Strengthening the Stature of the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East as a Reflection of Fundamental Change in the Region


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | August 28, 2020

Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan - UAE


In recent years, the United Arab Emirates (henceforth, the UAE) has been bolstering its influence in the Middle East, and in the Arab world in particular. This constitutes a peak in a trend that had transformed the UAE from an oil emirate on the margins of the Arab world, into an influential entity in the hubs of the action and a host of disputes within the Arab and Muslim world where the UAE possesses strong affiliations with key players in the international arena.


The foundation of the UAE's enhanced stature in the Arab world reflects fundamental changes in the Middle East. First – a shift from the traditional regional power centers in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad that have sunken into turmoil in the shadow of economic collapse, civil war, or disintegration into a failed state - to the Persian Gulf region.


In the wake of the 'Arab Spring', the clout of the countries that led the Arab world for many decades and crowned themselves as "revolutionary and progressive forces" have significantly declined, while by contrast, the emirates – after years on the margins of the Arab world (and certainly vis-à-vis the Israeli-Arab conflict), where their chief role was to economically support dominant Arab regimes, as well as the Palestinians – have emerged of late as a rising star in the Arab constellation.


The wind behind the sails of the UAE being transformed into a leading regional player is the UAE's current head of state: 58 year-old Mohammad bin Zayid, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Bin Zayid is considered one of the dominant players in the Arab world today. He maintains close ties with heads of the international political system (particularly with President Trump), and serves as a key player in the moderate Sunni camp. It was for good reason that he was crowned by The New York Times and Time magazine in 2019 as one of the strongest leaders in the region, and even in the world as a whole. [1]



The new power centers in the Arab world, first and foremost the UAE, are of a fundamentally different character from the forces that led the region in the past:


  1. All of the Gulf countries are based on a traditional ruling structure and social fabric that contribute to the stability of their governments and to a great extent constitute a base to their survivability in an era of turmoil. Not one monarchial regime in the Arab world collapsed in the course of the 'Arab Spring' – in contrast to a large portion of the non-monarchial regimes.

  2. In contrast to what are labeled 'progressive regimes" (as well as Islamic elements in the Arab world), the monarchial regimes in the Persian Gulf lack an ideological dimension, and certainly don't possess a revolutionary edge; they are ardent adherents to maintenance of the status quo.

  3. The base of the power of the regimes in the Persian Gulf is economic, although some emirates are gradually developing points of leverage for influence in the media and in the diplomatic , technological and scientific field – and even in the military sphere. In recent years the UAE has been accruing such clout while Qatar also stands out in recent decades for its similar aspirations to gain power in the Middle East beyond its demographic and geographical weight.

  4. Historical attitudes of Gulf State governments towards Israel in general and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in particular, have been less harshthan that of the other Arab states. The approach of these governments rest on an outlook of realpolitik, according to which it is possible and even desirable to promote a long-term political settlement with Israel that in their minds will be a keystone for strategic stability throughout the Middle East.



Establishment of the UAE's leadership position in the Arab sphere is being pursued within close cooperation with the emirates' two core allies – Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are party to the UAE's vision regarding the shape of the region and definition of the threats and opportunities it embodies, and distinction between friends, strategic partners and foes. The "triangle camp"to which most of the Gulf States (except Qatar) are party that has won the support of countries in North Africa, and Sudan – rests on three basic principles:


  1. Shared identification of who's the enemy, first and foremost Iran and its allies in the 'resistance camp' and the Shi`te camp (Teheran is perceived as a central existential threat from the perspective of the majority of the states in the Gulf), and after that – the Muslim Brotherhood stream in the Arab and Muslim world, and ISIS.

  2. Shared definition of the United States as a dependable strategic support, although attitudes towards the present administration in Washington are wary at times, and accompanied by worry that Trumps` administration will fail to stand beside the Gulf States if and when they face grave threats, particularly from Iran.

  3. Similarly, they position the Palestinian issue on the margins of their strategic agenda - nationally and regionally - while exhibiting a fundamentally positive attitude towards Israel that is perceived as a key player in the framework of the struggle against Iran.



The growing influence of the UAE in the region is expressed on a number of planes:


  • The political-strategic plane: Together with Saudi Arabia (and on the basis of close personal ties between Mohammed bin Zayid and the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman), today the two countries lead the "moderate Sunni Arab camp". The two countries perceive themselves as standing in the forefront of the Arab struggle with Iran and with Turkey whose clout has grown at the expense of the Arab world; they lead the fierce three-year all-Arab conflict against Qatar; and they seek to
    shore-up the Arab regimes in their proximity.[2]

  • The security plane: In contrast with the Persian Gulf States' traditional aversion to military involvement in regional conflicts, in recent years Saudi Arabia and the UAE have exhibited active involvement in various hubs of contest in the Middle East, including in arenas beyond their 'back yard' (that is, not just the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea). Reaching a decisive outcome in these conflicts is perceived in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as highly important for strategically shaping realities on a regional scope. In this context, there is the military involvement of the UAE in the struggles being waged in Yemen (against the Houthi who are operating with Iranian support, although in June of this year the UAE announced it would end its military involvement in Yemen); in Libya (against the forces supported by Turkey); and in a more limited fashion in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia. The UAE's military effort has been most prominently manifested in its airborne operations together with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and at times in coordination with western entities (for example in Libya).

  • The economic plane: The UAE's main cities, first and foremost Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have been transformed in recent decades into dominant financial, commercial, banking and tourist centers in the Middle East that even carry weight on international level. The UAE exploits its economic clout in order to support its allies -- first and foremost Egypt which has enjoyed extensive economic assistance over the past two decades.[3]

  • The civilian plane: In recent years the UAE has also demonstrated its power and influence also on the civilian plane, particularly in the realm of science, technology and education. In this respect, particularly outstanding are the academic institutions opening in the UAE that have become forerunners in the Arab world (replacing to a large extent the institutions of higher learning in Egypt and Jordan that had been magnets for young people throughout the Arab world). In addition, there are state-of-the-art technological projects the UAE is promoting, including operation of a nuclear reactor inaugurated in July 2020 – built in Abu Dhabi in cooperation with South Korea[4] launch of a probe to Mars last July;[5] inauguration of a regional stem cell center for bone marrow transplants;[6] investment of many resources in the medicine domain to combat the Coronavirus (primarily participation in efforts to develop a vaccine, and furnishing medical supplies to countries around the world stricken by the virus).



Strengthen of the UAE's regional influence constitutes a positive strategic trend from Israel's perspective. The two countries maintain close relations in a host of realms over the past two decades, ties that became public with the declaration of normalization between Israel and the UAE in August. Such special relations have been expressed in a number of aspects:


  1. Broad scope security cooperation focusing on acquisition of much Israeli security equipment by the UAE (particularly in the aviation and cyber domains)[7]

  2. Collaborative endeavors on economic and technological issues (including a shared effort in recent months to develop a Coronavirus vaccine).[8]

  3. The UAE publically hosting visits by government officials and economic and sports delegations from Israel (an unusual step in the Arab world).

  4. Open support by the UAE in recent years behind the attempts of President Trump to take the 'Deal of the Century' forward (an exceptional posture, relatively speaking, in the Arab world).


The UAE's relations with Israel have, more than once, been the converse to'charged' relationship of the UAE with power holders in the Palestinian arena. In general, the UAE has very limited impact in the Palestinian arena compared to other regional players such as Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. The UAE is almost entirely void of any contact with the Hamas regime affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (that is perceived by bin Zayid as a threat), and with the Palestinian Authority. The breaking off of relations between the UAE and Ramallah occurred gradually over the past decade, against the backdrop of complaints by bin Zayid regarding the 'disappearance' of aid money the UAE sent the Palestinians, into the pockets of senior Palestinian Authority officials.


Another undercurrent of the falling out is bin Zayid's support for Abu Mazen's bitter rival, Mohammed Dahlan (Dahlan served as an advisor to the emir on combating the Muslim Brotherhood, and is waiting in the wings to command a key position in Palestinian leadership after Abu Mazen's departure).


Indications of the bad bloodbetween the UAE and Palestinians surfaced immediately after the declaration on normalization of relations with Israel. The Palestinian Authority severely condemned the move, branding it "sticking a knife in the back of Palestinians" and recalled its ambassador to the UAE, and throughout Palestinian areas protest demonstrations were held against the United Arab Emirates at which likenesses of bin Zayid were burned in effigy.


Even prior to the move, the friction between the UAE and the Palestinians was clearly evident last June following the decision of the United Arab Emirates to send the Palestinian Authority medical aid via a direct flight between Abu Dhabi and Israel.the act was een as an official inaugural flightof a direct connection between the two countries, perceived as an expression of growing normalization between the two.


The move engendered harsh resentment in the Palestinian arena, in the midst of a severe crisis with Israel over declarations regarding annexation, leading the Palestinians to formally declare they would decline to receive the aid.[9]


As already noted, the UAE's enhanced prominence and clout in the Arab world constitutes a positive trend from Israel's perspective. The growing power of the United Arab Emirates contributes to the Israeli effort to crystallizea regional alignment against shared threats, first and foremost -- Iran, and to fuel progress towards Israel's acceptance in the Arab world.


The weighty move towards normalizing relations was coupled with taking the question of annexation off the Israeli agenda (at least for the foreseeable future), however, so far this has not prompted any 'defusing' of the severe crisis with the Palestinian Authority, manifested since 19 May in a complete breaking off of contact-coordination between the sides, paralleled by increased weakening of the government in Ramallah. While Israel has reaped a significant achievement facing the Arab world, it continues to grapple with grave problems in its immediate vicinity that soon are liable to develop into a strategic-political and security challenge.


Israel must not let its success in advancing the strategic outlook that holds It can realize normalization with the Arab world without a settlement with the Palestinians, lead it to take the crisis with the Palestinians lightly (certainly not, considering this assumption resides at the core of seething Palestinian frustrations).


Just the opposite. Israel must examine how to assist the Palestinians to 'climb down from the ledge' they have gone out on by taking such a drastic step as 'divesting' from Israel (a significant portion of senior Authority officials are ripe for such a step back from the abyss, fearing that the current crisis could undermine the stability of the government in Ramallah and lead to Hamas 'raising its head'.


To extricate the Palestinians from the pointless-hopeless position they have barricaded themselves into fueled by a brooding sense of injustice, it would be wise on the part of Israel relaying conciliatory-mollifying messages to Palestinian leadership, parallel to broad utilization of third-party arbitrators – along with the use of incentives, primarily outside assistance, including that of the UAE.




[1] For a profile of bin Zayid, see The New York Times: 2 June 2019.

[2] For more about the UAE's involvement in various conflict flashpoints in the Middle East, see The New York Times, 14 July 2020.

[3] According to media reports, the UAE has investments in Egypt to a magnitude of 6.2 billion dollars, and it is considered the largest foreign investor in Egypt. It was also reported that since 2001 all the Gulf states combined contributed some 92 billion dollars to Egypt - 15 billion from the UAE (6 billion as a grant and 8.6 billion as a loan for purchase of oil). See:, 19 March 2019;, 8 June 2018;, 7 January 2018.

[4] BBC in Arabic, 1 August 2020.

[5] See the UAE's space agency website at

[6] #UIhebrew (Tweeter account "the Emirates in Hebrew"), 29 July 2020.

[7] For more on acquisition by the UAE from Israel in the security domain, see The New Yorker magazine, 11 June 2018. See also, Neri Zilber, "Gulf Cyber Cooperation with Israel: Balancing Threats and Rights," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch, No. 3066, 17 January 2019.

[8] In recent months an agreement for joint development of a vaccine for Coronavirus was signed between Rafael and Israel Aircraft Industries, and Group 42 - the leading agency for technological development in the UAE:, July 2020 and, 9 July 2020.

[9], 10 June 2020.




Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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