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The UAE’s Unlikely Rise as a Regional Powerhouse

The story of the United Arab Emirates is one imbued with wealth, status, and pomp. Its world-record holding buildings, architecture, infrastructure, museums, and art account for its global status as the ‘billionaire’s playground.’ Through hosting the World Oceans Summits and highlighting the impact of climate change in the Middle East[1] to its rapidly expanding investment wing, this small petrostate is finding more inventive and persuasive ways to use is oil wealth outside of fancy attractions and for regional superiority. It will be hosting the World Expo 2020 in Dubai, the first country in the MENA region to do so.[2] Most unique, on February 3-5, 2019, Pope Francis visited the UAE portraying the country as ‘a place of tolerance in contract to political Islam and extremists.’[3] The UAE is grabbing a rare opportunity to flex its political, economic, and military and muscle throughout the turmoil that plagues its neighbors by making unilateral decisions uncharacteristic of its recent past. This article will dive into these three aspects of the UAEs newfound regional policy.

Political Prowess

The foreign policy of the United Arab Emirates offers a curious case study for scholars of international relations: a small state with a tiny population and historically little presence on the world stage, but with outsized – and seemingly ever-expanding – ambitions.[4] Over the past decade, while consolidating its status as a regional financial center and international business hub, the UAE has quietly become a rising military power in the Middle East. Much of this has to do with the rise of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan—known universally as “MBZ”—the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the commander in chief of the UAE’s armed forces.[5] MBZ is arguably the richest man in the world, controlling a sovereign wealth fund worth $1.3 trillion, more than any other country.[6]

In recent years, the Middle East region has undergone dramatic changes to its landscape, especially politically. The Arab Spring, the ensuing collapse of the Arab political order, and the ongoing civil wars, are the drivers of an emerging new Middle East political order.[7] Throughout this rapid change, the UAE has been relatively secluded as its geographic non-proximity to the wars in the region has providing a buffer zone and its own much smaller population has not felt the same desire for regime change.[8] These two factors can largely account as to why the UAE has not felt the direct effects of the Arab Spring; rather, the country has actively pursued regional policies to enhance its influence.

Even throughout the political developments in Sudan, the UAE is adamant on maintaining its contracts with Sudan’s interim military rulers.[9] The UAE is now a solid member of the trifecta of Arab countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in leading the Anti-Islamism force in the region. This position comes from a place of preserving stability and countering the further rise of extremism in the region. Independently however, the same mentality of regional influence is showcased in its decision to reopen its embassy in Syria. At first, the UAE was one of several regional states to back armed groups opposed to Assad. Now, the country has said the move is aimed to normalize ties and to curb risks of regional interference in “Arab, Syrian affairs” – an apparent reference to non-Arab Iran, whose support for Assad has been critical to his war effort.[10]

Moving forward, a new regional order is on the rise with the dynamic agility of smaller states now at the forefront of regional decision-making. The UAE’s involvement in the successful rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is proof of its widening influence.[11] Its all-encompassing and new security policies will continue to have a huge impact on developments in nearly all of the region’s hot spots, including Yemen, Sudan, Libya, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The UAE’s rise as a regional powerhouse is attributed to its financial strengths and vamped militaristic capabilities.

Economic Efficacy

Investing is the main foreign policy method of the UAE. All throughout the 21st century, the UAE has been adamant and persistent in ratcheting up its economic activities in the Red Sea basin. The Dubai government-owned port operator DP World won a 20-year concession to operate the Port of Djibouti, Doraleh.[12] In 2017, DP World signed an agreement with the Suez Canal Authority to develop an area in Ain Sokhna.[13] Most recently, in Saudi Arabia, DP World won a contract to develop the entire port of Jeddah in support of the Saudi Vision 2030 and the $500 billion NEOM mega project.[14]

This control and influence is seen in other parts of the globe as well. The UAE is also taking the lead in investing in Central Asian countries and as of April 2019, welcomed visited from the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.[15] Both geopolitical and economic interests are driving the UAE’s pivot toward resource-rich Central Asia by providing guidance based on its own experience with economics diversification. Central Asia’s strategic location, vast resources, and predominantly Muslim population mean that the UAE, and Gulf states at large, are likely to continue expanding their influence in the region, while Central Asian countries will benefit from reducing their dependence on Russia and China.[16]

As the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran grow ever more exponentially, the UAE has been quietly but persistently edging its presence into the regional fray. The UAE’s staunch grasp of helm at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has begun to amplify its voice across the region.[17] With the current split in OPEC and the GCC, the UAE is slowly taking a leadership role in siding with Saudi Arabia against the oil producers not willing to glut the market in OPEC and against Qatar’s foreign policy ambitions in the GCC through spearheading the blockade of Qatar. Although in both organizations they are overshadowed by Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary power, Abu Dhabi has influence as it controls more ports in the Horn of Africa and Yemen than any other country.[18] These ports are spread in five of the eight countries bordering the Red Sea (Djibouti, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen), along with military bases in Yemen, Eritrea and Somaliland.[19]

Even most recently, with the attacks on the oil tankers off the cost of Fujairah in the UAE’s territorial waters, the UAE has an unparalleled opportunity to spin the situation in their favor. The UAE minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has used this attack as an opportunity to call for increased regional security, stability, and cooperation.[20] International experts are calling the waters in the Persian Gulf “dangerous for trading” which has serious implications for the UAE’s financial prowess, so the impetus of the UAE to act as a negotiator highlights its newfound role within the region.[21]

Military Might

Alongside its financial investment deals throughout the Islamic world, the UAE has been actively focusing on creating and sustaining a strong military to protect and bolster its financial clout.[22] Under the leadership of MBZ, the UAE embarked on the rapid modernization and expansion of its army.[23] It first pursued an “Emiratization” of its armed forces by developing and promoting Emirati officers, strategists, pilots, and technicians – restricting foreign nationals to advisory roles and then boosted its military spending by buying the most advanced systems and technologies from around the world.[24] According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s figures, UAE’s military expenditures jumped: from $7.94 billion in 1998 to $15.7 billion in 2009 to $24.4 billion by 2014 and in the past five years has consistently hovered over the $20 billion mark.[25] This ramp up in military spending is seen as an attempt to add ‘hard power’ to the UAE’s growing financial, investment, and diplomatic power. It has also sent the message that outside actors are not as reliable to confront the threats to regional stability and thus the UAE is attempting to solve regional crises in its own hands.[26]

With the UAE entering its first full-scale conflict in Yemen, Abu Dhabi passed a law in 2014 requiring a 12-month compulsory military service for Emirati males between the ages of 18 and 30. Last year, the service period was extended to 18 months.[27] Emirati land, naval, air, and special ops forces have been taking part in daily missions and holding territories within Yemen over the past four years. Although the Yemen war has been classified as a poorly planned conflict that has sparked the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, the UAE has emerged as the senior partner in its coalition, allowing it to highlight its military and leadership abilities.[28]  It is also significant to note that the UAE pushed this policy independent of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict, a sign that the UAE is amplifying its voice far beyond its usual regional ties.

Most directly, this policy is showcased in its decision to takeover Socotra, a Yemeni island in the Guardafui Channel between the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.[29] The UAE unilaterally decided to take control of the Socotra Airport, seaport, and all four islands on April 30, 2018. Although Saudi Arabia negotiated a partial withdrawal two weeks after this takeover, the UAE has retained many of its links in the island. It built a military base, installed communication networks; carried out development projects; and offered healthcare and work permits to Socotri residents. [30] Strategic access to Socotra would help the UAE expand its global trade routes to states such as India while also forging links between Abu Dhabi and the Horn of Africa, another region in which it seeks greater military and economic hegemony.[31]

The continuation of the Yemen conflict has provided the UAE a chance to showcase its new type of influence. It now hosts military training operations, conventions, and arms sales compared to less than a decade ago did not have a fully functioning military. The rapid development of its military and its direct involvement in its neighbor, Yemen, showcases that the UAE is punching above its weight but is simultaneously holding its own. The unique set of circumstances surrounding the UAE’s rise account for this oxymoronic statement of a country with massive oil wealth and a small population now co-leading a military coalition to stamp out regional extremism while juggling geopolitical tensions that characterizes its region by expanding its influence.

Throughout the developments of the past decade, the UAE has been emboldened to take a larger step. These main events partly include the vacuum created by the debilitation of the Arab world’s heavyweights; the formation of a crescent of instability in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Libya; the downfall of Egypt; new leadership in Saudi Arabia; the dissension of the GCC; the shift in American geostrategic priorities; the UAE’s entanglement in the Yemeni conflict; and the rivalry with Iran. These events combined have allowed the UAE to consistently and incrementally grow its widening regional influence. Now, in 2019, the UAE should not be taken for granted, as it is ‘a small state with a big ego.’[32]


[1] Turak, Natasha. 2019. “UAE Climate Minister Outlines Top Threats as Abu Dhabi Hosts the Middle East’s First Ocean Summit.” CNBC.

[2] Expo 2020 Dubai. 2019. “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” Expo 2020 Dubai.

[3] Pope Francis. 2019. “UAE Papal Visit.” UAE Papal Visit. 2019.

[4] Shama, Nael. 2018. “Commentary: Ambitious UAE Flexes Military Muscle.” Reuters.

[5] Cook, Steven. 2014. “The Middle East’s Emerging Power: The Rise of the Emirates.” Octavian Report.

[6] Kirkpatrick, David D. 2019. “The Most Powerful Arab Ruler Isn’t M.B.S. It’s M.B.Z.” NY Times.

[7] Lynch, Marc. 2017. The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East. New York: PublicAffairs.

[8] Harrison, Ross. 2018. “Shifts in the Middle East Balance of Power: An Historical Perspective.” Al Jazeera.

[9] Al Sherbini, Ramadan. 2019. “UAE Defends Contacts with Sudan Military.” Gulf News. 2019.

[10] Sanadiki, Omar. 2018. “UAE Reopens Syria Embassy in Boost for Assad.” Reuters, December 27, 2018.

[11] Carvalho, Stanley. 2018. “UAE Hails Ethiopia, Eritrea Leaders after Rapprochement.” Reuters.

[12] DP World. 2000. “DP World’s Doraleh Terminal at Port of Djibouti.”

[13] Al Youm, Al Masry. 2017. “DP World, Egypt Sign Agreement to Develop Ain Sokhna.” Egypt Independent.

[14] Gulf News. 2017. “DP World to Develop Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Port.” Gulf News. 2017.

[15] Mammadov, Rauf. 2019. “The UAE Leads Gulf Outreach to Central Asia.”  The Middle East Institute.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Feltman, Jeff, Samantha Gross, Martin Indyk, Kemal Kirişci, Suzanne Maloney, Bruce Riedel, Natan Sachs, Amanda Sloat, Angela Stent, and Tamara Cofman Wittes. 2018. “The New Geopolitics Of the Middle East: America’s Role in a Changing Region.” Brookings.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Shama, Nael. 2018. “Commentary: Ambitious UAE Flexes Military Muscle.”

[20] PressTV. 2019. “PressTV-Evidence ‘Not Enough’ to Lay Blame for Fujairah Attack: UAE.”

[21] Shahi, Afshin. 2019. How Is the UAE Affected by the Increasing Tensions in the Persian Gulf?

[22] Luck, Taylor. 2019. “New Arab Military Force to Reckon with as ‘Little Sparta’ Rises.” Christian Science Monitor.

[23] Kirkpatrick, David D. 2019. “The Most Powerful Arab Ruler Isn’t M.B.S. It’s M.B.Z.”

[24] Luck, Taylor. 2019. “New Arab Military Force to Reckon with as ‘Little Sparta’ Rises.”

[25] Tian, Nan, Aude Fleurant, Alexandra Kuimova, Pieter D. Wezeman, and Siemon T. Wezeman. 2018. “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2017.” SIPRI.

[26] Cook, Steven. 2014. “The Middle East’s Emerging Power: The Rise of the Emirates.”

[27] Luck, Taylor. 2019. “New Arab Military Force to Reckon with as ‘Little Sparta’ Rises.”

[28] Al-Jazeera. 2019. “Yemen’s War: Four Years On, What Houthi Rule Looks like.”

[29] MEE Coorespondent. 2019. “Arrival of UAE-Backed Forces Stokes Tensions on Yemen’s Socotra.” Middle East Eye.

[30] Fenton-Harvey, Jonathan. 2019. “Why Is UAE ‘Occupying’ Yemen’s Socotra Island?” Alaraby.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Abdulla, Abdulkhaleq. 2012. “New Assertiveness in UAE Foreign Policy.” Gulf News.

Benjamin Lutz
Benjamin Lutz
Benjamin Lutz is a recent graduate from Elon University with a Bachelor’s of Arts in International & Global Studies and Political Science where he concentrated on the Middle East, Peace Studies, and Inter-religious Studies. He is currently enrolled at the University of Bradford for a Master’s of Arts in Middle East Security and Peace and Conflict Studies, after which he plans to permanently move to the Middle East to conduct internal and regional peace diplomacy. His interests in Middle East diplomacy began with an eight-year-long engagement with Model United Nations and Model Arab League. He previously worked as a Research Intern at Generations for Peace, a youth-diplomacy peace-oriented NGO located in Amman, Jordan. You can reach him at