When U.S. military personnel met with their Emirati counterparts to present a plan for the first strike against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in October 2014, they were met with unexpected opposition. UAE military leadership believed that the American proposal was not aggressive enough—they wanted to use more aircraft and firepower, and they wanted to provide both. While their enthusiasm may have seemed surprising, an examination of Emirati policies reveals these actions to be only the latest step in a series of decisions aimed at combating Islamist movements across the Middle East. UAE leadership perceives the rise of militant Islamism anywhere in the Middle East as an existential threat to its authority.
To confront this threat, the UAE is tackling the physical manifestation of Islamist ideology by carrying out attacks against groups such as ISIS and directly supporting non-Islamist militants in fractured states. Additionally, the UAE seeks to imbue its citizens with nationalism and military pride to counter the appeal of Islamist ideals domestically. These activities increased dramatically following the events of the Arab Uprisings in 2011, which clearly demonstrated the ability of ideological movements to use mass media to travel beyond borders and mobilize various fractions of diverse societies. The UAE’s current desire to play a leading role in this fight against ISIS and other Islamist groups in the region stems from its determination of how to best combat what ISIS represents: an ideological enemy.
To understand why Islamist ideology poses such a threat to the Emirati government, it is key to examine the government’s structure. The UAE is headed by the Federal National Council, composed of the heads of state from each of the seven Emirates. While the ruling families are Sunni Muslims, they do not derive their legitimacy from Islamic credentials. Instead, their hold on power can be traced back to the British government, which administered the UAE’s territory after the Second World War, although the emirs themselves attribute their right to govern to their tribal prominence and a history of good governance. Since formal independence in 1971, they have faced little internal opposition, as they allocate the rents of the state in ways that ensure the loyalty of key segments of the society and protect the economic prosperity of the nation.
However, Islamists view the government of the UAE and other Arab states with Western backing as apostate regimes. Even Saudi Arabia, the protector of the Muslim holy sites, is not immune to criticism from Islamist factions. As one extremist group, the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, has said, “the ruling regime of the Arabian Peninsula is no less criminal than the remainder of the Arab agent regimes.”1 The UAE is open to similar criticism of its cooperation with Western governments and the perceived “un-Islamic” nature of its governance.2 Any adoption of these beliefs within the Emirati citizenry threatens the government’s ability to maintain its authority. Accordingly, the UAE’s leaders seek to limit the propagation of these beliefs. However, the fall of many secular authoritarian regimes provided an opening for the widespread broadcast of Islamist ideologies.
The fall of authoritarian Arab rulers, such as Hosni Mubarak, led to an increase in fears over the expansion of the Islamist ideologies. Autocratic regimes had previously played an instrumental role in suppressing the Islamists in their countries and obstructing the spread and adoption of Islamist ideology abroad. Because Egypt is both a symbol of Arab identity and the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group’s status within Egypt itself serves as a bellwether of related Islamist movements in other Arab nations. During his rule, Mubarak worked to diminish the power of the Brotherhood in Egypt by outlawing the group’s participation in politics and enacting laws that allowed arrests for mere association with the group. Additionally, Mubarak regularly jailed the organization’s leaders. After the fall of Mubarak’s regime in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood rushed into the political sphere.
The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2012 elections confirmed the UAE’s worst fears. Not only did the Arab Uprisings give Islamists a platform for promoting their views, but their success at the ballot box also seemed to reflect widespread popular support. Worse yet, the possibility of a successful and popular Islamist government in Egypt would fuel other such movements to seek power. Although a number of factors led to the Brotherhood’s victory–many of which reveal that support for Islamism was not as deeply embedded in society as assumed—remaining autocrats were forced to reassess their policies.
While none of the UAE’s neighboring regimes were deposed in the Arab Uprisings, regional leaders were forced to confront the permeability of their borders as the fall of other Arab dictators inspired protests in their own countries. Having survived this initial period of danger, UAE leadership is now seeking to solidify its influence at home and to prevent the outbreak of a similar crisis. Over the past four years, the UAE has continued to take steps to protect itself from the perceived dangers of radical Islamism by instituting a dynamic strategy to combat the spread of ideological opposition.
In devising this strategy, UAE leader Sheikh Khalifa drastically expanded his ongoing military projects, which were initially intended to protect his own domestic position following the death of his father. The UAE was founded in 1971, and much of the national identity was connected to the country’s first head of state until his passing in 2004. During his tenure, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan served as ruler of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, in addition to controlling the UAE’s economic and oil policies as head of Abu Dhabi’s Supreme Petroleum Council. Sheikh Zayed loomed large in the national character of the state; after his death the role opened for his son, whose popularity did not match that of his father. To fill this void, Sheikh Khalifa is sought to establish military prowess as a point of national pride and a common symbol of national power. Following the events of the Arab Uprisings, Sheikh Khalifa dramatically expanded this project: doubling his military spending, instituting a draft for male citizens, and playing a leading role in the ongoing battles against Islamist militants operating in the region. All these policies attempt to prevent the spread of Islamist ideology in the UAE by promoting the adoption of shared national values by Emirati citizens.3
This strategy, addressing both the physical and ideological sources of power, is fascinating because it proves a move beyond a realist understanding of international relations. The UAE faced relatively little internal pressure during and after the Arab Uprisings: it does not share a border with any state currently in a crisis, and no state or group has directly threatened to topple the government. Yet UAE leadership perceives existential danger and has taken drastic steps to confront this threat, as shown by the harsh measures against ISIS and further actions with and within foreign nations such as Libya, Syria, and Egypt. These actions necessitate a deeper investigation of the newfound rationale behind UAE decision-making. As ideological opponents continue to gain power and multiply, other nations will be forced to create strategies to confront nontraditional forces that undermine their regimes. The successes and failures of such governments in preventing the spread of contentious ideology will be instrumental in expanding the understanding of international relations in a rapidly changing world.
1. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Tara Vassefi, “Perceptions of the ‘Arab Spring’
Within the Salafi-Jihadi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 35.2 (2012), 837.
2. The country’s economic policies are aimed at attracting foreign investment and Western expats to the country. Also, the government is known for a noticeable lack of enforcement of crimes such as prostitution.
3. This will be detailed in a forthcoming article that focuses on the UAE’s military expansion.
Alissa Fromkin is a first-year graduate student in the Middle East Studies program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She focuses on topics of religion in the public and political spheres, Gulf relations, and Israeli politics. Alissa received her BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Boston University, where she minored in Arabic and was a goaltender for the Women’s Ice Hockey team.