The Emirates and the big puzzle II

            Last week we looked into the Emirates and how the escape of Princess Hayā may seem to be a simple family scandal, but there are less known things in the background. In fact a lot. Since now the Emirates seem to be the real game changer in inter-Arab politics. And the many engagement the state, and particularly one man, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid took on give out a very complicated pattern. Abū Zabī seems to be the strong hand behind many things we see in the Middle East, whether it be the support for the Saudi Crown Prince, the meddling in the still precarious events in Sudan and Algeria, or the siege of Qatar. In other things the Emirates seem to gain even more and further its influence, like with the “deal of the century”. But in other issues Abū Zabī seems to be changing course in the last few months, starting from reopening its embassy in Damascus in December 2018, the fueled tension against Iran, which suddenly cooled down, and finally arriving to the gradual withdrawal from Yemen. While much of that is triggered by events within the country, many other factors are connected to the bigger picture in the region.

            The case in fact so complex we decided not to cover all aspects in one piece, partially, because we waited some events from last week to develop and we might learn more. All that goes back, however, to practically one man, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, and how he became the de facto one man ruler of the county. That is where we pick up the trail, to give ideas about the great puzzle, which is the Emirates.


Where Yemen came handy

            That would make the quest overall a failure after all, but not for Muḥammad ibn Zāyid. It was on 18 September 2015, when Rāšid ibn Muḥammad Āl Maktūm, eldest son of the emir of Dubai died, officially in a hearth attack in Dubai. Though well-informed Western sources at that time suggested that the Prince’s death, who had long fallen from grace, had much more to do with his drug addiction and flamboyant lifestyle. These remarks will soon be of special importance. Soon enough, however, it was revealed that Prince Rāšid only days before his death was indeed in Ma’rib, in Yemen taking part in special forces operations. At the same time another son of the Dubai ruler, Manṣūr was also happily reporting on his missions from the same area. Yemeni sources claimed that in fact Yemeni troops got intel on the camp of the royal commando and killed most of them in a surprise missile barrage. That might seem sensational – though nowhere to be found even on the papers, which have no problem to call the late prince a drug addict -, but in fact he was not the only unlucky prince at that time. On 3 December ruler of aš-Šāriqa Sulṭān al-Qāsimī visited the emir of Ra’s al-Hayma and his son, Aḥmad ibn Sa‘ūd al-Qāsimī, who lost both his legs in action, fighting in Yemen. The young prince was attacked in September and in Ma’rib, and there are indications in the report that a number of high ranking people died that day. Reports put the number as high as 45 Emiratis. Given that many videos and photos prove that these royal heirs were always moving together it is safe to assume that there could have been more royal victims at that time. And that is significant since the war on Yemen only started six prior, making it a serious blow. That, however, which started as an easy operation and a field exercise for the princes, given the tribal mentality of the area, hammered the emirs together in revenge. Though they gave their permission reluctantly in the begging, since than they raised little concern. The same rage came handy in 2017, when Abū Zabī had a free hand launching a Cold War against Qatar.

            At the time it was rumored that Qatar might have leaked intel to Yemenis, taking revenge on the Emiratis for their intrusion and forced regime change in Doha at 2013. But what if there were other motives in the background? Interestingly, while royalties mourned their dead or wounded princes and visited each other reassuring support Muḥammad ibn Zāyid appeared in none of these events. Instead in November, only two months after Ma’rib, he welcomed a large Yemeni delegation from there, and there were indications of Emirati losses in Yemen. And the appearance is much more like a congratulatory ceremony between allies, which in this context is rather strange. Now the Emirates might come out of Yemen, but after four years of the war the county if much more united, either by fear of revenge, under the leadership of Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, who managed to quell most of his internal opposition. Expect for Dubai, which grows ever more aggravated by the war and recently pushed Abū Zabī not only to get out, but also not to engage in any new hostile missions. And in that regard the cases of Yemen and Iran are deeply connected.

            Also interesting that the official and semi-official details of the death of Prince Rāšid bare extreme resemble to the details the death of Prince Hālid ibn Sulṭān, second son and heir of the ruler of aš-Šāriqa, who only at the age of 39 allegedly died in London. Well-informed sources, like the Daily Mail, already came out with the scandalous version that the prince has long fallen from grace, and his death was caused by this flamboyant lifestyle and drug overdose. And once again, the dead price, who was reportedly fallen from grace for long, somehow held on to his title of Crown Prince until his death. Prince Hālid once had a brother, Muḥammad, who at the age of 25 died in 1999, also in London. That made the current 80 years old monarch of aš-Šāriqa without male heir, and the state much weakened. Curiously right at the same time, when with Princess Hayā Dubai was also hit by similar kind of royal family matter.


Why to leave now?

            Within this context we can understand that the policies of Muḥammad ibn Zāyid with his brother ‘Abd Allah, were anything but favorable from Dubai’s point of view. Whether Prince Rāšid died in Yemen because of the Qataris of by some machinations of Muḥammad ibn Zāyid is hard even to guess, but either way the Maktūm family lost at least one son there. The whole war had detrimental effects on the reputation of the state, which ten years earlier was viewed exemplary in the Middle East, but by now is getting more and more criticized. Only until few years ago Dubai police was run by the famous Ḍāḥī Halfān Tamīm, who was fiercely against any Israeli presence in Dubai, and a sworn enemy of Muslim Brotherhood. By now the Emirates is one of the leading states formenting the “deal of the century”, which is regularly visited by Israeli politicians, cooperates with Dā‘iš in Yemen and in 2013 the famous police chief was replaced. The negative publicity has a negative effect on investments and trade, and as we saw Dubai is losing the economic race with Qatar. But the last drop in ocean was the recent drone raids by Yemenis. The first in July 2018 on the airport of Dubai was surely a surprise, but as we saw, recently the Yemenis managed to improve their skills as regularly hit Saudi positions deep inside the kingdom. This is something absolutely intolerable now for Dubai, because if a drone hit a commercial plane in Dubai Airport that would kill much of the tourism and the trade. These all added together show why Muḥammad ibn Rāšid pushed hard Abū Zabī to end the war in Yemen. And it seems logical in this light that he banned all his family to have any contact with the Ibn Zāyid brothers, considering their cunning.

            That is in fact not all troubling for Muḥammad ibn Zāyid now, since if he wants to show himself a capable leader now he can provide security. But he is also extremely busy with the deal of the century. Therefore, having gained the most internally, now he can afford to leave Yemen, and leave the problem to the Saudis.

            But the drone attacks, whether they were purely Yemeni moves, or as suspected encouraged by Iran, proved that Tehran can easily hit back to the Gulf and they can do nothing about it. Even more that the drone attack, the Iranians shooting down an advanced American drone in late June, proved that they are a capable force and might just have a few hidden surprises for the Americans. Which makes any war scenario for the Gulf states more than risky. Also there are two diplomatic considerations to think about. One is the Iranian posture, which despite all tension continuous communicates that there will be now war. Either meaning they know something the Gulf is yet to uncover, or that they know that in the last second they will give concessions to prevent a war. Either way, the message is the same. There will be no war! Meaning there is no point for the Emirates to continue raising the tension. The other diplomatic development is that we are already over the Bahrain Summit. Thought news are still scarce and we shall assess them, but as much as it seems the summit was a failure. It did not manage to facilitate the new reality as the majority of the states concerned either did not take part in the negotiations or openly opposed it. But as it is passed and now the Zionist lobby in Washington rethink its strategy the opportune moment came for Abū Zabī to realign. They proved their readiness to cooperate for Washington, but now that war is getting out of the picture it is better for the Emirates to ease the tension.

            The drone attack definitely had an impact on the Ibn Zāyid brothers and they probably realized that Iran can significantly hit them a war, but just as much can have nasty surprises if this Cold War continues. Rumors have it that after the events in Fuğayra Abū Zabī sent high level security delegation on a secret mission to Tehran to discuss the matter and mutually ease the tension. In the recent interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Muḥammad Ğavād Ẓarīf on 11 July 2019 to Lebanese al-Mayadeen he hinted that by not denouncing the news, but saying that if such secret negotiations were made than they are secret.

            Put short, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid got the most out of the Yemen war by sidelining all the other emirs and consolidating power for himself. Arranging the best possible climate for the Bahrain Summit and against a possible war on Iran he proved his capabilities to be an effective partner for the USA. But since these failed to bring about the expected outcome and Iran outmaneuvered Abū Zabī by surprising it is opportune to negotiate with Iran. End the by now costly and not profiting war in Yemen, ease tension and in exchange get some sort of deal with Iran.


The bigger chessboard

            Much of what Muḥammad ibn Zāyid did to his country and how he became the practical leader, which was unbelievable for anyone before, can be explained and understood as his personal ambition and cunning. Just as much the seemingly relentless Western support turning a blind eye to his tricks hardly ever mentioning him, as the West, especially the Trump administration now desperately needs capable allies in the region. And indeed it is much easier to deal with the Emirates this way, which before was always as an unsolvable puzzle. It was much harder to deal with the Emirates, when all decisions were left to a consensus between the emirs, who usually favored the previous rather neutral position. But since practically the Ibn Zāyid brothers are in charge it is not only easier to cut a deal with the UAE, but easier to implement, since Muḥammad ibn Zāyid is eager to prove his worth. Even the hatred against Iran can be explained as an inherent Sunni-Shia rivalry, though as we saw before the picture is much more complex. But just why is Muḥammad ibn Zāyid so eager to push for the “deal of the century” and build perfect relations with Israel? Economically the Emirates has all the wealth it can wish for – at least for now – and as far as security it has access

Arabic caricature on the Saudi approach to Israel from 2015

to all the weapons and technology the West is able to produce. Was it not enough, the US has military bases on its soil, therefore any unprovoked direct attack by Iran is surely out of the question. To see this case more clear we have to see the bigger picture.

            So how did Tel Aviv started to be Tel Ḥabīb[1]? Let us turn back the clock before 1967! Than no Arab state had any formal, or considerable unofficial relations we know of with Israel. While some Arab states were not eager to have any problem with Israel the majority was at odds with Tel-Aviv, even the Gulf. This was clearly shown in the oil crisis. After Egypt’s peace deal and Oslo the situation started to change and many Arab states started to build unofficial connections with the Jewish state, while two more, Jordan and Mauritania even recognized it officially. By the early 2000s that was the case for the majority, when only a handful of states still opposed Israel. Before 2011 only Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and possibly Kuwait opposed the recognition and any official deal with the Jewish state, without general solution to the Palestinian case, and the return of occupied Arab lands. Now if we compare that with what happened after the so called Arab Spring we find that Libya and Yemen became dismantled, Iraq almost suffered the same and still on the edge of it, while Syria was significantly weakened. Now the Trump administration simply gave away the Ğulān, which is Syrian soil by any international organization, but the majority of the Arab states barely lifted a finger other than a few statements lightly renouncing the step. And now Sudan and Algeria are also facing troubles. Which means that out of the 19 Arab countries only Mauritania – after backtracking from the previous recognition -, Lebanon, and possibly Kuwait oppose the deal and not bogged down in internal struggle. None of them being military or economic powers on their own to thwart a general settlement with Israel. And the picture is even more grim from the Arabic point of view knowing that all of these states are steadily within the Western sphere of influence, Lebanon possibly being the only somewhat exception. Which shows well that the wind was changing significantly in last two or three decades. In this light it is easy to understand that the Gulf, which is generally for long uninterested in the Palestinian question want reassurances of continued American support. Partially from Iran, but even more from their own societies. Their desire is to prevent any uprooting attempts against the ruling elite and build even more lucrative trade relations, which provide the means for appeasing living standards. In other words, seeing that the general Arab solidarity is dying out anyways, it is better to be on the winning side of that change. If the Americans can really reshape the Middle East and making Israel the bulwark of their influence it is better to be a part of that deal and benefitting from the change. For the new generation of leaders both in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates it can mean the solidification of their own power as trusted partners.

            Considering in any American calculation Israel is an essential part of the envisioned new reality, these leaders, just like Egypt, accepted this reality and they are willing to be a part of the process. That is why they started stretch out for Israel, and now they are trying their best to put the deal together. In one hand, they try to build working relations with Tel Aviv. On the other hand they are willing to remove any nuisance for the American-Israeli tandem from the way of the deal. That already benefitted the new elite. The Saudi Crown Prince despite all his scandals managed to solidify his personal influence much more than any Saudi leadership before him since the ‘70s. The same happened in the Emirates as we saw, by the war in Yemen. The uncertainties in Algeria and Sudan also benefitting them, since this way these states are not capable to present any serious opposition to the “deal of the century”. On Egypt as well the Emirates has considerable influence, therefore it is safe to assume that as-Sīsī will walk along with a deal. But as we assessed Jordan was hesitant to accept this new reality, since it will have detrimental effects on it. That is why seems logical that the Saudi-Emirati duo viewed it favorably to help a coup in Jordan and have a new, more lenient leadership in Amman. That failed, but scared the Jordanian king enough to go to Abū Zabī and engage in negotiations. Which just as much has the same effect. That is where the story of Princess Hayā fit in, who could have been the perfect instrument to facilitate a coup, but after it failed be the bargaining chip. That was only a theory last week, but as new informations start to turn out, this seems more likely. On 11 July 2019 prestigious Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar wrote citing an unnamed Saudi prince that Muḥammad ibn Zāyid and Muḥammad ibn Salmān helped Princess Hayā escape after King ‘Abd Allah visited Abū Zabī.

            This was a significant blow to the standing of Dubai’s ruler, which move was part of a double strategy to sideline him. One part of the move was to humiliate him and make him give concessions for help to retrieve his children, while the other part is the withdrawal from Yemen and the the appeasement of Dubai.


The Emirates and Israel

            Though by now it can seem as a side note, it is still important for future evaluations to see how far the Emirati-Israeli ties went recently. We saw that Israel gained significant inroads to Saudi Arabia and unprecedented acceptance in the Bahrain Summit. But Abū Zabī actually went much further. The first significant step was made by Miri Regev, Israeli Minister for Culture and Sports – former Brigadier-general and IDF spokeswoman -, who in October 2018 not only visited Abū Zabī, but was shown around in the Šayh Zāyid Mosque by Emirati government officials. Here she already gave indications that this visit was part of a greater process to facilitate peace negotiations between the two states. On 1 July 2019 Israel Katz, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affaires and member of the Security Cabinet also payed a visit to Abū Zabī. By his own words and by Arabic sources the visit was made by Saudi support and aimed to discuss common security and strategic partnership.

            Meaning that the long rumored Gulf-Israeli partnership is well in motion. That is partially to secure Israeli support against Iran, while on the other hand giving Israel bigger space to maneuver on Palestinian and Iranian matters, but just as much to secure that the Gulf will be a pillar in the new Middle Eastern reality.


Are the Emirates changing course?

            After moving out from Yemen and abandoning Saudi there in the growing failure and the changing policy on Iran many pro-Iranian Arab sources suggested that we are possibly seeing a changing UAE. One possibly taking another route and abandon the hostile policies of the last decade on a number of issues from Yemen, to Syria, and even Qatar. But is that a plausible supposition?

            In our assessment that is still very far from it. Much rather what we see is that Muḥammad ibn Zāyid realized that he ran way ahead. All the possible gains from the previous posture are gained. But as the price for that is growing and Dubai is getting ever more aggravated, while Iran also managed to send a clear and sobering message it is time to stop and reevaluate. The war on Iran is now getting out of the table, just like the deal of the century now, so there is no point to carry on this policy. It is much rather time to secure the gained influence and think of the next step, while waiting for the big players what do they do next.

            Simply put, however, the Emirates by now cannot considerably change course. We still know little how far the connections to Israel are secured, but it is fair to suppose that it won’t turn back. The rivalry with Qatar and the economic race with it did not stop, nor was the blockade any successful. Quite the contrary, in the recent visit to Washington by Qatari emir Tamīm ibn Ḥamad on 9 July he managed to secure a deal with Trump who vowed to help ease the tension. Theoretically with Saudi, but that surely implies the Emirates as well. By now Abū Zabī is so tied to Washington that it will probably continue to race for favor and cannot in any possibility distance itself from it. Especially that there is still no viable alternative.

            Nonetheless, with Muḥammad ibn Zāyid at the helm the UAE has a very cunning leader who managed to gain control over the state unimaginable even a decade ago. And in the path to follow surely he will have many surprises and sudden turns.


[1] Arabic word joke. Tel-Aviv, in Arabic Tel-Abīb, means the hill of the Spring, originally in Akkadian. Tell still means hill in both Hebrew and Arabic, while Ḥabīb is beloved or friend in Arabic. Thus the joke transforms the Israeli capital’s name to Beloved Hill.