Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

The UAE in the Red Sea and East Africa


The Center for International and Regional Studies invited, Islam Hassan, CIRS Research Analyst, to present his study, co-conducted with Nael Shama, at a Dialogue event on April 11, 2018. Hassan noted that, for the past decade, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has had foreign policy objectives in the Red Sea and East Africa in its pursuit of security and influence in the Middle East. The country has been heavily engaged in establishing military bases and acquiring operational and management rights over ports and economic zones in and around the Red Sea. This foray into one of the most important global shipping lanes is coupled with a significant naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and the Bab al Mandab Strait. Additionally, the presence of private Emirati security companies in the region has expanded for the purposes of conducting anti-piracy operations and providing protection for UAE ships.

During the long years of Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahyan’s rule (1971–2004), the UAE’s foreign policy was more idealistic than realistic and more reactive than proactive, according to Hassan. It was “pan-Arabist at the zenith of pan-Arabism in the 1970s; turned slightly pan-Islamist in the heyday of pan-Islamism in the 1980s; and then became increasingly pragmatic in the decades that saw the decline of ideologies, the 1990s and after,” he argued. And in the precarious early years of the UAE federation, founded in 1971, Zayed had to contend with the ordinary challenges of state formation. Iran’s occupation of three Emirati islands in the same year meant that the UAE “was put on test from the first day of its formation,” Hassan said.

After the death of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE witnessed five major developments on the domestic and regional levels: the massive wealth the country has generated in recent years; the 2011 Arab uprisings; the country’s intense rivalry with Qatar; the tension between the US and the UAE during the late years of the Obama administration; and the new leadership’s outlook.

The UAE’s economy enjoyed significant growth in the last decade. Since 2004, the country’s GDP has more than doubled, placing the country at third-highest in the Arab world for GDP per capita. This economic robustness has encouraged the new leadership to search for increased political influence and foreign investment opportunities, especially in the Red Sea countries whose economies have been rising in recent years, and are expected to grow in the future, according to Hassan.

Since 2011, the Arab landscape changed dramatically, especially following the uprisings. “A pan-Arab awakening that crossed borders with ease and unleashed deep forces of change; the Arab Spring sent shock waves throughout the ruling establishments in the Gulf monarchies,” said Hassan. The UAE was not immune to the uprisings, which struck the shores of Bahrain and neighboring Oman, and echoed inside the UAE itself. Fear of potential spillover effects rose, he said. With urgent appeals for reform and equality, “particularly worrying to the Emirati leadership” was the potential for the local Al-Islah Islamist movement to become more active and influential. These regional developments were coupled by “deep cracks that have swept the GCC,” and, consequently, the competition that has taken root with other Gulf states, including Qatar, he said.

“A pan-Arab awakening that crossed borders with ease and unleashed deep forces of change; the Arab Spring sent shock waves throughout the ruling establishments in the Gulf monarchies.”

Hassan explained there were also three nearly simultaneous developments that “poisoned the strategic UAE-US alliance:” the gradual US shift from the Gulf region to the Asia-Pacific region; the US administration’s tacit embrace of the Arab Spring; and the landmark nuclear deal in 2015 with Iran. These developments cast doubt on the US commitment to maintaining its long-standing security umbrella over the Gulf region. Additionally, fallout with Washington contributed to the strategic reformulation in the foreign policy of the UAE, whose contours began to emerge more clearly after 2011. This included a disposition towards using military means, he said.

The aforementioned domestic and regional developments were interpreted through the prism of “the overly ambitious new leadership” (Khalifa bin Zayed as the President of the UAE, and Mohamed bin Zayed as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi) that rose to power in 2004. The new leadership has a regional and international outlook that is conspicuously different from that of their reserved father, according to Hassan. They tend to be more pragmatic, realistic, and confrontational in dealing with regional challenges. So rather than merely focusing on diplomacy, mediation, dialogue, and foreign aid—tools used by Sheikh Zayed—the new leadership has sought influence through military engagement, massive foreign direct investments internationally, and military and naval presence beyond the country’s vicinity, particularly in the Red Sea, East Africa, Yemen, and Libya, he said.

This foreign policy change, which the UAE witnessed during the past decade or so, involved not only a change in means (from soft to hard power), but also in goals (seeking security and pursuing increased regional influence), Hassan said. “These two objectives—security and influence—have been the driving motivations behind the UAE’s intervention [through economic investments and military presence] in the Red Sea and East Africa.” The UAE’s economic aid to East African countries has increased twentyfold between 2011 and 2013, Hassan reported. The country’s “heavy investment with cash and guns” in the Red Sea region has included supplying economic aid, building ports, providing maritime services, and establishing military and naval bases.

The regional competition over the Red Sea, and its islands, ports and straits, has intensified in recent years with Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, and is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, according to Hassan. “The transformation that has taken place in the foreign policy of the UAE over the past few years has been huge. It has not only involved a change in foreign policy means, but also in the identification of new foreign policy problems and goals,” he said. Whether the UAE can sustain such distant foothold in the Red Sea and East Africa despite competition with regional and international powers, and maintain its alliance with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which allows the country to be active in areas always considered strategic depths of the two regional powers, are things for time to unfold, he said.


Article by Khansa Maria, CIRS Student Assistant.

Islam Hassan is the Research Analyst at the CIRS, Georgetown University in Qatar. His current research interests include state-building in the Gulf States and comparative politics and international relations of West Asia and North Africa. He coedited “The State of Middle Eastern Youth,” a special issue of the journal The Muslim World (2017). His publications also include “The GCC’s 2014 Crisis: Causes, Issues and Solutions” (in Arabic and English, with Al Jazeera Research Center, 2015); and “Jordan on the Brink,” International Journal of Culture and History (2016).