The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has recently been the scene of diplomatic activity, the most prominent being the visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the capital, Abu Dhabi, and the emirate of Dubai on April 15. During his visit, Zarif took part in the second Iranian-UAE joint high commission and met with his Emirati counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed, as well as with Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to whom he delivered an official invitation from President Hassan Rouhani to visit Tehran. This is the second such invitation extended to a high-ranking Emirati official, the first having been extended in December to UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, who visited Tehran in November, went so far as to describe the Islamic Republic of Iran as a “strategic partner” and noted that the UAE-Iranian “relationship was not limited to trade and economic affairs, but transcended those to include cultural common bonds.” Both countries have strong, wide-ranging business partnerships, but according to bin Zayed, the “volume of trade exchange between them a few years ago amounted to more than 44 billion AED [$12 billion] per year, [before] retreating in recent years to approximately 25 billion AED [$6.8 billion] in 2012.” This decline resulted from the economic sanctions imposed on Iran and the UAE’s deference to international resolutions in this regard.
Both countries are trying to expand their economic ties, especially given that if sanctions on Iran are lifted, Emirati ports, in particular Dubai, will become a main gateway for the transport of goods between Iran and the rest of the world. This would result in a faster economic recovery for Iran and bolster both countries’ mutual interests. This scenario was explicitly mentioned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, ruler of Dubai, who told the BBC in January, “Iran is our neighbor, with whom we do not want any problems. Lift the sanctions and everyone will benefit.” Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed reiterated this sentiment in Abu Dhabi on April 16, when he spoke of “great opportunities for mutual investments by the private sectors of both countries, once the hurdles imposed by international decisions are removed.”
The UAE has also been lightly stung by the sanctions on Iran. The sanctions mean Emirati banks cannot establish normal relations with their counterparts in Iran, with the UAE severing ties with 17 Iranian banks. The export and re-export activity from the port of Dubai toward the Iranian ports has also been affected. This is what makes the UAE unwilling to retreat or stop its trade relations with Tehran, as it stands to gain economically should sanctions be lifted. The economic incentive, added with the roughly 400,000 Iranians living in the UAE, places the UAE in a position to benefit should sanctions on Iran be lifted. In addition, economic interests can play a role in the soft containment of Tehran, rendering the latter more flexible in its foreign policies and positions, as well as bolstering the popularity of the reformist movement within Iranian society and decision-making circles.
Having Rouhani in power, and his adoption of a rhetoric completely different than that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has helped open the lines of communication between Iran and the UAE. This was welcomed by the Abu Dhabi’s top diplomat, bin Zayed, who said on April 16, “We look positively on the general approach adopted by President Rouhani in his country’s relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC], and view this as an opportunity to strengthen the historic relationship between us and do away with the problems and differences that have marred it.” These are developments that Abu Dhabi hopes will positively influence efforts to find a solution to the dispute over the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa islands through direct negotiations between the two countries.
A careful study of past statements by Emirati officials reveals that these recent pronouncements are not mere courtesies or public relations endeavors, but represent the essence of Emirati foreign policy. They showcase UAE officials’ desire to shield the Gulf region from crises and violence, as well as to create an atmosphere conducive to communication and dialogue. This would bolster trust between GCC states and Tehran, paving the way for future agreements and cooperation based on mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of each country.
It also dovetails with the efforts by neighboring Oman, which has embraced the detente between Washington and Tehran. Riyadh fears that the agreement between the United States and Iran might extend Tehran’s influence in the Gulf, returning Iran to its former role as the region’s policeman and increase its influence in the Levant. Syria is considered the frontline between Iran and its regional adversaries, with each party seeking to achieve greater gains there to use as bargaining chips in future negotiations.
The UAE’s position toward Tehran, however, does not conflict with that of the UAE’s big sister, Saudi Arabia, whose relationship with the UAE has developed dramatically since the Arab Spring. Riyadh’s political and economic weight in the region makes it difficult for the Saudis to be flexible in relations with Iran, given that there are a number of geopolitical issues separating the two. The smaller Gulf states are not burdened by such issues and thus have more flexibility in developing ties with Tehran.
The openness of Oman, Qatar and the UAE toward Iran stem from different circumstances. Oman had a steady relationship with Tehran during the Iraq-Iran War, and Muscat owes Tehran for supporting it during the Dhofar rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s. Qatar has economic interests related to joint gas fields with Iran, and as a small emirate, needs to develop ties with a larger, influential state to counter the weight of Saudi Arabia. Qatar has pursued good relations with Iran and Turkey for their regional, human, economic and political clout.
The economic factor, albeit very important, is not the only motivation for the UAE to develop its relations with Iran. There is also a desire to spare the Gulf region from any armed confrontation or nuclear arms race that would drain the energies and budgets of the region’s countries. Add to this the desire to resolve the problem of the three islands through dialogue and end all the problems between the two countries. The UAE believes that good relations with its Persian neighbor will consequently help ease the problems that Tehran has with the rest of the Gulf Arab states — albeit at a slow pace — and will relieve the tension with these countries.
The violence in Iraq and Syria and the bombings and security breaches ongoing in Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen are all factors that drive Abu Dhabi into seeking realistic solutions to extinguish the ring of fire spreading around the Middle East. This is particularly urgent, as the threat of terrorist organizations grows and the calls for incitement and hatred increase along with the transparent ambitions of organizations espousing political Islam. Such solutions cannot be reached by one party or one country alone, but require regional cooperation and concerted efforts.
In its relationship with Iran, Abu Dhabi seeks to employ policies predicated on the use of soft power, strategic partnerships, compromise solutions and practical agreements that bind the relevant parties. In turn, such a strategy would ensure that the UAE plays a future role that contributes to building a relationship of respect and understanding between the GCC and Iran and ultimately to changing the chilly relationship between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on one side and the Islamic Republic on the other.
In contrast, Tehran must diligently work to solve contentious issues between itself and the UAE, in particular, that of the islands. A resolution of this dispute would bolster trust and relations between them. Furthermore, a dialogue with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, with the aim of Iran reassuring them that it has no intentions to destabilize their internal security, would allay prevailing mistrust on that front. Reaching understandings about each country’s scope of influence in the Levant would not only serve to reduce tensions there, but would also ease tensions in the Gulf, to the relief of the region’s populace.