Upfront against terrorism

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Libyan security forces at the scene of a car bombing outside the UAE embassy building in Tripoli on November 13. The turmoil in Libya has led the UAE to play a more muscular role in that country and the region. Photo: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP

Anwar Gargash, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, speaks at a conference for the reconstruction of Syria, in Dubai on November 21. Photo: JUMANA EL HELOUEH/REUTERS

In Cairo, on November 28, a rally in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE has cracked down on the Muslim Brothers and their affiliates operating on its soil. Photo: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS

Free Syrian Army fighters at Handarat near Aleppo. The UAE believes that the opposition in Syria has become fractious and made impossible the transition of power. Photo: HOSAM KATAN/REUTERS

The UAE is no longer the understated player it used to be on the foreign policy front, and its main goal is “to fight terrorism and restore stability” in the Arab world.

UNTIL recently, the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) conducted its foreign policy in a comparatively low-profile manner while dispensing generous aid packages to many countries in the developing world. Unlike the Kingdom of Qatar, the UAE government’s preferred style was to operate under the radar. The UAE government has generally allowed its bigger neighbour, Saudi Arabia, to take the lead in formulating policies for the region. The two countries had sent “peacekeepers” to another neighbour, Bahrain, two years ago to help the monarchy there to stem a popular uprising that followed in the wake of the Arab Spring.

On Syria, the UAE’s position was similar to that of most members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, its support for the rebel groupings fighting against the government in Damascus was limited. In Libya, the UAE’s role was much more robust. It sent in weaponry and fighter planes in the successful attempt at regime change three years ago. The continuing turmoil in Libya has led to the UAE playing a more muscular role. Though the government in Abu Dhabi has refused to either confirm or deny it, it is common knowledge that UAE fighter jets have been in action in the North African country. According to reports, the UAE Air Force F-16s are based in Egyptian airfields near the border with Libya.

Both Egypt and the UAE support armed factions fighting the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist groups that are in control of the capital, Tripoli, and the port city of Benghazi. The kingdom of Qatar openly backs them. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists had led to a diplomatic row with the other GCC members. The Saudis and the Emiratis had withdrawn their Ambassadors to Qatar in the middle of the year. The relations had been repaired to some extent as of November, with the two countries sending back their Ambassadors in time for the GCC summit to be held in Doha in the second week of December.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt had the blessings and support of the GCC, barring the notable exception of Qatar. The UAE, together with Saudi Arabia, has pledged a $20-billion aid package to Egypt following Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s victory in the controversial elections held earlier in the year. The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, in a recent interaction with a group of mediapersons, said the future of Egypt was very important to the Arab world. “A stable Arab world is only possible with a moderate Egypt,” he said. He pointed out that one third of the Arab world’s population is concentrated in Egypt. “If Egypt is prosperous, the Arab world will be prosperous,” Gargash said.

It is no secret that the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood through the ballot box rattled the Saudis and the Emiratis. Since then, the UAE authorities have cracked down heavily on the Muslim Brothers and their affiliates operating on their soil. The authorities here no longer differentiate between the Muslim Brothers and the more radical affiliates such as the Islamic State (I.S.) or Al Qaeda. The UAE government, in the second week of November, released a long list of political parties and organisations it has put on its ban list. In all, 83 groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and its local affiliate, al Islah, are listed. Many al Islah members have been put under arrest.

Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s Foreign Minister, told the American channel Fox News that his country “will not tolerate even the smallest and tiniest amount of terrorism”. His deputy Gargash said that under the UAE’s counterterrorism laws, “instigating” terrorism is also a crime. This means that even talking or writing about proscribed subjects will be deemed a crime. “Terrorism comes from intellectual extremism,” Gargash emphasised. Calling the Muslim Brotherhood the prime instigators of the current upheaval in the region, Gargash pointed out that all the “jehadist leaders” of Al Qaeda and the I.S. started their political careers in the Muslim Brotherhood. The Minister said now the United States has also come round to the UAE’s initial assessment of the Muslim Brothers. The Barack Obama administration had good relations with the ousted government of Mohamed Morsi.

Gargash emphasised that the main foreign policy goal of the UAE was “to fight terrorism and restore stability” in the Arab world. He admitted that it would be an uphill task, noting that only four of the 20 Arab countries were rich. He also said that no Arab government was safe from the threat posed by the I.S. and that the only way to combat it was by providing social stability and economic development. He denied that the UAE was working “unilaterally” or was keen to play an important “regional” role. “We only seek to bring about moderation and stability in the region,” he said.

Gargash, who has been handling his country’s foreign policy file for many years, is reconciled to the fact that after the dust settles down in Syria and Iraq, the region will no longer look the same, with borders likely to be redrawn. The colonial boundaries, highlighted by the Sykes-Picot partitioning of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, could be history. There seems to be a mellowing of the UAE’s position on Syria. Senior UAE officials are no longer loudly demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad. The scenario has rapidly changed in the region. Secular Baathists are no longer the principal enemy for the most of the Gulf monarchies. The secularists have been transplanted by the Muslim Brothers and other Islamist groups as the main threats to the stability of the GCC countries.

Three years ago, militant groups fighting the Syrian and Iraqi governments were recipients of weaponry and funding from rich Gulf patrons. The deputy Foreign Minister said the 20,000 foreign fighters belonging to groups such as the I.S. and Al Nusra Front fighting in Syria were not interested in the future of the country or its people. According to him, had the opportunity presented itself, they would have fought in other parts of the world like Chechnya or Kashmir. “Everybody is a loser in Syria,” he said. Gargash said a transition of power in Damascus was not happening and the opposition had become increasingly fractious. He expressed his pessimism on the chances for peace in Syria. “There is a regime that is exhausted and is unable to take advantage of the situation,” he said. Gargash was of the view that there should be a “moderate approach” to religion and said that the UAE was not opposed to the democracy wave that swept the Arab world. “The democratic wave should be balanced with that of a strong state,” he averred. The Minister was not happy with the role being played by Turkey and Iran in the region. “They are behaving like they need a seat in the Arab League,” Gargash said. The major differences are with Turkey for its continuing support of the Muslim Brothers and its refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the military-dominated Egyptian government. “The Turkish stance on Egypt is unacceptable,” he said.

Gargash said that the UAE enjoys “mature relations” with Iran but at the same time the government is wary of Tehran’s “efforts to expand its influence in the region through confessional politics”. The Gulf countries hold Iran responsible for a host of issues, including the longevity of the Syrian government, for the fighting prowess of the Hezbollah and for supporting the Shia-dominated government in Iraq. With the virtual takeover of the Yemeni government by the Shia-affiliated Houthi group, the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have an additional grouse against Tehran.

The Foreign Minister, replying to a question from this correspondent, said the UAE would support a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. “We would like to see an agreement that would be tight and verifiable. The region should not be prone to proliferation,” he said. He gave the example of his own country. “The UAE has a verifiable nuclear programme which does not have an enrichment component,” he said. The UAE has four nuclear reactors built by the South Koreans. The Minister was of the view that a nuclear deal would bring stability to the Gulf region.The UAE’s Energy Minister, Suhail al-Mazrui, speaking about the plunge in global oil prices, said there was no need for alarm. He pointed out that in 2008 there was a similar situation when oil prices went down to $40 a barrel. There is a view that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the prime movers, with U.S.’ blessings, behind the decision to keep oil prices low for the time being. The main impact has been on the economies of countries such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, all major oil producers but at the same time geopolitical rivals of the U.S. and supporters of the Syrian government. Mazrui said the UAE was a big oil producer and oil prices going down would not be “catastrophic” for the country’s economy. “Oil only contributes 30 per cent of our GDP,” he said.

There is talk about the UAE joining Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to form a joint military intervention force that could be deployed in West Asia and northern Africa. Already, there is a de facto military alliance between Egypt and the UAE, with both countries cooperating militarily to support their proxies in Libya. The UAE, despite its strong military ties with the U.S., had apparently not taken Washington into confidence while launching air attacks inside Libya.

Evidently, there is a desire among these four countries to act independently of the U.S. in dealing with extremism in their region. The Egyptian President recently stated that a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy was needed for the region. According to El-Sisi, just targeting the I.S. in Iraq and Syria would not be sufficient to defeat extremism. The Obama administration is not willing to go beyond attacking the I.S. in Syria and Iraq. The proposed joint military intervention force would also be useful in case the I.S. turned its attention to the Gulf states.