By Alexander Cornwell
ABU DHABI (Reuters) – U.S. ties with the United Arab Emirates are being tested, a senior Emirati diplomat said on Thursday, in a rare admission of strains in their strategic partnership which have been highlighted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The wealthy Gulf Arab oil exporter has signalled unease in recent years over what it sees as Washington’s declining commitment to the security of U.S. partners in the region, while Abu Dhabi has deepened ties with Moscow and Beijing.
Differences over the war in Yemen, Washington’s Iran policy and U.S. conditions on arms sales have added to those concerns and culminated in the UAE not backing a U.S.-drafted resolution to condemn Russian’s invasion of Ukraine – an abstention which showed Washington cannot take UAE support for granted.
“It is like any relationship. It has strong days where the relationship is very healthy and days where the relationship is under question,” UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba said.
“Today, we’re going through a stress test but I am confident that we will get out of it and get to a better place,” Otaiba said at a defence event in Abu Dhabi.
The United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states have tried to take a neutral stance between Western allies and Russia, their partner in an oil producers’ grouping known as OPEC+.
UAE state investment funds also have stakes in Russian companies and strategic ties with Russia’s sovereign fund, while the two countries have broadly shared geopolitical interests in the conflicts in Syria and Libya.
After abstaining in the Security Council vote against Russia, the UAE this week supported a similar resolution at the United Nations General Assembly. That vote was non-binding, and is unlikely to soften the impact of the original UAE stance.
“It was damaging because it is a very public sign of the tension” with Washington, said Cinzia Bianco, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, contrasting the abstention with more discreet channels she said Abu Dhabi previously used to signal dissatisfaction.
Traditionally reliant on a U.S. military umbrella for their protection, the UAE and other Gulf Arab states are concerned that the Biden administration has weakened its commitment to the region, especially after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its growing focus on countering China.
Their message to Washington is: “If you want to change the rules of the game and want less commitment towards us, we claim the right to be less committed towards you,” Bianco said.
‘TIMID’ U.S. RESPONSE
Some UN diplomats also linked the UAE reluctance to condemn Russia with a vote a few days later when Russia backed a UN arms embargo on Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis, who have launched drone and missile strikes on the UAE and Saudi Arabia this year.
Both the UAE and Russia denied any deal was made, but the Houthi issue remains a point of tension.
After Houthi missile attacks killed three civilians in Abu Dhabi in January, the UAE pushed Washington to re-designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation and help the Emirates step up their defences against such attacks.
“They regard the U.S. response as timid,” a Western diplomat said. “They were really determined to get them designated as a terror group”.
The UAE has been frustrated by the slow pace of a deal to buy U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets and conditions related to the sale. In December it said it would suspend discussions on the F-35s, part of a wider $23 billion deal that includes drones and other advanced munitions.
Sticking points have been concerns over Abu Dhabi’s relationship with China, including the use of Huawei’s 5G technology, how the stealth jets can be deployed and how much of the F-35 technology the Emiratis will be able to use.
“PIVOT FROM WEST”
The UAE is also closely watching efforts to revive a global-powers nuclear pact with Iran which could be agreed in coming days and lift sanctions on Tehran, giving its economy a boost and consolidating Iran’s regional clout.
As well as Iran’s links to the Houthis, Iran-backed militant groups in the region have extended Tehran’s authority in Iraq and Lebanon. Partly to counter-balance Iranian power, the UAE has been building ties with countries like China and Russia and moving to boost its own defence capabilities.
“That pivot towards the east naturally means that the UAE are pivoting away from the west,” said Andreas Krieg, associate professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College in London, adding the UAE would pursue its own national interest.
Ayham Kamel of Eurasia Group said ambassador Otaiba’s comments showed the limits of the relationship with Washington, which he described as a partnership but not a formal alliance set by treaty.
“The leadership in Abu Dhabi are not willing to be a proxy power. They are not an arm of the U.S in the Middle East,” he said. “There is no treaty”.
(Writing by Lina Najem, Ghaida Ghantous and Dominic Evans)