The United Arab Emirates in a Multi-Polar World

01 Jun 12:48 AM

Sector : Economy & Int'l Relations Country : UAE

Dr Imad Harb

Following its establishment in 1971, the UAE adopted a non-aligned foreign policy that allowed it to avoid becoming entangled in international alliances and pacts, but also to foster relations with both Arab and international allies. During the lifetime of the founder of the state, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, as well as the reign of his successor, H. H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the UAE has emphasized the principles of moderation, cooperation, and the peaceful resolution of conflict—even in the case of the Iranian-occupied UAE islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs in the Arabian Gulf.


It is universally agreed that the interests of the country lie in the drive for social and economic development, which is itself assisted by the state’s neutrality and adherence to international law. This policy endures, despite the various changes in the international political environment—from the bi-polarity of the Cold War, through the uni-polarity following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and the multi-polarity brought about by globalization.

UAE Foreign Policy between 1971 and 2000

At the height of the Cold War, the UAE carefully eschewed international entanglements, instead concentrating on its transformation from a British protectorate to a federal state of seven Emirates. It also took care to resolve border disputes with its Arabian Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia and Oman in order to settle any outstanding issues of statehood. Furthermore, the UAE worked to foster close relations with the Arab world, assisting Egypt and Syria in their 1973 confrontation with Israel, supporting the Palestinian cause, and helping to resolve the Lebanese civil war in its early phase (1975–1976).

In the following decade the UAE was forced to contend with the consequences of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which brought to power a new religious elite dedicated to fomenting fundamentalist Islamic ideology and revolution, thus threatening to create chaos in the Arabian Gulf. In September of 1980, Iraq launched an invasion of Iran that began the eight-year Iran–Iraq war that cost both countries millions of lives and tens of billions of dollars in economic and other losses. Throughout the 1980s, the UAE sought to protect itself and its interests in a dangerous environment, playing a leading role in establishing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 and in mediating on countless occasions between Iraq and Iran to end hostilities.

The 1990s began with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - a member of the GCC and the Arab League, and an oil producer. Under Sheikh Zayed’s leadership, the UAE took the lead in trying to find a peaceful resolution to a very difficult situation. Throughout its efforts, the UAE continued to emphasize the inviolability of Kuwait’s sovereignty and insisted on an immediate Iraqi withdrawal. Sheikh Zayed’s main concern was to prevent Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussein, from staying in Kuwait, and to avoid an international war to drive him out of the country. However, the latter eventually came to pass, and the United States has been a major player in the Arabian Gulf ever since.

Nonetheless, over the course of three decades New international actors, both large and small – and especially affluent ones – have found themselves playing a larger role than ever before in international relations. the UAE avoided siding with any international bloc or state. Instead, it maintained cordial relations with everyone and an independent foreign policy. It established diplomatic relations with the United States in the mid-1970s and with the Soviet Union and China in the mid-1980s. It has also enjoyed very close relations with France and the United Kingdom. Its first major arms deal in the 1980s was with France, when it acquired Mirage fighter aircraft.

In the 1990s, the UAE embarked on a policy accommodating the presence of American forces in the Arabian Gulf, but did not neglect to make other friends at the same time. It signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with Washington in 1994, with France in 1995, and with the United Kingdom in 1996. Later agreements were established with South Korea, Azerbaijan, Slovakia, and South Africa. The UAE’s main arms suppliers have been the US (aircraft, missiles, and air defense), Russia (air defense), and France (aircraft and tanks), but it has also struck deals with Turkey, South Africa, China, the UK and others.

In a Multi-Polar World

The first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed monumental events, from a major terrorist attack on the US, and two US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to a financial crisis that has slowed the international economy and affected almost every state around the world. However, the gathering pace of globalization and the information technology revolution have provided an opportunity for international affairs to escape the American uni-polarity born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. New international actors, both large and small – and especially affluent ones – have found themselves playing a larger role than ever before in international relations.

Indeed, the UAE has found that it can play an important role in the twenty-first century. Its reputation as a state that emphasizes cooperation, moderation, and peaceful inter-state relations has served it well; both politically and economically, the UAE has had a significant impact on world affairs.

The UAE’s foreign policy has helped the country expand its outreach while ensuring its interests, becoming a regional power despite its small size and population. It is a very important member of the GCC and plays an essential role in the Council’s defensive “Peninsula Shield” force. It has also played a stabilizing role in Bahrain by sending police forces to Manama to help maintain order in 2011, and assisted in the creation of the Gulf Initiative to resolve the Yemen crisis.

The UAE also plays a vital role in Arab affairs. It is a member of the Arab countries’ committee to promote the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, and is involved in the Arab League’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. In 2011, the UAE, along with Qatar, contributed two squadrons of fighter aircraft to the UN-supported humanitarian NATO mission in Libya, launched in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1973. The UAE also supported Lebanon – both militarily and economically – after the Israel– Hezbollah war of 2006, donating military helicopters to the Lebanese army and assisting efforts to re-build devastated areas in the south of the country.

Internationally, the UAE plays an important role in peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, such as in the areas of education, training, and medical intervention. In the 1990s the UAE participated in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Somalia and was part of the coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991. More recently, the UAE has opened a mission at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium— the first Arab and Gulf nation to do so. UAE–NATO relations have developed since the UAE joined the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative in 2004, which works to maintain peace and stability in the Arabian Gulf region.

The UAE’s arms acquisitions focus on defensive capabilities; hardware has been supplied by the US, France, the UK, Russia, Turkey and others. Abu Dhabi hosts the bi-annual International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX), where the latest state-of-theart weapons systems are exhibited by hundreds of local and international defense companies.

Economically, the UAE is an essential partner in maintaining the well-being of the international economy. Efforts to diversify the national economy away from its reliance on oil production have served to further integrate the UAE into the global economy. The UAE is in the middle of a drive to build up its industrial capacity and boost its attraction as a destination for tourism. The country’s industry is concentrating on developing petrochemicals, electrical equipment and metals, among other things. Its tourism development drive has necessitated the building of hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, parks, and recreation centers, as well as cultural attractions such as its own Guggenheim Museum and Louvre, among others.

The UAE is an important player in international trade. In 2010, the World Trade Organization ranked the UAE 19th in terms of the volume of its exports, and 24th in terms of imports. The UAE believes in unfettered trade activities and that interdependence is a foregone conclusion in inter-state relations. However, it also abides by international law, as well as United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iran, Syria, North Korea and others. Although the sanctions imposed on Iran damage its trade relations with the Islamic Republic – which depends on UAE ports for much of its imports – the UAE is anxious to play by international rules which it considers to be the best guarantor of its interests.

The UAE’s efforts to assist poor countries in the Arab world and beyond have earned it a high level of respect in international circles. Since its independence in 1971, the UAE has donated or loaned over $60 billion to more than 90 countries in all continents. It is among the very few countries that meet the target of devoting 0.7 percent of annual GNP to foreign assistance in order to support the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Additionally, its investments, augmented by a large sovereign wealth fund, are essential to many countries’ economic well-being. These investments range from holding shares in international financial institutions to investing in agricultural and industrial projects that help create employment in difficult economic times.

The UAE has also carved a niche for itself in the realm of international energy policy. It plays a leading role in the development of renewable energy and hosts the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). It has established Masdar, a commercial and educational institution that undertakes research on clean energy and commercially viable technologies that can assist in achieving environmental sustainability. It also has embarked on a drive to develop peaceful nuclear energy after committing itself to non-proliferation and eschewing enrichment.

Benefiting from Multi-polarity

As a small country with a small population, the UAE appears to benefit greatly from the current multi-polarity of the world. Its foreign policy shows signs that the country has truly matured in terms of how it both protects its interests domestically and around the world, and advances them in a competitive international environment. This active foreign policy has been guided by the concepts laid down by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who emphasized moderation, cooperation, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.


Dr Imad Harb
Researcher at the ECSSR
Dr. Imad Harb is a researcher at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi. He taught political science and Middle East studies at US universities. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Utah. 


Leave a reply