The United States has stayed as staunched to its allies as it has remained to its foes. However, where the rivalry has been equally retaliated, some of its partners chose to maintain strategic relations. It won’t be a misconjecture to say that one of the most influential nations in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been that ally.
The Emirati sands have recently blown in a different direction altogether, as it began purchasing Chinese weapons, creating bloodbath in the MENA region. Besides, some secret meetings at Seychelles — involving Trump administration, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Russians — also influenced the US electoral process. The meddling not just hurt the US’ national interests, but is also believed to potentially change the American perception about Democrats in future elections.
Before the partnership between these three nations, the US was the sole influential player. Going back to the early 1970s, the US-UAE relations grew into one of the greenest trees in the global garden of alliances. Besides, the major benefits have fallen into the laps of the UAE, as its de facto ruler MbZ shrewdly expanded his empire of influence by following the American lead.
The formal diplomatic relation between the two countries was established in 1972, and the bilateral cooperation has since turned stronger. Both have been partners in defence, non-proliferation, trade and law enforcement.
With vast oil and gas reserves, the UAE became the single largest exporter to the US in the MENA region. Washington, on its part, provided protection from external aggression, especially Iran, with which both share a common rivalry.
Prince MbZ used American expertise for its military training and former spies to set up its intelligence service. From 2007-2010, Prince Mohammed spent huge amounts on acquiring weapons — 80 F-16 fighters, 62 French Mirage jets and 30 Apache combat helicopters. This was more than those received by other five Gulf monarchies put together.
In the later years, the US began deploying various aircrafts at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. In 2014, the United States began supplying more fighter jets as well as bombs to assist the UAE’s mission in Iraq and Syria. Even today, America is backing the Emirates’ intervention in both Yemen and Libya. It still provides weapons, intelligence and other support to the Saudi-UAE led coalition, causing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In 2018 fiscal year, the US supplied more than half of its arms to the Middle East. Out of Pentagon’s total foreign sales of $55 billion, more than $30 billion worth of weapons and other military products were sold to Saudi and the UAE, in particular.
Moreover, a number of US Officials have provided such militarily or intelligence assistance to the UAE in the past. However, many have also crossed moral and legal boundaries in order to aid the Gulf monarchy. A fine example would be a CIA veteran and former US assistant secretary of defense, Mary Beth Long. In 2017, the HuffPost revealed Long’s questionable links to the UAE ambassador to US, Yousef Al Otaiba. This was revealed through leaked emails.
The US official, Mary Beth Long, is also known for having connections with general Khalifa Haftar, during Mohammed Gaddafi’s era. At the time, she was heading a group of US companies lobbying a sceptical Congress to sell weapons to Libya.
In return, the Gulf nation has not just supplied oil to Washington, but also became the first Middle Eastern country to assist the US-led mission in Afghanistan by sending its troops. In 2003, Mohammed bin Zayed willingly deployed 1,200 soldiers belonging to the Presidential Guard forces. The Emirati troops reportedly remained in Afghanistan till 2014. Moreover, the UAE also made its military facilities available for America and allied use, after the September 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda in the US.
Along the same lines as US, even the Gulf nation opted unethical practices of supporting its only friend in the White House, Donald Trump, during the 2016 presidential elections. Apart from their role in Russian meddling, Otaiba and Emirati businessman Rashid al-Malik allegedly intervened in Trump’s May 2016 speech on energy policy. The links were revealed through the emails they exchanged with Thomas J Barrack Jr, the top campaign fund-raiser and close friend of Trump.
However, the alliance tree is now on the verge of decaying, as the UAE’s interests are now spreading in varied directions. US is no longer its sole focus. The UAE has remained clear in terms of its needs, maintaining strategic ties with the US and its greatest foes— China and Russia.
China Injures US in Silence
China has been standing up to President Trump and America in multiple areas, especially in the trade sphere. While Trump continues to throw sanctions at the Asian nation, China’s confidence remains unwavering. China has been working on attaining greater support from the rest of the world. It has increasingly been successful through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Along with African, European and Asian countries and the US rival Russia, the UAE is also set to play a big role in China’s BRI.
On April 27, 2019, the Dubai ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, concluded their partnership in the BRI. He announced that the deal would potentially boost existing $53 billion bilateral trade to $70 billion in 2020.
China has not just retaliated in the trade war, but has also strategically established a strong foothold in the UAE. Dubai’s tribute to the Chinese New Year from the past two years, celebrating it with a nine-days ‘Light Up’ show in Burj Khalifa, is a testimony to their growing camaraderie.
In December 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed visited China, which came as a major leap in relations of the two countries. He signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to launch a significant investment cooperation fund worth $10 billion.
The relations further strengthened when Xi visited the UAE in July 2018, and the diplomatic relations turned from a mere bilateral cooperation to a comprehensive strategic partnership. During the three-days visit, the Chinese leader also met the Dubai ruler, along with Abu Dhabi’s MbZ. Besides, the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan awarded Xi the Order of Zayed— the Emirates’ highest civil decoration.
The two nations announced 13 agreements and MoUs, which also included the approval for first Chinese state-owned financial services firm to set up in Abu Dhabi Global Market. Besides, the China National Petroleum Corporation and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company also agreed to explore joint business opportunities.
This year, Crown Prince MbZ visited Beijing for the first time since 2015, along with a considerable delegation of government and businesses. The three-day visit from July 21-23 advanced the relations between the two nations in more practical ways.
Leaders of the two nations announced to work towards increasing bilateral trade volume to $200 billion by 2030. Besides, a total of 16 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) were signed, aiming to strengthen cooperation across several sectors.
The visit also induced a major change in Arab culture, where the UAE became first Gulf nation to include Chinese language in their national education system.
China has also been facilitating the UAE’s needs better than America, when it comes to the Emirates’ ongoing missions in different countries of the MENA region. Top security partner to the UAE, the States’ Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy restricts the Pentagon from supplying armed drone technology to its Arab ally. On the other hand, China has displayed its weaponized drones in the market under its “no questions asked” policy.
Statistics reveal that the UAE’s defense spending grew by 10.8 per cent in a year— from $19.3 billions in 2017 to $21.4 billions in 2018. The UAE first purchased a Chinese drone, Wing Loong I, in 2016. More than a year later, in early 2018, the purchase of an upgraded and much deadlier version, Wing Loong II, was reported.
There were multiple reasons for the UAE to opt Chinese drones, particularly since America, under the Obama administration, denied to sell their armed UAVs to the Arab ally. Besides, Chinese weapons were easily available at much cheaper prices. The estimated cost of Wing Loong is about $1 million, while the US-made counterpart is sold at about $5 million.
In July 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese strikes and surveillance drones were being used by both UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war. A former Pentagon official and president of the US-UAE Business Council, Danny Sebright, stated that the Emiratis bought Chinese drones and equipped them with South African laser targeting systems. They have used them to guide missiles from planes for strikes in Yemen, he said.
According to the satellite images, the UAE has also used these drones to support Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who is in a battle of control against the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli.
While the US-UAE weapon trade cords were gradually rifting, the American President recently decided to win back the confidence of the Middle Eastern allies. On May 23, the Trump administration announced to sell $8.1 billion worth of munitions, aircraft parts, and other supplies to Saudi Arabia and UAE, without congressional approval. However, on July 17, the House joined the Senate and voted to block the arms sales.
UAE has also been engaging with a controversial military contractor, Erik Prince, the bother of US Secretary of Education, Betsy DaVos. He is allegedly the common link between China and the UAE. Prince is accused of training the militia for the ethnic cleansing of the Uighur Muslims in China and training the Emirati troops for showdown against the Houthis in Yemen.
China has also defeated the US in providing artificial intelligence technologies to the UAE. While such a technology faces escalated scrutiny in the States, China’s Hikvision and Huawei have been marketing biometric surveillance systems in the Gulf nation, which has made heavy investments in surveillance technology and has been using cellphone hacking software to spy journalists and dissidents.
Moreover, several Chinese firms have also been making large investments in Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD), over the last two years. Earlier this month, the East Hope Group of China also proposed an investment of $10 million, which would be implemented in three stages over 15 years.
The Rising Russia-UAE Axis
Russia has been another significant rival of the United States and an emerging major ally of the UAE. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, often have telephone conversations. In June this year, MbZ received a phone call from Putin. The two leaders reportedly discussed their relationship and joint co-ordination on international issues of mutual interest.
In June 2018, the Abu Dhabi ruler visited Moscow with a delegation for two days. Apart from discussing cooperation, the two nations also signed a declaration of strategic partnership in all domains, including political, economic, cultural and security.
MbZ had stated that it was crucial to “maintain a continuous coordination with Russia on regional issue to ensure security and stability”.
The Russian-UAE links were also highlighted in 2016, during a secret meeting in Seychelles that centered around influencing the US electoral process. Special counsel Robert Mueller, in his report, has mentioned the connivance between the Trump administration, MbZ, Russia and Erik Prince aimed at ensuring victory for Donald Trump.
Russia, too, has been supplying weapons to the UAE, indirectly backing the Emirates’ interests in war-torn nations like Yemen and Libya.
Russia is one of the three global producers of advanced air superiority fighters, along with China and the US, and the UAE was significantly interested in acquiring high-end fighter jets. Among the three producers, Washington has not produced a high-end fourth-generation heavy fighter, restricted the export of its fourth generation platform, the F-15C, to three clients, and has imposed a complete ban on the export of its fifth-generation platform, the F-22.
In the past, the UAE has constantly raised requests for F-35 aircrafts to the US, which have been rebuffed since 2011. China, on the other hand, remained unwilling to sell off its own air superiority platforms. Because of that, Russia became a monopoly in fourth-generation air superiority fighters, such as the Su-30 and Su-35.
In February 2017, Russia signed an agreement to sell multiple Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jets to the UAE, and help it develop a fifth generation platform for its Air Force. At the time, the Gulf nation also awarded a $708 million contract for anti-armor missiles to the Russian agency Rosoboron export, during the IDEX 2017.
The growing partnership between the UAE and Russia were believed to be the Emirates’ way of gaining US concessions on F-35s and other possible transactions, which according to the Congressional Research Service could have become possible due to the US concerns regarding Russia-UAE arms dealings.
The concerns slightly proved to be true on April 15 this year, when the US deployed the F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters to Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE. The aircraft costs about $90 million and could not be redacted by radar. Besides, on April 30, the Emirates also conducted airstrikes on a Daesh tunnel network in Iraq, using the US fighter jets for the first time.
The relationship between Russia and the UAE is enhancing at a greater pace. The trade between the two nations increased by nearly 35 per cent in two years – from around $161 million in 2015 to $217 in 2017.
Earlier this month, the Russian Energy Minister, Alexander Novak, met the UAE’s minister of state, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, running the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), to discuss cooperation in LNG projects in Moscow.
While the Trump administration is indulged in a conflict with China and Russia, these powerful global nations have been finding ways to establish strong relations with the Gulf. Several media reports have stated that it is crucial for the Pentagon to develop weapons, since both its rivals are developing hypersonic capabilities that can potentially defeat conventional anti-missile defense systems.
However, weaponry is not the sole area that is slipping from the hands of the US. Trade, energy, investments, diplomatic as well as cooperative relations, have also enhanced between the Gulf monarchy and the US foes – Russia and China.
The UAE has been defying America by establishing stronger relations with both China and Russia. While the expanding distance with the allies is often blamed on the American policies, it could also be associated to the UAE’s nature of perceiving ties, which apparently strengthens strategic partnerships with countries facilitating its interests without a hitch.
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?
“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!
The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force!
Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.
The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.
Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.
The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.
The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.
The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
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