The United Arab Emirates gained its independence at the end of 1971, by then it comprised of seven emirates these being; Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al-Khainah, Ajman, Al-Qaiwain and Fujairah all of which had previously been under treaty relations with the united kingdom and were only known as Trucial states (Al-Khalili 56).
UAE is a relatively small State and its chief concern at that time was that of security taking into account that it still had unresolved border issues with most of its neighboring countries notably Saudi Arabia which had refused to acknowledge sovereignty.
This was because of the unsettled border disputes with Abu Thabi over the Al Burayami oasis, and the state of Iran and Oman which also challenged its entitlement to some islands (Al-Khalili 76). Moreover, the discovery of petroleum deposits in the early 1960s’ elicited other countries in the Arab league to dispute the legality of the UAEs’ ruling family.
It was thus indeterminate by the early 1970s’ whether indeed they would endure as a feasible autonomous state. It is due to these security threats that forced the UAE to promote strong foreign relations that would ensure its continuous survival in the Middle East. This paper will seek to explore and outline the conduct and evolution of the United Arab Emirates foreign policy, special consideration and concern will be placed on its foreign policy towards the state of Iran.
UAE Foreign Policy
Because of the relative small size and population of the UAE, its leaders understood that defending the country’s sovereignty and security from both internal and external political and war threats depended on a competent approach towards diplomatic relations with other countries (Early). Especially their larger and more powerful, influential neighbors such as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
The conception and formulation of the UAE foreign policy mainly mirrors the acceptance that its size and location necessitates it to put a lot of effort in its endeavors, and as often as possible collaborate with other nations. Its foreign policy has thus reflected its belief in the working with and supporting for the cause of international organizations, irrespective of their region of origin such as the United Nations and its affiliate agencies as well as the Arab league.
In its foreign policy, the pursuit of consensus, conciliation and corporation has been mentioned as fundamental to their continued survival and has taken deep interest in a variety of issues (Yambert and Goldschmidt). These are UAEs’ interests and priorities and its continuity in style and substance (Yambert and Goldschmidt).
There are several characteristics that make the United Arab Emirates a unique country and it is these unique traits that influence its foreign policy decisions on whether to open to some countries and which countries to impose restrictions. Some of these unique traits are, its being the world’s biggest producer of hydrocarbon, having the third largest oil reserves and being home to the fourth largest deposits of natural gas in the world (Yambert and Goldschmidt).
This wealth has had deep impact on its foreign relations. Also it’s geographical position in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula with its northern coastline on the Arabian gulf and its eastern coast on the gulf of Oman makes the country to be in a strategic position to commands the Strait of Gibraltar through which majority of the world’s oil exports passes; it’s also is the only way of entering the gulf (Suwaidi).
Thus it is only too normal that their first priority is that of seeking and maintaining stability and peace within its immediate neighbors, the states of the peninsula as well as Iran and Iraq in general (Suwaidi). But due to the continued tension in the area over the last 30years it has been forced to promote close ties with the States of the peninsula.
Relations between the UAE and Iran have been long standing. Commercial and political relationships as well as ties between the two countries can be traced back to thousands of years. As the Trucial states moved towards establishment of the UAE in 1971, Iran was the most powerful state in the gulf, and therefore in this aspect would factor in the determination of their policy.
The UAEs’ policy towards Iran has always sought the promotion of warm ties, the reason behind it not being to establish good relations with them but rather to continue the extensive commercial ties between the populace of the two countries. These cordial relations were however affected by the territorial claims by Iran to three of the UAEs’ Gulf islands and their subsequent invasion but despite this incident, relations with Iran still grew especially in the field of commerce.
This dispute over the ownership of these three islands formed one of the two sources of sore and tension in their foreign relations in recent times between the UAE and Iran, the other being the UAEs stand on the nuclear issue and threat from Iran (Suwaidi). The nuclear issue was less an issue of terrorism as it is a threat of security to the UAE, perhaps their stand towards Iran has been elicited by Iran’s refusal to cede the three islands back to UAE’s territory.
In regards to the recent sanctions imposed on the Islamic State of Iran by the United Nations Security Council, the UAE stated that it is committed to respecting them. However, in September 2008, sixteen companies, five of which were based in Dubai were charged with exporting dual-usable materials that could be used for civilian as well as for nuclear weapons industries to Iran companies in contravention of the Councils’ sanctions a case that was supported by Iran (Suwaidi).
The strong Iran-UAE bilateral trade relations have been a source of worry to the United States. In July of 2009, Howard Berman, the chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed concern that for many years UAE had been used by Iran as a transit point to “illegally procure items to maintain it’s nuclear and weapons of mass destruction programs” (Al- Alkim and Alkim 84).
In their economic relations Iran and the UAE have enjoyed wide ranging economic relations. But this has been threatened by the action of the central bank of the United Arab Emirates, that 41 accounts of Iranian companies be frozen so as to implement the sanctions against Iran. Over the years, the Emirates’ compliance to cooperate with Iran has caused conflict with the United States by obstructing the imposition of sanctions against Iran.
Diplomatic and military relationships between the two countries have also experienced cordial bilateral relations for many years since they are both members of OPEC. And even though both countries have been in subversive disputes over the possession of the three islands, they still have close dealings that are mutually beneficial.
Over the recent past however UAE foreign policy towards Iran has significantly changed due to Iran’s nuclear programme which has now made UAE to adopt hostile foreign policy towards Iran that among other things have involved of freezing of Iran funds deposited in UAE.
Iranian officials condemned this action taken by the Emirates since it was more than an absolute requirement according to the UNSCs’ resolution. In the course of that month, Iran in retribution purportedly banned the import of motor vehicles from the United Arab Emirates. In the same year, 2010 Emirates ambassador to US Yousef al-Otaiba, stated that “a cost-benefit analysis advocated for a preemptive military strike against Iran as opposed to a nuclear armed Iran” (Wolf).
Speaking during the interview he stated that “we cannot live with a nuclear Iran and I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE” (Wolf). a clear indication of where the foreign policy of UAE stands towards Iran. It would therefore seem that the only reason for keeping close relationship between these two countries is purely for economic benefit.
Al- Alkim, H. & Alkim, H. “The foreign policy of the United Arab Emirates”. London: Saqi Books. Print.
Al-Khalili, M. “Oman’s foreign policy: foundation and practice.” Oman: Praeger Publishers. 2009. Print.
Early, B. “Federalism and Foreign Policy:The Divergent Trade and Security Policies of the UAE”. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISA’s 49th Annual Convention, 2008. Web.
Suwaidi, J. “Iran and the Gulf: a search for stability.” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 54.1(1998). 379-397. Print.
Wolf, M. “UAE diplomat mulls hit on Iran’s nukes.” The Washington Post. 6 Jul. 2010. Web.
Yambert, K., & Goldschmidt, A. “The Contemporary Middle East: A Westview Reader.” London: Westview Press.