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Will Biden Side with UAE’s Bin Zayed or Ditch Him?

Alwaght- The end of Donald Trump’s presidency shifted the political observers’ focus to foreign policy even more than on domestic issues. In this area, the new President Joe Biden said during the election debates that one of the main priorities of his policy was return to the international community and multilateralism. He added that he wanted an end to Trump’s “embracing” of the dictators and bullies and reembracing the US allies.

Even in other statements, Biden had explicitly challenged Trump’s policies in support of authoritarian Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf. For the first time since his presidency, Biden has taken such a stand against the Myanmar military coup plotters who last week seized the power from legitimate government.

Following the power grab by the junta and arrest of senior government officials, including Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, Biden issued a statement announcing that Washington lifted past decade the sanctions against Myanmar as the democratic process moved forward in the country. But moving backwards in this path would trigger a fast review of the sanctions relief decision and appropriate actions.

The UAE is also one of the important actors and perhaps the most important points of Biden’s foreign policy test in defense of democracy and opposition to authoritarian regimes. Led by Crown Prince Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, the Persian Gulf state has been actively interfering in the regional affairs and beyond for the past two decades. This trend intensified, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump. As the White House offered strategic support for Abu Dhabi at the diplomatic and military levels, the Emirati rulers intervened even deeper in the regional states’ affairs.

With this in mind, what policy would Biden adopt towards the UAE during his presidency?

UAE foreign policy moved against the US’s

Exploiting Trump presidency, the UAE over the past four years advanced its policy under the foreign policy czar bin Zayed and clashed with the American policy in a set of areas. This makes Biden’s mission regarding Abu Dhabi harder. Over the past two years, the Emiratis embarked on a path regarding the Libyan crisis totally conflicting with that of Washington. Setting up its military bases in the war-ravaged North African country and using drones to provide support to General Khalifa Haftar’s battle against the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, the UAE has so caused death of many civilians. The oil-rich Arab country even backed financially and logistically the Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group in Libya.

Even on a larger scale, the UAE’s role in Yemen has been much worse and more catastrophic. The country, accompanied by Saudi Arabia, has been responsible for the killing of hundreds of innocent Yemeni citizens since March 2015, and has been accomplice in creation of a huge humanitarian crisis in the already-impoverished country. Despite the announcement of a withdrawal from Yemen in 2019, the Emiratis are still in full coordination with Riyadh and continue their all-out blockade on the country, in stark contrast to Biden’s stated strategy.

Yet another point of conflict between Biden and the UAE foreign policy is an emerging willingness by the Emiratis to boost relations with China and strike deals with the Asian power. China’s threat to Washington’s declining hegemony has become central to the American foreign policy over the past decade, and will continue to be so under Biden. China seeks to become a hub of international trade and economy with ambitious plans such as the “One Belt One Road” initiative, but the Trump administration over the past four years struggled to dissuade its allies from engaging with the initiative. However, the UAE seeks to lead the project’s implementation in the region, and that is why Abu Dhabi, for example, turned a blind eye to the case of the Uyghur Muslims in China, just against Washington’s expectations.

Will Biden dispense with the UAE?

With the presence of the US-UAE foreign policy disunity, the question is that will Biden leave behind Abu Dhabi in his regional policy? In other words, what would be his approach towards the Arab country?

In its first steps, Biden administration announced that it suspended Trump’s last-minute sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE and will review major policy of support to Yemen war. Democrats have criticized Trump’s approach to supporting authoritarian regimes over the years, emphasizing concepts such as democracy and human rights. But now the public focus seems to be on Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over issues like assassination of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by a Saudi death squad at his country’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The shift of pressure on Riyadh means way less pressures on Abu Dhabi.

The reasons for this can also be explained at two levels. First, because of the UAE’s signing of normalization agreement with the Israeli regime, powerful Zionist lobby at the White House and the Congress opposes putting strains on bin Zayed for his clampdown against opposition like Muslim Brotherhood and also his interventionist and destabilizing foreign policy.

The UAE, on the other hand, has in recent years sought to plant another powerful lobby in Washington by buying large quantities of weapons from US arms companies. Abu Dhabi has also sought to influence the American regional policy by providing extensive financial support to important think tanks and influential elite figures.

Still, Biden has two paths ahead; one is to end logistical and military support for Abu Dhabi and reduce diplomatic relations with it, and the other is to walk the Trump administration’s path by easing media pressure in its home politics. In the meantime, it is certain that Biden, between these two difficult choices, is clearly aware that the UAE can be an important actor for Washington’s West Asian policy, with which it is impossible to do away.

Also, another notable point is that deciding on how to deal with Saudi Arabia is much easier than with the UAE since Ben Salman’s opponents in the new White House administration are large in number and his scandals to a large extent can enlighten Biden’s policy direction. However, just unlike bin Salman, Ben Zayed has many close friends among the Democrats and so the new Secretary of State Antony Blinkin’s job of policy-making regarding the UAE will be the most demanding area of his interaction with the Persian Gulf Arab states. 


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