Since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in early October, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and patron of Saudi Arabia’s own crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), has resembled the cat that swallowed the canary. The disastrous regional adventurism and ruthless despotism of his protégé has averted Washington’s gaze from the UAE’s own responsibility for the carnage that is roiling the region. But the UAE should not be given a get out jail free card. If the White House refuses to hold the Emirates accountable for undermining U.S. interests, Congress should use its constitutional power to step into the leadership void.
Throughout Yemen’s three-and-a-half-year civil war, the Emiratis have been as brutal and reckless as the Saudis. While Saudi aircraft slaughter innocent civilians at wedding halls, funerals, homes, markets, schools, and ports, UAE boots on the ground have also contributed to the humanitarian disaster. The UAE-led military offensive in and around the port city of Hodeidah has been a catastrophe: over 400,000 Yemenis have been displaced since June and the fighting has considerably worsened the country’s already alarming food crisis and famine. Human rights organizations have reported on secret UAE-administered detention facilities where torture, beatings, electric shocks, and killings have occurred. The UAE royal family has paid retired U.S. Special Forces soldiers to track down and assassinate Yemeni political figures that it believes are in league with the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement. In Aden, the UAE has organized, supplied, and paid militias to foment fractious proxy violence. Yemenis who once saw the Emirati intervention as an heroic act to defend their nation’s sovereignty from a ruthless Iran-supported militia are now depicting it as an occupation, if not colonization.
The UAE is part of the coalition of “Saudi-led” Arab countries (along with Bahrain and Egypt) that imposed a blockade against Qatar in May 2017. These nations were attempting to, among other things, end Qatar’s “terrorism,” cut its ties to Iran, get it to stop meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, and force it to pursue a less independent foreign policy. The UAE has taken an even more hardline stance against the Qataris than the Saudis, in part because it is more fanatical than Riyadh about eradicating any trace of Muslim Brotherhood influence in Qatar and the region more broadly. The boycott, which has divided America’s partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council, has been a disaster for both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, affording both Iran and Turkey opportunities to expand their influence in Doha. Nor has it worked out well for Washington, which hoped to forge a united Gulf front to contain Iranian influence. But for the UAE, the Saudis have been a useful surrogate for outsized regional ambitions; the Emiratis’ relationship with the Kingdom has allowed them to punch well above their weight. That’s not a good thing.
The UAE is also up to no good in Libya, undermining U.S. policy and the U.N.-endorsed Government of National Accord (GNA). It has provided extensive military support to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) in direct violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. According to the U.N. Panel of Experts on Libya, it may have supplied the LNA with attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and other military vehicles that are no match for its lightly armed opponents. UAE combat aircraft are reportedly providing Haftar’s forces with air support. And this summer, Emirati officials allegedly discussed a scheme to export Libyan crude oil outside of the official National Oil Corp in order to increase financial pressure on the U.S. and the GNA. In short, the UAE has made it far more difficult to stabilize wretched Libya.
The UAE may not be in the Saudis’ league as far as domestic repression and human rights abuse go, but it’s no rookie either. Human Rights Watch has documented its poor record—the denial of freedom of expression, intolerance of domestic criticism and dissent, continued abuses towards its large population of foreign migrant workers, the denial of women’s rights, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. UAE residents who have spoken out about human rights issues are at serious risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture. Many are serving long prison terms; many have left the country under pressure.
The UAE is nearly as bad as Saudi Arabia, but less ham-handed and more competent. That’s allowed it to fly under the West’s radar screen and escape closer scrutiny. Like the Saudis, it takes for granted Washington’s unquestioned diplomatic and military support. Abu Dhabi spent $21.3 million last year to influence U.S. policy. Yousef al-Otaiba, the wily UAE ambassador to the United States, has proven very adept at peddling his country’s influence, reportedly claiming that he had Jared Kushner “in his pocket.” Indeed, the UAE seems to have persuaded the entire American foreign policy establishment that Abu Dhabi’s and Washington’s national security interests are identical and it should not be held accountable for its misdeeds.
U.S. political leaders are too pusillanimous to call out the UAE’s bad behavior, too reluctant to impose penalties when the UAE undermines U.S. objectives in the region, and too frightened to disassociate America from the sectarian warfare and humanitarian calamity the Emiratis have perpetrated.
If Congress can find the spine to sanction Russia, Syria, and hopefully Saudi Arabia for their murderous behavior and human rights abuses, it shouldn’t be so supine about the UAE’s transgressions. America’s interests and moral values demand no less.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst based in New York. The views expressed here are his own.
Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2005 to 2015, he was a member of the secretary of state’s Office of Policy Planning.