after a troubled period between 2010 and 2020 the trade exchange already went up last year by 470%, making Oman the biggest non-oil trade partner of the Emirates in the region with some 20% of its trade. That does not mean that all political differences are over, but do signal a receptive attitude by Muscat for economic cooperation.

            As for Iran, the Emirates was never the most vocal critics of the Iranian policies and kept active trade relations with it. That is true, and somewhat perplexing, given that is the only Gulf state, which has territorial disputes with Iran. The “alliance” with Israel understandably troubled relations with Tehran, just like the “maritime war” between Tel Aviv and Tehran. But here as well we see a change recently. On 16 November Emirati political advisor Anwār Qarqāš, the practical engineer of the Emirati foreign policy said that the Emirates is working on building bridges with Iran. The following week a high ranking Iranian delegation visited the Emirates and met with Qarqāš. This delegation was led by ‘Alī Bāqerī Konī, the same person, who is leading the nuclear negotiations in Vienna. On 30 November Qarqāš said that the Emirates will soon send a high ranking delegation to Iran to settle differences. What is noticeable here is that Qarqāš, just like all other Emirati officials signaled that the disputes with Iran are not over, but the Emirates is building ties regardless of these. Thus giving an impression that the Emirates is working for consolidation not for its own benefit, but for the sake of the whole region. And that gives an impression that the Emirates is once again the chief arbiter in regional conflicts, not a state causing them.

            All this added to the tacit reactions to the Iraqi elections, or the developments in Yemen shows a pattern that Abū Zabī is closing fronts, not opening new troubles. Yet the real breakthrough, came with two other visits much more significant.


The two big trips

            On 9 November Emirati Foreign Minister ‘Abd Allah ibn Zāyid on his way to Jordan for comprehensive economic and political negotiations arrived to Damascus and met with Syrian President Baššār al-Asad. This was the first visit by a leading Arab politician since the war on Syria started in 2011. Such a step was not entirely unexpected from Abū Zabī, as the Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018 and Emirati Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Zāyid was also the first Arab leader to have a publicly reported phone conversation with Syrian President since the beginning of the war. But this was still groundbreaking visit, as since those previous steps Washington imposed severe sanctions on Syria. This step is a major landmark in the Syrian war, as it practically ended the isolation of Syria on a political level signaling that Syria will soon regain much of its former role in the Arab world.

            Two things, however, are noticeable here. First of all, while the visit was a groundbreaking step noting tangible was agreed upon. There were no agreements signed, nor any hinted in the soon future. It was only hinted that – given the right circumstances – the Emirates could take part in the reconstructions. On the other hand this gesture was not altruistic, as it just as much served the Emirati interests than those of Syria. It is true that Syria needs these reconciliatory efforts, but there is a regional understanding in the Arab world now that Syria should soon return to the Arab League, and its economic isolation should end. So Syria’s standing is on the rise now in the region, as the economic cooperation – in the form of relief efforts for Lebanon – by Jordan, Iraq and Egypt is growing. So what we really see is not that Abū Zabī is paving a way towards a generally unwanted trajectory – that was the normalization -, much rather rightly sensing the changing tides the Emirates is trying to take the forefront in an already popular initiative. It is still significant and for the good of the region. But it is a primarily image building effort and not a unilateral economic relief.

            The waves after this step haven’t even settled, when it was circulated in the Turkish and Arab press that soon Abū Zabī Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Zāyid – the de facto ruler of the Emirates – would soon visit Ankara. And on 24 November the visit truly happened, bringing together Muḥammad ibn Zāyid and President Erdoğan for the first time in ten years. This visit coincided with major economic turmoil in Turkey, as the local currency is hitting all time low. Right at this moment the Emirati Crown Prince not only payed a significant image boosting visit, but also promised massive investments in Turkey in the soon future and reinvigorated trade ties. Which the Emirates can afford and the Turkish leadership – even more than the country itself – desperately needs.

            This visit, even more than the one to Damascus, is significant, as Turkey is the key ally of Qatar, the biggest rival in the Emirati eyes. Such a step, at a time when unlike with previous Turkish economic turmoils we don’t see swift relief efforts by Doha, could signal that Abū Zabī open to replace Qatar as the biggest economic supporter of Ankara. While it is just one step, which can hardly change the regional constellation, it might prove useful to drive a wedge between Ankara and Doha. And it might just be a huge coincidence, but soon after the visit President Erdoğan announced his intention to improve relations with Israel. Even though previously one of the biggest  official problems of Ankara with the Emirates was its normalization with Israel, for which it wanted to break diplomatic ties with the Emirates. So once again what we see that economic proposals are met with regional reconciliation efforts bringing sides together, but conveniently arriving to negotiations the Emirates was not part of.

            We could say that the two visits are on total contradiction with each other, as not party can be at the same time a supporter of Syria and a good partner of Turkey. We could also say that this is not true, as Iran and Russia also managed to have excellent ties with both Ankara and Damascus, but these states are old partners of both sides. The Emirates only now want to form these relations, almost from nothing. Yet these two initiatives along with those towards Iran run parallel to each other. One can succeed if the other fails. And since both Ankara and Damascus need these initiatives, the Emirates steps in as a useful arbiter once again.

            Nonetheless, the change of times is very clear to see. Reconciliation in such a level was unimaginable 5 years ago with Damascus, or with Ankara even a year ago. And since the Emirates could not really succeed in any of its major objectives lately, the change is just as much a testament of its problems, as it is for its capabilities.


Goals economically clear, politically dubious

            Even before the visit to Ankara took place there were voices in the Arab world saying that the economic edge of this reconciliation is clear, but the final political objective is much less so. Indeed, we addressed this apparent contradiction. It is clear that the steps towards Turkey are much more significant, as these are already met with economic deals on the horizon.

            Yet it would be a misunderstanding to assume that the motivations are clearly, or even dominantly economical. This is primarily political initiative to close all troubles pending and look for new possibilities in the region, as the relations with most former allies to a downturn.


The end of a power block?

            With the Emirati foreign policy once active in all fronts there is one frontier where we see no change. In the relations with Qatar. Almost a year went by since the summit in al-‘Ulā and Doha and Abū Zabī still threat each other as nonexistent.

            The recent major step towards Ankara could in theory serve as the first step for reconciliation in this aspect as well given the strong ties between Ankara and Doha. In exchange of economic deals and political mediation Turkey could step in stimulating rapprochement between Qatar and the Emirates. So the region could view this as a positive step.

            Yet this is hardly the case. These steps, both around Syria and Iraq, both with Turkey and Iran are efforts for realignment. Preparations for new rounds in the same conflict. While this is probably true and both sides are probing regional states against the other, some of these initiatives might prove useful for the region. Unless they are swiftly followed by newer conflicts, like those we saw in the last decade in Syria, Libya, or Yemen. And most of these conflicts are still not closed.

            The power block what was even little more than a year ago is the form of the Emirati-Saudi duo did not dissipate. The Emirates still hasn’t lost the Saudis by its side, and it is still a very active, dominant player in the region. One that is rearranging its ties now. The question is, how successfully.