UAE seeks strategic autonomy through S&T ties with China

Authors: Anupama Vijayakumar and B. Poornima*

The 21st Century has witnessed the emergence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a major player on the global stage. Jim Mattis, the former-United States Secretary of Defense, referred to the small Middle-Eastern nation as “Little Sparta” in 2014, a reflection of how the UAE has been punching well above its weight amid the New Era of Great Power Competition. UAE has concertedly attempted to project itself as a major power, slowly dissociating from its past identity as an “oil country” and consciously employing Science and Technology (S&T) as a vehicle to redefine its identity. Ranging from the ambitious project to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2117 to its National Advanced Sciences Agenda 2031, S&T has been placed front and centre in the UAE’s roadmap for its rise. i

The Emirati leaders appear keen to grab the opportunities offered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and position the UAE as a pioneer in the field. In addition to becoming the first country to institute a dedicated ministry to Artificial Intelligence (AI) in 2017, the UAE recently became the first to open an office of its Ministry of Economy in the Metaverse. Moreover, its bid to reach for the stars through ambitious deep space exploration missions is indicative of its intent to solidify its reputation as a major power. The UAE’s aspirations herein are in tune with a reoriented foreign policy grounded on strategic autonomy. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, it is growing adept at juggling strategic ties between Russia, China, the USA and Israel, among others, at forming partnerships that serve its interest to emerge as a global technology leader.

The UAE had evolved as a close ally of the United States in the era following the 1973 oil embargo. The security, economic and diplomatic ties between the two states have remained robust in the subsequent decades. In addition to hosting three military installations, namely the Al Dhafra airbase, the Jebel Ali Port and the Fujairah naval base, the UAE is the only Arab nation to have played an active military role in the US-led Global War on Terror. In an inherently asymmetric relationship, the UAE had largely been dependent on the USA for acquiring high technology, including military equipment, for national security purposes.

However, in recent times, the UAE has resorted to a strategy of diversification as a means to navigate the tricky geopolitical currents in a multipolar world. Intent to project autonomy as a hallmark of its redefined identity, the UAE is simply not having it with Washington’s hypervigilance over the transfer of critical technologies nor its excuses for congressional delays on technology transfer. The US’s refusal to sell the MQ-9 Predators prompted the Emirates’ decision to buy Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones in 2017. The ties with Beijing further grew during the Covid-19 pandemic. In stark contrast to the US, which placed strict controls on the export of vaccines and essential medical supplies, China stepped in to fill the vacuum.

Alarm bells rang in the West when the UAE chose Huawei, a major pawn in the US-China tech war, to set up its 5G critical infrastructure. Despite this partnership costing them the much- anticipated F-35 deal in early 2022, the UAE’s confident leadership has not budged. Huawei continues to be the UAE’s partner of choice in various smart city projects, including Dubai’s ‘Police Without Policemen’. The company has also been involved in setting up data storage and online payment facilities for public transportation. Meanwhile, SenseTime, the Chinese facial recognition company (which is under American sanctions), has been welcomed to set up

an R&D centre in Abu Dhabi. However, as alarmists fear, its decision to do business with China is not to be mistaken as evidence of a UAE-China proto-alliance. Partnering with China is UAE’s ticket to accelerating its economic development, as observed in Abu Dhabi’s enthusiastic participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. The UAE’s motivation to practice strategic autonomy in technology partnerships has been well-articulated by Omar Sultan al Olama, the UAE’s Minister for AI, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications. “No country is given an advantage… as long as it makes economic sense, we will use it (Chinese technology).”

At the same time, in its bid to emerge as a global technology hub, the UAE has continued parallelly to engage Western entities. Cloud-based solutions from American computer giant Oracle are said to have played a key role in helping the state manage critical operations ranging from supply chain and human resources management to port operations during the pandemic. Along with Microsoft and Cisco, German company SAP has contributed to Dubai gaining fame as the world’s blockchain capital. Meanwhile, Google and Amazon have been roped in to play a critical role in training Emirati youth in computer programming in an effort to build a viable talent pool. The UAE’s tactful space diplomacy is further testimony to the delicate balancing act the state is attempting. Having succeeded in its maiden Mars mission with American and Japanese handholding, the UAE is following a similar pattern to launch the Arab world’s first lunar rover, the Rashid, by the end of 2022. Meanwhile, for its next lunar landing, the UAE has announced a collaboration with the China National Space Agency (CNSA) to launch the Rashid-2 rover on board the 2026-scheduled Chang’e 7 mission.

The notion of Strategic Autonomy has been widely misconstrued ever since the Cold War years. Among other interpretations, its practice has been compared to ambivalence, omni- balancing and multi-alignment and has consistently been looked down upon in certain power centres. Yet, the experiences of supply-chain disruption during the pandemic have opened the eyes of many states to the merits of issue-based alignment, the flexibility of which presents a state with myriad options for safeguarding vital interests. Furthermore, in an era characterised by an increased interspersing of technology and power, technological independence has implicitly come to be recognised as the basis of strategic autonomy. Employing a pragmatic foreign policy based on strategic autonomy, the UAE has been carefully recalibrating its image. It is slowly overcoming its reticence to taking risks in foreign policy calculations and is no longer content to be seen as just another American ally in the Middle East. Strategic autonomy herein has allowed the UAE to turn geopolitical realities to its advantage, enabling it to boldly pursue a self-defined vision of emerging as a global technology leader.

The UAE’s newfound pragmatism has been largely put down to a diminishing American power in the Middle East. However, such a view reflects political analysts’ tendency to view any situation from the prism of great powers, with a scant appreciation for the interests and intentions of smaller states. Instead, the UAE’s growing technology collaboration with China (despite American displeasure) should be seen as a sign of its intent to chart its own geopolitical destiny through S&T. The new leadership in UAE is self-assured in their aspiration to transform the country into a strategic player on the global stage. They are keen on making choices based on economic sensibilities rather than alliance-based considerations. In continuing this trend and engaging in proactive, bold diplomacy, the UAE is showcasing an unwritten guide for winning the 21st century geopolitical game to the region and the world.

*B. Poornima is a PhD research scholar & UGC Junior Research Fellow at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. She mainly writes on Geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa, International Negotiations, Conflict & Peace Studies. She can be reached on Twitter @aminroopb

Anupama Vijayakumar
Anupama Vijayakumar
Anupama Vijayakumar is a PhD candidate and a UGC Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, MAHE, India. Her doctoral research focuses on the interrelationship between technology and national power in International Relations.