Major American media organizations have been running stories lately that feature one of Washington’s Persian Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates, as a favored partner in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) and terrorism. It’s “the strongest relationship that the United States has in the Arab world today,” former commander of American forces in the Middle East, General Anthony Zinni, is quoted as saying for the Washington Post in November. The UAE “has positioned itself as an indispensable partner for Washington,” National Public Radio reported in December. A Bloomberg story in January featured the views of the UAE Ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Oteiba, including that the UAE is “moderate, open, and tolerant.”
Some see a UAE hand behind the burst of good press on a decades-old relationship. The Emiratis have an active lobby network in Washington, and the UAE spends more money trying to influence American politics than any other foreign country. Regardless, the articles reflect an organic sense among some officials in Washington that the UAE is an easy partner to work with when it comes to counter-terrorism issues. Why?
But it’s not the UAE’s sweeping definition of terrorist that explains the close relationship with Washington on terrorism issues. Instead, it’s the UAE’s approach to the region’s most conservative Sunni elements, some of whom support radical groups in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Some Sunnis in the Middle East view groups like the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria (The Nusra Front), and it seems in fewer cases, ISIS, as legitimate and effective combatants against the brutal Assad regime in Syria and exclusionary Shiite rule in Iraq. The UAE does not maintain political alliances with such conservatives inside or outside the country as part of its security calculus.
This means that the UAE does not need to balance its anti-al-Qaeda or anti-ISIS policies with any delicate political working ties with conservatives who may support these groups in Syria and Iraq.
This approach differs from that of other important Gulf partners. Most Gulf governments foster alliances with Sunni conservatives to achieve specific political objectives. In Bahrain and Kuwait, the Sunni ruling families have allied with Sunni Islamists as a counterweight to other local forces (most obviously in Bahrain, in relation to the Shia majority there). Qatar has courted Sunni Islamists as a way of building influence and power in the region as well as maintaining it at home.
In Saudi Arabia, the relationship between the royal political leadership and the Wahhabi Sunni religious establishment underpins the basic foundation of the state – though here, security concerns about groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have in some ways trumped the leadership’s relationship with its religious allies.
In these countries, clamping down on local support for radical groups abroad that is not deemed a direct security threat at home, carries the possibility of upsetting delicate relationships with conservatives that the governments have studiously calculated are in their own security interest.
While the UAE’s approach to conservatives has been refreshing in American counter-terrorism policy circles, its grouping of all Islamists into the terrorist category has been frustrating for many in Washington. Whatever the Emirati government or Americans believe about the Brotherhood, there are politically moderate Muslims who view the Brotherhood as representing moderate political Islam, and who categorically distinguish the group’s activities and interests from those of extremists. Twenty-nine percent of Emiratis expressed support for the Brotherhood in a recent Washington Institute poll.
Also, underpinning the UAE approach to Islamists is a wider attitude toward political currents of any sort. There is anxiety among Emirati citizens and foreign residents alike about voicing views that are not supported by the government. A wide network of police informants is understood to be active. Repercussions for sensitive cases of political expression include arrest, detention and imprisonment.
It’s not that most Emiratis seem to crave democracy. Voter turnout was 28 percent among the hand-selected electorate during the last legislative advisory council elections in 2011. A UN-commissioned survey in 2013 found the Emirates the “happiest” Arab country, and the fourteenth happiest in the world. Even the region’s youth like the UAE model best: in a recent survey, nearly 40 percent of Arab youth chose the UAE as the place they’d like to live most among twenty other countries (the United States came in second at 25 percent), and as the state they’d most like their own country to emulate.
Following a more progressive approach than imprisonment to citizens who express their views would bring the UAE the kind of international praise it seems to be craving. As part of the strengthening partnership, Washington should try to find a way to more effectively encourage this. It’s the right complement to expanding counter-terrorism work with a committed partner that doesn’t need to balance any political alliances with those who support the most radical groups in Syria, Iraq and beyond.
Boghardt, a former U.S. intelligence analyst, is a fellow in Gulf politics at The Washington Institute.