As the United Arab Emirates implements its strategy to combat the threat of rising Islamism in the region, it has carried this initiative into its foreign policy by engaging in proxy wars with regional rivals. The UAE’s actions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria are an example of this. The independent declaration of a new Islamic caliphate by ISIS is antithetical to the UAE’s vision of governance, which views stopping the growth of ISIS as imperative to its larger goal of eliminating the desire of individuals to join the Islamist movement or of other movements’ desire to imitate ISIS itself. Additionally, the UAE remains a leader in the military coalition against ISIS, a strategic choice that allows it to intercede directly, demonstrate its military power, and earn regional prestige. By participating, the UAE is not trying to win the approval of the West; rather, it seeks to destroy what it perceives as the greatest threat to its regime while simultaneously garnering popular support from its citizenry. The decision to strike ISIS is in line with the UAE’s history of supporting the suppression of other Islamist groups, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood.1 The UAE is directly funding militants in fractured states to prevent the success of Islamist groups and manage the consequences of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts.
In Syria, the UAE believes that the rise of Islamism among the Sunni population results from a sense of desperation in the face of unrelenting violence by the Assad regime. In the Emiratis’ view, the fall of the regime and the subsequent rise of a Sunni government would effectively end violent aggression against the Sunni population. Therefore, the UAE funds non-Islamist rebel groups and tries to goad the United States into taking more concrete actions to weaken the regime. By directly arming militant groups, the UAE is understandably taking bolder steps than the United States, since the Emirati regime fears for its own stability if Assad stays in power.
The UAE is also concerned about the spread of Islamism in Iraqi society. Because the success of Islamism could inspire other citizenries to oppose existing regimes, the UAE is closely monitoring the takeover of territory by ISIS militants in Iraq. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the UAE has assisted the U.S. mission and provided significant economic assistance to Iraq. The UAE allowed American forces to use Emirati military installations during Operation Iraqi Freedom, including the Jebel Ali port and various airfields. The UAE also donated around $215 million in humanitarian contributions, forgave $7 billion of debt, and opened up trade and investment opportunities. Moreover, the UAE resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq by sending an ambassador to the country in 2008. However, the growth of Islamist militancy has now endangered the state the UAE helped to create. While this might suggest that the UAE should be more active in striking ISIS forces in Iraq, the Emiratis refuse to carry out any attacks on ISIS inside the country as a result of their concerns over domestic reactions. The UAE fears backlash from its population if a military strike in Iraq should cause significant collateral damage. While the UAE views the total defeat of ISIS as necessary to inhibit the spread of radical Islamism, Emirati leaders prioritize the perception of their actions in the minds of their citizens.
While UAE actions may succeed in protecting the stability of its regime, Emirati participation in proxy wars carries the risk of prolonging the devastation wrought by conflict in Syria and Iraq. Further, the Assad regime’s downfall would put the Emirati vision of post-Assad Syria directly at odds with the Qatari vision. Like the UAE, Qatar is jockeying for regional supremacy and is accordingly providing extensive support to rebel fighters in Syria. In contrast to the UAE’s position, Qatar is funding militant Islamic groups in line with Doha’s broader ideological aims. In the event of Assad’s demise, the rebel groups supported by Qatar and the UAE would be in direct ideological opposition to each other. This would lead to continued conflict and a lengthened sub-state conflict—similar to what happened in post-Qaddafi Libya.2 The proxy wars between Qatar and the UAE are part of a larger fight over regional supremacy in which Abu Dhabi views victory is essential to further cementing feelings of national pride in Emirati citizens.
Each decision that the UAE makes, including its cooperation with the United States, is calculated to further its overarching concerns about regime security. The UAE’s ideological convictions led it to surpass other Arab states in assistance to the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS, even putting Emirati jets in range of Syrian surface-to-air missiles. Yet the Emiratis are only willing to carry out these missions in cooperation with the U.S. when the campaign does not jeopardize the allegiance of the Emirati people. The UAE’s extensive participation in the coalition efforts may lead it to expect an outcome that accords with its vision for Syria. If the Syrian people were to freely elect an Islamist leadership that earned U.S. support, the UAE would still oppose such a regime and might continue to independently use military and economic power to aid its favored rebel groups. While this eventuality may seem fanciful, the UAE has already set precedent for such actions in Libya, which will be discussed in the next article.
1. This will be discussed in more detail in the following article.
2. This will be discussed in more detail in the following article.
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.
Department of Defense photo by D. Myles Cullen is in the public domain. Image cropped.