The COVID-19 pandemic represents a major threat to all Gulf states. Nonetheless, some in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have seen this crisis as a valuable opportunity to bolster their images and reputations before the world. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a salient example of how a Gulf country has engaged in “virus diplomacy”.
The UAE has been providing humanitarian assistance to many nations suffering from coronavirus. The UAE’s official narrative is about the Emiratis being in solidarity with human beings without letting politics enter the equation. In March, the UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation, Reem bint Ibrahim Al Hashimy, summed up the message: “Providing lifesaving assistance to those expressing distress is essential to the common good. The leadership and people stand shoulder to shoulder with nations in their time of need.”
For Abu Dhabi, the COVID-19 crisis has been a chance to demonstrate the UAE’s humanitarian credentials. To the Gulf country’s credit, amid this pandemic Abu Dhabi has done much to help out dozens of countries.
Abu Dhabi’s help to these countries has included more than 500 metric tons of supplies and the facilitation of flights which have enabled hundreds of thousands of medical professionals to help those in need. Emirati flights have also repatriated people who did not have the means to travel back to their home countries amid this global health crisis.
“Virus diplomacy” fits into some foreign policy objectives which the UAE was pursuing prior to this disease’s outbreak. The wider political context within which the UAE has been helping both the Syrian and Iranian governments is noteworthy and has captured much attention in the global media. Nonetheless, support which Abu Dhabi is giving these two countries should come as hardly any surprise. In fact, there is a long tradition of the UAE assisting Syria with aid and also coming to Iran’s side amid natural disasters despite high levels of tension in relations between the Islamic Republic and the leadership in Abu Dhabi.
On March 27, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), tweeted about a conversation which he had with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “I discussed with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad updates on COVID-19. I assured him of the support of the UAE and its willingness to help the Syrian people. Humanitarian solidarity during trying times supersedes all matters, and Syria and her people will not stand alone.” This conversation was the first one between the Syrian president and any Arab leader since 2011 which was publicized.
There is no denying that Emirati-Syrian relations began to thaw years before the COVID-19 crisis erupted. Largely due to reasons pertaining to Abu Dhabi’s opposition to Turkey’s foreign policy and loathing of political Islam, the UAE’s leadership sees the Assad government as Syria’s best option. The UAE’s assurances of support to Assad’s regime in the struggle against COVID-19 are important to Abu Dhabi’s interests in seeing the government in Damascus further reintegrate into the Arab region’s diplomatic fold following its suspension from the Arab League in 2011.
Late last year, the UAE’s charge d’affaires to Syria said: “I hope that safety, security and stability in the Syrian Arab Republic will prevail under the shadow of the wise leadership of Dr Bashar al-Assad.” He also praised his country’s “durable, special, and powerful” relationship with Syria. It’s not just rhetoric. There is indeed a history of the UAE, which has been the top Arab aid donor since 1970, supporting Syria during the Hafez al-Assad era (1970-2000) with large amounts of financial assistance. As the UAE justifies its support for Syria’s government, invoking this history can help make it appear that the Abu Dhabi-Damascus rapprochement is merely a return to a previous history in which these two Arab capitals worked together.
Officials in Abu Dhabi, according to the Ankara-based analyst Ali Bakeer, “are trying to seize the opportunity of the pandemic to escalate against Turkey.” While that is clearly taking place in Libya, it is also true that the Emiratis have used their leverage in Syria in various ways in order to try and weaken Ankara’s position in the Levant. Abu Dhabi, according to at least one source, has been trying to push Assad toward forcefully recapturing every inch of Idlib province — a move that would inevitably create extremely serious security, economic, and geopolitical dilemmas for Turkey at a sensitive period of time.
That the Libyan embassy in Damascus re-opened this year and is now being represented by the Tobruk-based administration on General Khalifa Haftar’s side is a positive development from Abu Dhabi’s perspective. It will further worry Ankara if more Arab actors unite in somewhat of an anti-Turkish bloc supported by the UAE. At the ceremony to re-open Libya’s embassy, Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad used the occasion to send Ankara a message. He declared that “terrorism will kill any Arab country if it’s permitted and if the criminal [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is permitted to win this fight.”
Through the UAE’s Humanitarian City, the Emiratis have provided critical humanitarian support to Iran amid the COVID-19 crisis. In coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO), the UAE delivered its first aid package to Iran on March 3. This package included 7.5 tones of medical supplies. Two days later, Abu Dhabi dispatched two aircrafts carrying 32 metric tons of equipment and supplies (surgical masks, gloves, etc.). While speaking by phone with his Iranian counterparts, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed stressed on “the importance of collective work and efforts to survive such global challenges.” Another official in the Emirates cited his country’s “founding humanitarian principles” as reason for sending this help to Iran.
For at least two reasons the UAE’s coronavirus aid to Tehran has not been surprising despite a high level of friction existing between Abu Dhabi and the Islamic Republic in recent years. First, the UAE has a record of providing humanitarian assistance to Iran amid past disasters. A recent example was the Emirates Red Crescent’s relief operations in Iran after torrential rain and floods hit Iran in April 2019. Second, given the Emirates’ close geographic proximity to Iran and its deep links to its Persian neighbor, it has been logical for Abu Dhabi to come to Tehran’s help in the struggle against COVID-19 by virtue of how vulnerable the UAE will be to the pandemic escalating further out of control throughout Iran. Indeed, coronavirus knows no ideological differences and recognizes no international borders, making politics largely irrelevant to how easily COVID-19 could spread from Iran into all of its neighbors.
Even if the UAE’s coronavirus aid to Iran was not as surprising as some lay observers may have saw it, Abu Dhabi’s critical support to Iran amid the coronavirus crisis has earned the UAE goodwill among the Iranian leadership. The government in Tehran responded to the aid by asserting that it added “more reason and logic” to Iran-UAE relations. What remains to be seen is the extent to which Abu Dhabi’s humanitarian help to different countries in the region will impact the future of Iran-UAE relations.
It could be risky to read too much into coronavirus aid that Abu Dhabi sent to the Iranians. Although the UAE wants to avoid a war with Iran and acted pragmatically to try to reduce that risk (and more importantly the risk of the Emirates being targeted by Tehran and its allies/proxies/partners should “maximum pressure” fall out of control), MbZ fundamentally views the Islamic Republic as a grave threat. Engagement with the Iranians to avoid a war and to bolster bilateral cooperation in areas such as COVID-19 and fishing are a solid way to start pursuing an overall improved relationship. Yet it is misguided to assume that this limited scope of coordination will inevitably lead to milestone compromises between the Emiratis and Iranians on more sensitive political issues (the disputed islands, Iranian-sponsored Shi’a militias in Iraq, the siege of Qatar, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Lebanese Hezbollah, Bahrain’s post-2011 political situation, the UAE’s partnership with the US, etc.).
Donald Trump and Difficult Choices
If former Vice President Joseph Biden would begin serving as president in 2021, the UAE and its fellow GCC members would need to adapt to these new circumstances. A Biden presidency would likely result in the US easing pressure on Tehran. An administration run by the former vice president would possibly try to reach a “new understanding” with Iran and the US would perhaps return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Tehran would re-comply with every part of the accord. Under those circumstances, the Arab Gulf states that are on better terms with the Islamic Republic — Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar — would likely have less to lose (and likely much more to gain) than those which bet the farm on Trump’s anti-Iranian foreign policy agenda resetting the Gulf region’s geopolitical balance against Iran and in their favor.
For the UAE and other GCC states, the chances of Washington’s Iran foreign policy shifting drastically as early as January 2021 pose some dilemmas. Is it wise to strongly back Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, especially given the possibility of his presidency lasting until 2025? Or would departing from Trump’s agenda and cooling the temperatures with Iran bode well for UAE-US relations should Biden become the 46th American president? Abu Dhabi appears able to do somewhat of both, ultimately striking a careful balance.
MbZ has a strong relationship with President Trump and high-ranking officials in his administration such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Remaining loyal to Trump and continuing to strengthen ties with his administration are important to the UAE’s de facto ruler. By the same token, being perceived by Democrats as too close to Trump risks creating friction and baggage in Abu Dhabi’s relationship with a possible Biden administration. Without knowing how this year’s election will turn out, the Emirati leadership is balancing between investing in relations with the current administration while leaving the door open to a strong partnership with a potentially new one that could take over in January.
By providing aid to Iran amid the coronavirus crisis, the UAE is able to earn more goodwill among officials in Tehran and Iranian citizens at large who will remember which nations helped them out during this pandemic. This stands to help Abu Dhabi ease tensions that have built up between the UAE and Iran, which can minimize the Emirates’ vulnerability to the potential risks of a military confrontation between the US and Iran. By the same token, given the nature of this aid, Abu Dhabi is in a strong position to tell the Trump administration that it remains on board with “maximum pressure” albeit with humanitarian exemptions.