UAE-US relationship to be determined by what Trump can deliver

The Emirates “have been looking for some time for an American partner to push-back against Iran. They are looking for America to turn rhetoric into action.”
Speaking of Sheikh Mohammed, president Trump described him as a highly respectable man who loves his country. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
By Ola Salem in Washington, D.C.
Tue 16 May 2017 08:21 AM

The United States pledged to break away from the old policy of reluctance that defined the relationship between Washington and the Gulf states, after meetings with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince.

During the two-day visit, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, met with US President Donald Trump at the White House and discussed Iran’s threat to the region, the war in Syria, military cooperation in fighting extremism, ISIS and Al Qaeda and resolving the conflict in Yemen.

Although a level of uncertainty followed Trump’s election last year, with his infamous campaign rhetoric calling for a Muslim ban and criticising Gulf states, his approach in a mere few months since assuming office has left much enthusiasm to a malaise-ridden region.

Speaking of Sheikh Mohammed, president Trump described him as a highly respectable man who loves his country.

“Loves his country, I can tell you that,” Trump said during the visit. “And I think loves the Unites States, which for us is very important.”

Muath Al Wari, Senior Policy Analyst with the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress, said the visit provided an opportunity for the Trump administration to differentiate themselves from its predecessor with an outlook on how UAE-US relations will look over the next four years.

While the UAE and the rest of the Gulf states have always been close US allies, tensions rose during former president Barack Obama’s tenure with the loosening of Iranian sanctions, the depleting military action against ISIS and the inconsistent US approach to Egypt.

The new administration, however, did not take time to detach themselves from former policies. Following a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in the  Syrian province of Idlib, the US bombarded a Syrian air base. The move, highly praised by the UAE, signalled a stronger foreign policy on the Trump administration’s part, in contrast to the previous administration’s unassertive policy in the region.

And while Obama struck deals with Tehran, ignoring its regional threat, the Trump administration sees Iran in a much different light, recognising their threat to the region. The US defense secretary, Jim Mattis, previously stated that Iran was "the biggest destabilising force in the Middle East”.

Mattis, who coined the name little Sparta in reference to UAE’s military prowess, also recognises the military capabilities of the UAE. Talks to strengthen defense cooperation also took place during meetings in the US capital and a US-UAE defense cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries to allow closer work to address security threats.

With Egypt, president Trump has publicly praised president Abdel Fattah El Sisi and has proven more effective in negotiations after securing the prison release of Egyptian American aid worker, Aya Hijazi, last month.

“The UAE is happy with the Trump administration, so far,” Mr Al Wari said.

While many still have their reservations when it comes to Trump, he said “to the Emirates, he has made reassuring statements”.

“Emirates are certainly very happy with the approach [the US] have taken with Egypt. They’re happy with placing premium on a functioning relationship with Saudi Arabia. These are all good signs.”

He said the UAE has was great interest in how the Trump administration intends to address Iran.

Kristin Diwan, a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW),  said the Gulf had long been waiting for a change.

“The Arab Gulf states spent the last few years basically waiting out Obama, believing that any change in American leadership would be an improvement,” she said. They are very comfortable with the Trump Administration on both policy and form.”

David Weinberg, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, specialising in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, agreed. He said the UAE was “ecstatic” about Trump's approach to Iran.

“They have been looking for some time for an American partner to push-back against Iran..” he said. “They are looking for America to turn rhetoric into action.”

For now, the UAE will be waiting for deliverables.

Moving forward, Al Wari said it would be interesting to see what the Trump administration will be looking for from the Gulf states in turn as well.

“Obama bowed to the Saudi king at first, but relations weren't really strong later on, what really matters is policy.

“The future and health of the relationship relies on whether Trump delivers on the UAE” and whether the UAE delivers of Trump’s future asks.

Eric Trager, a Fellow at the Washington Institute and author of Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days said it was also possible for the White House to take stronger action against the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed a terrorist organisation by the UAE.

“The Emirates wants to see, first, that there’s a good top level relationship. Secondly, a White House strongly supporting their goals in Yemen, sharing concerns about Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, even if the administration cannot [take action due to certain domestic and legal aspects].”

The visit comes days before president Trump ventures out on his first overseas trip to Riyadh on May 19 where he formally invited UAE President Sheikh Khalifa to join talks in the Saudi Kingdom.

Diwan said Sheikh Mohammed likely “strengthen[ed] US comfort and enthusiasm for [Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed]”, providing context and background to facilitate a successful visit.

Al Wari said a lot was resting on the upcoming meeting with Riyadh.

Sheikh Mohammed, who was accompanied by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, the National security advisor and a number of other senior officials, also met with cabinet officials and members of congress during his visit.

According to the UAE Embassy in Washington, the UAE is currently the US’s largest export market in the Middle East. Trade and investment between the two nations support more than 100,000 American jobs.

They added that the UAE was a leader in promoting moderate Islam and religious tolerance through Sawab Center, a joint UAE-US programme that counters extremist propaganda online; and Hedayah, the Abu Dhabi-based center for research counter radicalisation and extremist ideology.

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