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E45 Recap: How Did the UAE Do It?

The Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline explains how the United Arab Emirates went from a state run by Muslim Brotherhood exiles to a major geopolitical player undermining Islamists at home and abroad.

Hello out there and welcome to the first of what we’re hoping will become a regular feature here at American Prestige, the weekly recap of a portion of our previous week’s episode. We’ll highlight a segment of each week’s interview that we found particularly interesting and send out a video clip of that segment along with a transcript and a few introductory remarks by Danny or myself. We’re hoping to take advantage of Substack’s new video capabilities, but since we’re all very new to video around here (and by “we” I don’t just mean the AP team, I mean Substack as a whole) please bear with us as we iron out the kinks. We’re also hoping to build on Substack’s core functions as a newsletter and website to bring as many of you together as possible, which is why these recaps will be free to everyone and their comments sections will be open as well. Listening to podcasts is an isolated activity so we’d like as much as possible to use our Substack site to counteract that isolation and bring listeners together.

We were very grateful to be joined last week by Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute. This was Annelle’s second appearance on the show, and before we started American Prestige she was a regular guest on my Foreign Exchanges podcast. She’s one of the most astute analysts of Middle Eastern affairs I know, and we thought her insights would be particularly valuable at a time when the venerable US-Saudi and US-UAE relationships seem to be coming apart. The death of UAE President and Abu Dhabi Emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan on May 13 and the subsequent accession of his half-brother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (the infamous “MBZ”), to both posts shifted our plans a bit, and in the interview we mostly focused on the nature and outsized geopolitical influence of the UAE.

As Annelle explains in this clip, the roots of that outsized geopolitical influence can be traced to one thing: money. Oil money, to be more precise, which when it comes to politics often winds up being more valuable than other kinds of money. But it’s not so much the UAE’s overall wealth—the UAE is a wealthy country on a per capita basis, but its total GDP ranks it somewhere in the 30s globally, not exactly major power status—as the way Emirati leaders (MBZ especially) have spread that wealth around. Following the Arab Spring, as you’ll see Annelle discuss, the Emiratis shrewdly made a series of bets on counter-revolutionary forces across the Arab World. Those bets have paid off, leaving Emirati leaders with a network of dependent clients across North Africa and in southern Yemen. MBZ was also savvy enough to pull UAE combat forces out of Yemen back in 2019, which means he’s been able to pursue his own agenda with respect to southern Yemeni separatists without carrying the baggage of peace talks or the Yemeni government’s collapse.

We weren’t able to get into it with Annelle this time because the interview was already running long, but MBZ’s drive to maximize the UAE’s regional and global influence may be hitting a proverbial wall in the form of his friend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”). As part of his Vision 2030 economic plan, MBS is looking ahead to a post-oil economy in which Saudi Arabia is the business hub of the Middle East. He aims to force any company doing business with Saudi Arabia to move its regional headquarters to the kingdom by 2024. This is a direct challenge to the current regional business hub, Dubai. This competition could have huge repercussions for the Gulf over the next few years, and I’m sure we’ll have Annelle back on the show relatively soon to talk about it.

Derek (00:00): The UAE as a whole, as this consolidation has been going on, and as [Mohammed bin Zayed] has been sort of dominating UAE politics since 2014, not just Abu Dhabi throwing its weight around internally, but the UAE has been throwing its weight around on the global stage. Can you sort of talk a little bit about the rise of this country to a position where they’re able to not take Joe Biden’s phone call? I don’t mean to harp on that and we’ll talk a little bit more about that in a minute, but they’ve become a major player. And part of it has to do with this axis that they’ve formed with the Saudis, which has its tensions, but has put them in the co-driver’s seat in the Gulf, in many ways. They’re a major factor inthe rivalry that’s now ending, or at least temporarily being swept under the rug, with Qatar and Turkey. They’re a big driver of this anti-Muslim brotherhood push that emerged out of the Gulf in the wake of the Arab spring movement. How did this country become such a major geopolitical player?

Annelle (01:21): I think the short answer to that is wealth and oil. And then using their oil wealth to then invest their sovereign wealth fund where they’ve made very wise investments and, and they’re looking to continue to increase their wealth even after the oil runs out, whenever that happens. So certainly I think it does go back to Mohammed bin Zayed. I think he has played a very crucial role and is, as you mentioned, going back to 2014, but even immediately in the wake of the Arab Spring. So starting in 2011, 2012, as it looked like Islamist movements were going to perhaps reshape what politics looked like in the Middle East.

Annelle (02:18): Obviously we had Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president, taking power in Egypt in 2012. And then Ennahda in Tunisia, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movement taking power as well. We had even, in some of the monarchies, Islamist parties taking control of parliaments in places like Morocco, for example. MBZ in particular, but also just the UAE more broadly, saw this as a major threat—that, in general, these kinds of popular movements could delegitimize the rule of long-running Gulf monarchs, or other monarchs, the Jordanian monarchy, the Moroccan monarchy, and already there had been some concern about Islamist movements operating within the UAE. It’s sort of a tale that gets told about the whole Gulf, the extent to which in the 1950s and 1960s, you had Muslim Brotherhood members who were fleeing from Nasser’s Egypt, for example, or Hafez el-Assad’s Syria, who found refuge in the Gulf.

Annelle (03:35): At a time when these countries had very few local individuals who had the education to staff their newly established universities, for example, or had the engineering background necessary to start working their newly functional oil fields, for example. And so in many of these countries, you saw Muslim Brotherhood members in particular, filling out the ranks of the bureaucracy of educational institutions. And so it has been a process subsequently—it’s happened on different timelines in different countries and in the UAE, arguably it happened somewhat earlier than somewhere like Saudi Arabia—where you’ve seen purges of individuals that are accused of being Muslim Brotherhood or of having Islamist leanings. So in the UAE, there was this concern that an increasingly empowered Islamist movement, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movement could threaten the control of the ruling families.

Annelle (04:48): And there was a big effort to crack down on that. And so this was already a sort of source of concern. And then that was just projected more broadly, the notion that if we saw Islamists successfully ruling in other parts of the region, whether it was Egypt or Islamist militias in Libya or in Syria taking control. Yemen Is a little different because of sectarian differences. We can get into that. But because the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni movement, we’re talking about activism among Sunni communities. So the concern from MBZ in particular and this then motivated Emirati foreign policy was to undermine these Islamist-controlled governments. So we saw this in Egypt, and even as recently as last summer with Kais Saied’s power grab in Tunisia, where he dismissed Tunisia’s parliament, which effectively kneecapped Ennahda which had been part of a coalition that was in power in Tunisia’s parliament.

Annelle (06:01): And, essentially, it’s been successful. The UAE managed to prevent what looked like a coming wave of Islamist takeovers, managed to then send a lot of money and resources to the counter-revolutionary governments that replaced them. And I think this is part of why we’re now seeing outreach from the UAE to countries like Qatar and Turkey, because they’re no longer seen as threatening as they had been when the UAE saw Qatar as sponsoring—when Qatar was sponsoring—some of these Islamist militias or groups.

Derek (06:43): Turkey, as well, was just sort of the muscle.

Annelle (06:46): Right. Turkey, having provided really a sanctuary for many Muslim Brotherhood members [who] fled Egypt after president Sisi took over in 2013. And what we’ve seen now, Erdoğan being in dire economic straits is willing to really shift here and—in return for both Saudi and Emirati investment—is no longer going to provide a sanctuary for these Islamists. And so, on the one hand, I do think it is encouraging to see that the UAE has perhaps recognized that some of this more interventionist foreign policy it was pursuing may have been more costly and less beneficial than they might have anticipated, especially somewhere like Yemen. But I think it also just speaks to the fact that it was successful. They disempowered Islamists all over the region.

Derek (07:53): It’s easy to be magnanimous when you’re the winner, right?

Annelle (07:55): Exactly.

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American Prestige
American Prestige
Derek Davison