Middle Eastern experts have commented widely on the “new” foreign policy of the United Arab Emirates. Many of these same commentators have gone so far as to term it the policy of a “New Middle East.” The UAE’s recent approach is defined by a more assertive and aggressive foreign policy –as demonstrated by the UAE’s recent alliances with heretofore non-traditional partners. Many of these partners are what European experts call “New Europe” – those countries, mostly in Eastern and South Eastern Europe who, in the post-Cold War era, are themselves looking to establish assertive foreign policy agendas of their own.
In this article, we look at the recent relations between the UAE and three members of the so-called “New Europe” – Serbia, Greece and Israel – to try to decipher this trend and determine whether this is simply a temporary alliance of convenience or whether this is truly the realities of a new world order.
The UAE is made up of seven separate Emirates that united in 1971 to build a more stable and secure federation after the discovery of vast oil reserves in the desert wastelands that once dominated their land. This union of emirates also ensured that foreign policy decisions would be both centralized and unified, and directed from the new capital in Abu Dhabi.
While the nascent UAE’s initial foreign policy agenda was limited to local issues (vis-a-vis Iran over sovereignty of islands in the Persian Gulf, land borders with neighboring Saudi Arabia, etc.), the present-day UAE’s policy is much more wide-ranging.
The UAE has been heavily involved militarily against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, taking part in air raids in both Libya and Syria and even brokering peace deals between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The central aim of the UAE’s foreign policy has been an aversion to and a suppression of Islamic movements, most especially the Islamic Brotherhood who, in the wake of the Arab Spring, received a second wind in terms of popularity and appeal among the newly emancipated, voting, Arab masses.
Complicating the picture for the UAE is the presence of Islamic or neo-Islamic political regimes among two of the region’s historically dominant actors: (the Islamic Republic of) Iran and in a Turkey dominated by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (a sort of Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood).
The UAE’s enmity to the Brotherhood has left it with very few friends in the region: even neighboring and fellow GCC member Qatar is Brotherhood friendly. Qatar’s stance was a root cause of the well-publicized spat between the UAE and Qatar and the ensuing blockade between the two nations. The UAE’s partners in the blockade of Qatar are close regional allies: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. These alliances, though, are shaky.
The Saudi-UAE alliance is temporary at best since Saudi-UAE relations, as any student of Gulf history will attest, is historically antagonistic. Bahrain is small and militarily insignificant in the wider regional and global context. Abdul Fattah El-Sisi’s government in Cairo, on the other hand, must always keep an eye on its Brotherhood-friendly electorate. The dearth of potential allies closer to home has led the UAE further afield and to countries with historically anti-Islamist agendas.
These so-called “anti-Islamist nations” of “New Europe” carry similar geo-political traits: located in the east and south-eastern Europe, all bordering Muslim countries and each with border grievances with their said Islamic neighbors.
The case of Serbia is illuminating; with its borders being encroached by both Muslim-majority Bosnia and Herzegovina and more recently by an Albanian-backed Kosovar independence movement. Balkan massacres involving Orthodox Christian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims are still imprinted in recent living memory.
The same factors apply to Greece, and though the Greeks have avoided the kind of violence associated with the former Yugoslavia, its long 400-year history of Ottoman occupation and its continued clashes with the modern Turkish state in places like Cyprus remains. The Greco-Turkish rivalry is complicated further by the recent discovery of fossil fuels in the Eastern Mediterranean region and the complexities of maritime border demarcation.
Israel, though technically not in South-Eastern Europe, is geographically and culturally close enough. Israel’s issues with its Arab neighbors are well-known; the eruption of violence in May 2021 in Jerusalem and in Gaza being the most recent manifestation.
These factors have not stopped the UAE in its pursuit of closer ties with each of the above nations. The first signs of this new foreign policy pivot came as early as 2013 when the UAE’s national airline Etihad Airways signed a strategic partnership agreement with Air Serbia which included the former acquiring a 49% stake in the latter.
Ties with the Government of Serbia were further enhanced in 2014 when it was announced that an Abu Dhabi-based investment company would develop the “Belgrade Waterfront” project in the heart of the Serbian capital. The project includes the building of a new 40-story mixed-use skyscraper known as “Belgrade Tower.” The project was controversial from the start, with many Belgrade residents protesting the project for, among other things, its perceived backroom nature and the involvement of a murky foreign partner (i.e. the UAE). Other deals made between the UAE and Serbia included an estimated $1.5 billion loan to Serbia and major investments in Serbia’s defense and semi-conductor industries by the UAE.
The UAE’s ties with Greece have been strengthened more recently as both nations share a mutual animosity with Turkey, though for differing reasons. Those differences have not stopped Greece and the UAE from concluding, in November 2020, a political and defense agreement in what was termed a “strategic partnership.” This follows the events of May 2020 when Greece, the UAE, Cyprus, Egypt and France issued a joint statement condemning Turkey’s energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey responded by calling the countries an “alliance of evil.”
In January of this year, reports indicated that the UAE would soon participate in joint military exercises with Greece. Other participants in these joint exercises include, amongst others, the United States, Cyprus and Israel.
The Abraham Accords that the UAE signed with Israel have garnered the most attention among observers. The UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel was unpopular on the “Arab Street”, but was widely praised in the West. The Accords go beyond normalization as Israeli’s have been granted something akin to “preferential status” with the UAE in terms of travel, trade and investments. Israel’s well-known defense industry is a key factor in bringing the two nations together, but deals have also been signed in the medical, cultural and scientific fields.
The contentious nature of the deal was exposed before the ink used to sign the Accords was barely dry when conflict arose between Israel and Palestine in May. It was the first test for the new UAE-Israel alliance and it seems to have passed with little hindrance.
Will these alliances between the so-called “New Middle East” and the “New Europe” hold? A change in the overall situation in the Middle East, even a small one, could change the entire picture outlined above. It should be remembered that the UAE is a one-man dictatorship without an elected parliament. Should there be any kind of change in government in Abu Dhabi, then policy changes are likely as well. Likewise, policy in the UAE (and in the Gulf region generally) is typically transactional and personal. This means that a single event can cause big changes in outlook and ultimately policy.
Alliances in the Middle East shift as often as sands of the region shift. The recent news of a rupture in the Saudi-UAE alliance due to disagreements over oil output quotas will not surprise Middle Eastern analysts, and analysts of Europe – especially of “New Europe” – have been warned.