Smart diplomacy might for the time being be more effective levers for the UAE as a self-declared regional powerhouse [This article originally appeared in Middle East Eye]
The regional tour of the UAE’s national security advisor, Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, took the influential brother of Abu Dhabi’s de-facto ruler Mohammad bin Zayed on a surprise visit to Doha where he met Qatar’s emir.
It is the most significant visit to Doha by any Emirati dignitary since the Arab Spring pitted the two neighbours against each other in a far-reaching clash over visions and ideological narratives.
Yet, as important as this visit is for regional security and stability, it has to be seen within the context of an ever more dynamic regional security environment enabled by the withdrawal of US leadership.
The recent developments in Afghanistan where a US puppet regime disintegrated within days of America’s withdrawal under the weight of local insurgents, brought home to Abu Dhabi the fragility and vulnerability of the wider regional order.
The images of a beaten superpower desperately trying to maintain control of its last bridgehead in Kabul, reinforced to Tahnoun – Abu Dhabi’s strategic mastermind – that the quest for national and regime security can no longer solely rely on the support from Washington.
Instead, it requires the UAE to become more pragmatic in forging networks and relationships across the region – if necessary, even with ideological adversaries in Doha and Ankara.
Abu Dhabi’s zero-sum mentality
Qatar was able to mend ties with the UAE’s ideological allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, moving in some instances beyond a mere cold peace. It allowed Doha to cooperate with Cairo to facilitate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, sidelining Abu Dhabi, as the latter failed to live up to its promise to leverage the Abraham Accords to advance the peace process.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar had meanwhile discussed closer cooperation on a range of portfolios, culminating in the establishment of the Saudi-Qatari Cooperation Council – all that as bilateral ties between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh shifted from a honeymoon phase in 2017 to more confrontation in 2021.
While the blockade against Qatar – conceived inter alia by Tahnoun bin Zayed – was meant to ostracise Doha regionally and internationally, it has come out on top with closer ties to Washington and more credentials as a reliable partner and broker in the region. Cultivating and offering channels of communication in Palestine, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Iran among others, Qatar’s return as a mediator stands in stark contrast to Abu Dhabi’s zero-sum mentality.
A counterrevolutionary crusade
Long after Qatar had already withdrawn from the Arab Spring in 2014, Abu Dhabi was still punching above its weight embarking on a counterrevolutionary crusade.
Its successful subversion campaign in Egypt in 2013, overturning the post-revolutionary status quo in the country, manifested the belief among the Al Nahyan brothers that the UAE could move from small state status to regional powerhouse overnight, using not just soft but also hard and more importantly smart power to achieve its objectives.
The assertiveness driven by the existential fear of political Islam and civil society in the region saw the Emirates intervening militarily in Libya and Yemen to shape the post-revolutionary environment there – at high operational and reputational costs.
The UAE’s success in mobilising and channelling public grievances in Tunisia to encourage President Kais Saied to clamp down on parliament and its elected Islamist MPs proved that Abu Dhabi could achieve more with less. Smart power and diplomacy might for the time being be more effective levers for the UAE as a self-perceived regional powerhouse.
Building networks and creating win-win situations where possible might advance Emirati regional power interests more effectively than a less pragmatic and more assertive zero-sum mentality. Especially against the backdrop of a vacuum left by a regional withdrawal of three consecutive US administrations, Abu Dhabi cannot ignore competitors and adversaries operating in the same area of interest.
Just like Abu Dhabi showed a pragmatic turn of engagement vis-à-vis Iran in 2019 amid Iranian attacks on the Gulf’s maritime infrastructure, Tahnoun and his brother MbZ seem to follow the slogan of "if you can't beat them, join them".
Thus, while it may be an exaggeration to present Tahnoun’s visit to Qatar as a belated admission of defeat, it is nonetheless a concession to at least temporarily overcome the substantial remaining ideological differences with Ankara and Qatar to secure geostrategic interests.
However, this geostrategic pragmatism can only be temporary in nature, as the fundamental ideological differences remain the foundation for regional competition between Doha and Abu Dhabi.
While it may create a well-needed lull in a highly contentious apolar environment in the region, it will only last as long as deemed more beneficial than direct confrontation.
At the same time, this lull provides sufficient leeway for Abu Dhabi and Doha to compete by alternative means in the information space, where their two narratives will continue to clash – the next war of narratives between the UAE and Qatar might be just around the corner as Libya heads into elections.