2020 has been a decisively exceptional year for the United Arab Emirates.
Media and commentators have hailed the Trump-brokered agreement signed by Israel with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as historic.
The agreement is historic insofar as “it’s the first open acknowledgement of Israel’s hitherto secret alliance with Arab Gulf nations and the willingness of the Emiratis and Bahrainis to ‘normalize’ relations is a major breakthrough for Israel”, as Haaretz put it.
In spite of numerous efforts by the USA and its European and regional allies, the three-year blockade of Qatar by the Arab quartet shows no sign of abating. With the Trump administration determined to ratchet up its pressure on Iran and the UN’s Iran arms embargo expiry date fast approaching, one can be certain that the current crisis is set to gain an added urgency in the days and weeks ahead.
In Libya, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are testing their ambitions as a middle power, exactly like they did - and are still doing despite extensive military disengagement - in Yemen. In both arenas, the UAE intertwines geopolitical and ideological goals: it needs strong proxies and trusted allies to achieve them.
Once marginal in shaping the geopolitics of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, Gulf power projection and competition have become a central driver of the politics of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The political turmoil that engulfed these states created both threats and opportunities for Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the rich and ambitious states of the Arabian Peninsula.
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”.
Differently from neighbouring Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Qatar, the northern emirates of the UAE (Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah) and the Sultanate of Oman form a critical sub-region which has entered globalized modernization at a later stage. In the eyes of the ruling elites, current urban development projects, logistical infrastructures, port expansion and tourism should consolidate economic growth, reduce social inequalities (in the northern emirates of the UAE), and design sustainable post-oil paths (in Oman).
The Western Indian Ocean (the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian/Persian Gulf) is the new Gulf powers’ battlefield. Saudi Arabia and Iran, as already in the Middle East, are vying for hegemony in this sub-region: the Gulf monarchies also compete for influence, especially after the 2017 Qatari crisis and Doha’s boycott by neighbours.
The military expansion of the Houthis and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh into Southern Yemen in February 2015, after the flight of president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to Aden, exacerbated the north-south division of the country, highlighting its fragmentation. This led to a strong military response in the South to what appeared to be a new invasion by Northern forces after the 1994 war: from that moment on, new military and political orientations have risen in the South, as well as increased popular support for separatism.