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Why the United Arab Emirates is uniquely stable among the Arab States

By Amb. Dore Gold
web posted September 28, 2020

What Explains the UAE’s Special Status?

The recent decision of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to sign a peace treaty with Israel should not have come as a complete surprise. For the UAE has stood out as one of the most stable Arab states and a key ally of the West as a whole.

Against the turbulent developments in much of the Arab world emanating from what is called the Arab Spring, the UAE looks like an island of stability. Indeed, this is an attribute in which the UAE leadership takes pride. In 2011, its leading think tank, the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), asserted that the UAE had become “a model of political stability at the regional and global levels.” To prove its point, the think tank, which is headed by Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nuhayyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, made reference to a recent report by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch that ranked the UAE as one of the most immune countries to political risks in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa.

There have been individuals who have protested for more political liberties in the UAE, in the spirit of the early Arab Spring. Pro-democracy activists were put on trial in June 2011. These cases received international attention, but they never turned into a movement that threatened to bring down the government. The country’s leadership did not loosen up its instruments of control: it continued to make the formation of political parties a violation of the law. Some professional associations were disbanded. The UAE government was willing to absorb international criticism when it closed down democracy promotion initiatives sponsored by Western governments, like the National Democratic Institute in Dubai and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, allied with Chancellor Merkel’s ruling party. The UAE remained stable and continued to be exceptional in the Middle East region.

There are structural reasons that stand out which can explain the UAE’s special status at present. Across the Arab state system, those societies in which no particular ethnographic-religious group is demographically dominant have been the most vulnerable to internal convulsions since 2011. Thus, Iraq, with its amalgam of Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds, and Syria, with its combination of Alawites, Druze, Sunni Arabs, and Christians, have been the states in which the breakdown of internal order has been most violent. In contrast, in Saudi Arabia, Sunni Arabs constitute 85 to 90 percent of the population, while in Jordan an estimated 97 percent of the population are Sunni. Neither of these kingdoms has experienced what went on in Iraq and Syria. 

In past decades, prevailing internal groups, like the Sunnis in Iraq or the Alawites in Syria, were able to sustain their positions of political dominance with the assistance of an external force, like the Soviet bloc, which helped run the security services in those countries, thus assuring a high degree of internal control. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s contributed to the challenge to these regimes. In the Persian Gulf, this role was largely assumed during the colonial period by Great Britain. But by 1972, Great Britain withdrew from the Gulf region, after controlling the external policies of the Gulf sheikhdoms, which had been British protectorates. From Kuwait down to Oman, the British left behind only small teams of advisers. These were sometimes reinforced by small contingents of Jordanian forces engaged in military training. 

Abu Dhabi Dominates the UAE

Where does the UAE stand in light of what has been going on in the Middle East? The UAE is a federation of seven hereditary mini-states, led by Abu Dhabi. It is surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have threatened its territorial integrity in the past. One striking demographic feature is that only 11 percent of the UAE population are actually citizens of the country. Foreign workers that come mainly from the Indian subcontinent make up around 50 percent of the workforce. Thus, a significant portion of the population is ethnically alienated from the leadership which is of Arab origin.

Since the main minority groups are completely outside the UAE political system, the main potential source for internal rifts comes from any threat to the federal structure. Each federal emirate is led by different tribal families: the Al Nuhayyan lead Abu Dhabi, the Al Maktum control Dubai, different branches of the Al Qassimi are the leaders of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaymah (also known as the Qawasim states), the Al Nuiami lead in Ajman, the Al Sharqi are the leaders of Fujayrah, and finally the Al Mu’alla are the leaders of Umm al-Qaywayn. By far, Abu Dhabi is the largest of the emirates. Its geographic area is 67,340 square kilometers – accounting for 88 percent of the entire area of the UAE – while Dubai, the second largest emirate, is only 3,885 square kilometers. (By comparison, Kuwait has an area of 17,820 sq. km.). Among the smallest emirates, Ajman is only 259 square kilometers. 

What perhaps explains the continuing cohesion of the UAE is that there is one emirate, Abu Dhabi, which dominates the federal government and whose relative size and wealth make it extremely difficult for the lesser emirates to break off, even though historically, these lesser emirates were in a perpetual state of war with one another, particularly Abu Dhabi and the Qawasim states.  

Nevertheless, despite these structural features that contribute to the UAE’s stability, it is imperative to examine other threats the UAE faces and to consider the potential impact of these risk factors in the future. They include: 

  1. the external threat of its most dangerous hegemonic neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  2. the internal threat posed by Islamist groups, like the Islamic State, or any related jihadist organizations.
  3. tensions that have arisen from time to time with its fellow Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian Threat

Iran is the principal external threat to the security of the UAE, by virtue of its self-defined role as the predominant power in the Persian Gulf. Even before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Shah of Iran sent forces in 1971 to seize the Greater and Lesser Tunb Islands from Ras al-Khaymah. Iran also pressed the emirate of Sharjah to share with it control of the island of Abu Musa. All three islands were situated near the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Control of these territories improved Iran’s ability to exercise its domination of that strategic waterway and the movement of energy resources for the West that flowed through it. With the completion of the formation of the UAE in 1972, the Iranian occupation of the islands of individual emirates became a direct challenge to the federation as a whole.

Iranian motivation to take control of these territories only intensified with the fall of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. The new Iranian constitution, promulgated in 1979, explicitly backed the idea of exporting the Islamic revolution. Practically, that meant Iran began targeting Middle Eastern states with large Shiite minorities that felt oppressed by their Sunni rulers. The Iranians were especially active in Bahrain, which had a Shiite majority under a Sunni king. There was also a Shiite majority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which is also the location of the large Saudi oil fields. Branches of Hizbullah were established in both states. Although only 25 percent of Kuwait was Shiite, the Iranians recruited Shiite operatives who engaged in acts of terrorism with the help of their Lebanese compatriots.

During the period of the Shah, Iran agreed that the island of Abu Musa should be under the joint administration of the UAE and Iran. But by 1992, Tehran evicted the UAE and kept the island under its exclusive control. While the Shah abandoned his claims to Bahrain, which had been under Persian rule for two centuries beginning in 1602, Iranian claims were renewed by well-connected newspaper columnists who wrote that Bahrain was really the 14th province of Iran. 

The editor of the religiously conservative Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which is tied to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wrote in July 2007 that the governments of all the Gulf states know that they will sooner or later witness “the collapse of their illegal regimes.” An Iranian member of parliament followed this statement with his own observation that most of the Arab states “were once part of Iranian soil, when [Iran] stretched from Egypt to Syria.”

Iranian leaders have showed no reluctance to visit Abu Musa. In April 2012, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the island and met with its residents. A month later, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also visited Abu Musa.

A critical factor that will influence the scale of the Iranian threat on the UAE is its defense cooperation with the U.S. Both countries signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement in 1994, after which the U.S. military presence in the UAE greatly expanded, particularly around the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Roughly 5,000 U.S. servicemen are deployed in various facilities in the UAE. Near Abu Dhabi, the U.S. uses the Al Dhafra air base, which has been proven to be critical for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The base continued to be used for major combat operations against ISIS in the last few years. The U.S. also uses naval facilities at the Jebel Ali port, which is situated between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Fujairah provides the U.S. Navy with key facilities outside of the Persian Gulf.

These facilities have a dual role as far as Iran is concerned. On the one hand, the presence of such a large American military contingent enhances the UAE’s deterrence posture vis-a-vis the Iranian military. In this scenario, the U.S. military presence is like a tripwire: an armed attack on Abu Dhabi that led to U.S. fatalities would likely bring about a massive American retaliation against Iran. 

On the other hand, should Iran decide that its hegemony in the Persian Gulf is dependent upon forcing an eventual American withdrawal from the region, then the U.S. military presence could be a lightning rod attracting Iranian action. This was the Iranian consideration when it employed Lebanese Shiites to attack the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983. Iran seeks to utilize Shiite minorities across the Middle East in order to advance its strategic interests, whether through acts of terror or larger civilian revolts. 

The place where this consideration might eventually cause Iranian action is Bahrain, which hosts the naval headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Iranian Shiite protestors regularly call for the U.S. to withdraw its base from Bahrain. As noted, there is a Bahraini branch of Hizbullah which security forces have identified. The situation is different in the UAE, but analogies nonetheless might be drawn. Instead of there being a population of 70 or 80 percent Shiites, there are estimates that roughly 25 percent of the UAE population are Shiites. But the concern in the UAE has focused on families of Iranian origin who are represented in large numbers in Dubai (as many as 400,000). It has deported small numbers of foreign Shiites and revoked their residency, claiming that these actions were taken for security reasons.

In the meantime, relations between the UAE and Iran have deteriorated further. Acting in solidarity with Saudi Arabia, the UAE withdrew its ambassador from Tehran in January 2016. That same month, Iranian protestors sacked the Saudi Embassy and Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran. The widening rift with Tehran expressed itself in another way: a harsher policy on Hizbullah. The UAE issued a joint declaration with its fellow GCC states determining that Hizbullah was a terrorist organization. While this point was debated in European capitals, in the UAE the policy was clear. 

Iran’s readiness to challenge the UAE because of these issues or escalate to military confrontation ultimately will be influenced by the UAE’s alliances, particularly with the U.S. The UAE leadership felt exposed during the Obama era, when the U.S. was pulling back from the Middle East. Today, given the profile of the Trump team, U.S. deterrence of local aggression by Iran should be enhanced.

The Internal Sunni Jihadist Threat

The UAE has taken measures to reduce its vulnerability to internal Islamist challenges. In order to understand these measures, it is useful to draw a comparison with the situation in Saudi Arabia, which has experienced attacks from al-Qaeda and ISIS since 9/11. The Saudi system of governance was founded on the basis of a political alliance from the 18th century between the Saudi royal family, who were the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, and the country’s religious leadership, who were descendants of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi tradition within Sunni Islam. The Saudis were obligated to defend the promulgators of the Wahhabi doctrine and, in exchange, the religious leaders legitimized the continuing rule of the Saudi royal family.

This royal bargain meant that the Saudis had an internal political interest in sustaining the religious doctrines of the state’s religious leaders, even if they were often far more severe than mainstream Sunni Islam. As a result, Saudi Arabia became an incubator for some of the most hardline religious practices found in the Islamic world. For a time, Saudi Arabia also provided sanctuary to radical Islamic groups that were oppressed at home; in the 1960s Saudi Arabia provided a haven for leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood that were being jailed by Egyptian president Abdul Nasser. They were employed at Saudi universities (they became instructors to Osama bin Laden). Given this background, it should have come as no surprise that 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. In comparison, only 2 of the 19 came from the UAE.

The UAE political leadership did not form the same kind of bond with the clerical class in any of the emirates. Public opinion in the UAE would not support the creation of such a relationship, either. In his book, The Mirage, Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, the director of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies, reports a survey conducted in the UAE during 2014 in which it was asked whether clerics should not have influence over decisions of the government. The survey found that 72.6 percent of the respondents agreed that clerics should not have such influence. By comparison, only 47 percent agreed with this proposition in Saudi Arabia, and in Jordan the number was 48 percent. 

In short, public opinion in the UAE was strongly against the emergence of any form of a theocratic state, which helped put the brakes on support for radical Islamic organizations. The UAE has established that the Muslim Brotherhood and its local offshoot, Islah (which means Reform), are terrorist organizations. UAE courts closed down all branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in early 2014. These policies have contributed to the strength of moderate political forces in the UAE as a whole.

In contrast, Qatar permitted these groups to set up offices and even headquarters. The Taliban and Hamas had offices in Doha. What was alleged to have been an Israeli operation against a senior Hamas operative in a hotel in Dubai during 2010 was indicative of the fact that the UAE had permitted the organization to move through its territory. For a time, Hamas also engaged in fundraising in Abu Dhabi, but it did not have the infrastructure it had become accustomed to in Qatar. 

The position of the UAE on the Muslim Brotherhood actually brought it into direct clashes with the movement’s local affiliate in Libya. Thus, in August 2014, UAE aircraft carried out a joint air strike with the Egyptian Air Force against a radical Islamic militia, backed by Qatar, in Libya. The UAE also conducted air strikes in Syria against radical Islamist groups. The UAE committed an armored brigade to the war in Yemen. These were courageous positions, for in the world of Middle East terrorism, organizations that found measures taken against them to be unacceptable were known to have retaliated in the past.

While the January 10, 2017, bomb attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan, killing five UAE diplomats, was relatively recent, it can be assessed that the hard line of the UAE on jihadist groups increased the vulnerability of its representatives abroad. The attack was assumed by observers to have come out of Taliban-influenced areas of Pakistan. Prior to 9/11, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE had diplomatic ties with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Since that time, both pulled back from engaging in such close relations. 

Tensions with Arab Neighbors 

It is often forgotten, but the states along the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf had significant territorial differences in the past that have not all been resolved. The most famous of these territorial struggles was over an area known as the al-Buraymi Oasis, which is located between Oman and Abu Dhabi, but Saudi Arabia has also voiced its claims to the area. In the early 1950s there was a military clash between the British-officered Trucial Oman Scouts and Saudi forces. There was an international dimension to the struggle since the main oil concession in eastern Saudi Arabia (ARAMCO) was American and the main concession in Abu Dhabi (a subsidiary of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) was British. The question of territorial borders influenced the borders between oil concessions.

The differences between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi were eventually resolved by using territorial swaps: Abu Dhabi relinquished its claim to the Khwar Udaid inlet where the Qatari peninsula connects with the Arabian coast.  But the UAE president at the time, Sheikh Zayed, had regrets over the understanding that was reached: the UAE lost its territorial contiguity with Qatar.  Moreover, controversies over the control of the Persian Gulf seabed remained. Thus, the tensions between the UAE and Saudi Arabia were not fully resolved. This led sometimes to unexpected clashes. In 2010, for example, the UAE Navy opened fire on a Saudi patrol vessel, which surrendered; its sailors were taken into custody by Abu Dhabi. Moreover, there is a perception in Abu Dhabi that it does not have the full backing of Saudi Arabia for its claims against Iran’s occupation of Abu Musa and the two Tunb islands.

In the last number of years, despite their outstanding differences, the two countries have grown closer, especially as they both became involved deeply on the same side in the Yemen civil war. The connection between the two states has been facilitated by the rise of a new generation of leaders who have drawn close. Muhammad bin Zayed (born in 1961), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, reportedly has developed a strong relationship with Muhammad bin Salman (born in 1985), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi has become in some respects the crown prince of Saudi Arabia’s tutor.

Internal Issues

The greatest source of instability in the Arab Gulf states has been the matter of succession. In Qatar, the previous emir staged a coup against his father. In Oman, as well, the previous ruler, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his father, Said bin Taimur. In the case of Abu Dhabi, while Muhammad bin Zayed is the next in line to become the UAE president, he is already assuming many of those responsibilities already. His brother, Khalifa bin Zayed, the current president, suffered a stroke in January 2014, which left Muhammad bin Zayed beginning to take over many functions of the presidency. This follows a pattern that was seen in Saudi Arabia when King Fahd was incapacitated and his crown prince, Abdullah, became the effective ruler until Fahd died and then Abdullah was formally promoted to be king. In the UAE case, the assumption of greater authority by Muhammad bin Zayed also placed him in a position that will be hard for other members of his family to challenge. The result of these internal developments is to provide greater stability to the UAE.


Among the Arab Gulf states, the UAE shows signs of greater stability than any of its neighbors. It does not have a problem of religious extremism. It has a clear succession for the presidency. It has resolved most of its border problems with its neighbors with the exception of some minor differences at this point. It has turned its traditional rivalry with Saudi Arabia into an alliance. Above all, the restoration of American power in the Gulf region is the single most important factor in guaranteeing the stability of the UAE in the future. ESR

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.




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