Working to Rule

The UAE has emerged as a key player on the global diplomatic stage, flexing its muscles and projecting soft power far beyond its borders.

The UAE was established in 1971, and includes the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman, and Umm Al Quwain. Abu Dhabi is at the heart of the UAE’s power structure, with the Ruler of the Emirate also representing the federal UAE as its President; Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan assumed both roles on November 3, 2004. While the UAE can be considered a federal presidential elected monarchy, it is also ruled in line with a constitution established at the start of federation in 1971 and confirmed in 1996.

The constitution helps define the roles that the federal government plays in reference to each of the seven constituent Emirates, which each have extensive areas of independence and control at the local level.

Presided over by the President is the Supreme Council of the UAE, which is the senior policymaking unit for the UAE. It is composed of the rulers (or designated representative) of each of the seven Emirates in the UAE and is used to discuss and determine the key strategic directions of the UAE at a federal level.

On the more day-to-day side of things is the Council of Ministers, or Cabinet, which is the prime executive authority in the UAE. The Cabinet is presided over by the Prime Minister of the UAE, who is currently also the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Additionally, of the 29 ministers who make up the Cabinet, at present eight of its members are women. The average age of the UAE Cabinet’s members is 38 years old, comparatively young by international standards, with the youngest member the Minister of Youth Affairs, Shamma bint Suhail Faris Al Mazrui, who was 22 when she assumed her position.

Another key institution at the national level is the Federal National Council (FNC), a body composed of 20 elected representatives and another 20 appointed by the seven Emirates through an electoral college system, with Abu Dhabi and Dubai selecting four representatives each, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah choosing three delegates per Emirate, and with Ajman, Fujairah, and Umm Al Quwain nominating two members each.

Before 2006, all members of the FNC were selected by the rulers of the individual Emirates, and since then half of its members must stand for election.

The FNC has become a key sounding board for the people of the UAE, and the third elections for the 20 popularly elected members of the body were held in 2015. Of late, the FNC has focused on a number of issues of increasing concern to UAE nationals, including child rights, pensions, antiquities laws, education, and national security.

Also of note is that Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi, formerly the head of Abu Dhabi’s Educational Council, was chosen to become speaker of the FNC, the first time a woman has exercised the role. The FNC has the ability to examine and amend legislation and plays a key role in fine-tuning the parameters of the annual federal budget.
Also at the federal level lies the judiciary, including the Supreme Court and the Court of First Instance.

However, at the time of federation, the constitution allowed for the establishment of local court systems for those Emirates looking to explore this option. As a result, three of the UAE’s members—Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Ras Al Khaimah—have their own judicial systems that interact with the federal judiciary.

While the above, more modern governance structures exist, the traditional “majlis” system, in which those in positions of authority conduct “open house” meetings, still exerts a strong influence over the mechanics of local statecraft.

Under the majlis system, individuals can present their petitions or requests to community leaders, interact with others under the same roof to reach solutions for their problems, or discuss in a less formal way issues of importance to them. Through the majlis, the leadership of the UAE and the individual Emirates are able to gain a good understanding of the needs and aspirations of the people of the UAE.

The UAE has, undoubtedly, grown to prominence thanks to the wealth afforded to it by oil, first discovered in the 1950s. This transformed its economy from one reliant on fishing and pearls to one reliant on the black stuff.

Today, oil revenues, although somewhat in the doldrums at present, are helping the Emirates to plan for a post-oil future.

Indeed, around half of Abu Dhabi’s economy is non-oil, whereas Dubai, which does not enjoy the same quantity of natural resources as Abu Dhabi, predicts that the non-oil sector will contribute 80% to GDP over the coming 15 years. Elsewhere, Sharjah styles itself as the industrial hub of the UAE, with 18 distinct industrial zones and a manufacturing sector that accounts for nearly one-third of the manufacturing sector of the entire UAE.

The Emirate was also chosen as the Islamic Culture Capital of the Arab Region for 2014, a reflection of the soft power the UAE now wields. This is also evident in the upcoming Expo 2020 to be hosted in Dubai, an event that has the entire UAE excited.

The event, scheduled to run from October 20, 2020 to April 10, 2021, not only brings national prestige, but moreover acts as an economic springboard as official data at the time of winning forecast an ultimate AED140-billion contribution to GDP from related activities.

And with diversity as the spice of life, the other Emirates have also carved out key niches for themselves, with Ajman boasting a successful free zone while maintaining a close connection to its past.

Ras Al Khaimah, on the other hand, is home to some industry giants, including RAK Ceramics, one of the world’s largest ceramics producers, while Fujairah has emerged as a key shipping hub and tourist destination, and Umm Al Quwain, sitting on an idyllic lagoon, is home to its own free zones and port.

Measured by per-capita punch, it is certainly one of the most ambitious. In addition to its impressive 98 diplomatic missions across the world (or one for every 14,000 Emirati citizens), its military effervescence has been no less conspicuous.

Far from a passive, indifferent commercial outpost on the Arabian Gulf, the UAE now has military bases on the Horn of Africa, the southern rim of Arabia, the mouth of the Red Sea as far north as Eritrea, and deep into the Mediterranean, from Benghazi (Libya) to Limassol (Cyprus). At no time since pre-Napoleonic Venice has such a small but pivotal power held such influence.

For starters, the question and quest for Emirati influence is a bit of an anomalous one: the UAE is liberal and tolerant while retaining strong Islamic values—scarcely a comparison can be made in recent world history to its unique international position.

Though host to some of the largest ports in the Middle East, including Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port, the UAE is not immune to competition. Significant expansion at neighboring ports in Chabahar (Iran) and Duqm (Oman), not to mention the construction of King Abdullah Economic City on the Red Sea in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), means that virtually all of its neighbors are vying for a larger piece of the global trade pie. Inevitably, if not intentionally, variations in regional trade volumes are somewhat zero-sum, and the UAE’s aggressive foreign policy stems at least in part from these fears.

To contain these threats, Abu Dhabi has a pragmatic approach: internationally, it must manage, if not stabilize, regional security through military consolidation and nimble enough diplomacy to avoid ruffling the feathers of other powerful players in the region. In pursuit of this, it has supported military efforts against Houthi rebels in Yemen, keeping the country’s significant ports open and friendly.

Further south on the Horn of Africa, Abu Dhabi is backing rebels in Puntland and Somaliland in their efforts to break away from Mogadishu. In return—or part and parcel of this process—the UAE is funding Puntland’s Maritime Police Force and bolstering its acquisition of the Berbera port along Somaliland’s coast as part of its securitization of the region’s most critical waterways.

An ancient Red Sea harbor that once marked the southernmost tip of the Ottoman Empire, Berbera is now under contract with DP World, a shipping behemoth that sprung out of the 2005 merger of Dubai Ports Authority and Dubai Ports International and now controls 77 terminals across the globe.

And Berbera is far more than a military-map vanity project; plans are afoot to build a Kempinski hotel and build solar power stations—all in addition to the 25-year lease on air and naval bases the deal included, which amounts to virtually the “first economic recognition of [the] tiny republic,” as The Economist quoted one ecstatic Somaliland politician putting it.

The mastermind behind the UAE’s foreign policy is Abu Dhabi and, more specifically, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. Son of the late founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, he graduated from Sandhurst before enrolling as an officer in the UAE’s armed forces, where he primarily served as an air force pilot.

Since then, he has transformed the UAE into the third-largest arms importer in the world with an estimated military budget of USD23.5 billion in 2016.

Another situation in which the UAE has flexed its diplomatic might is in the ongoing dispute with Qatar, with the Emirates joining Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt in an economic and diplomatic blockade on the country over claims its government licensed the funding of terrorism across the Middle East. The UAE later reacted strongly to Qatar’s decision to reestablish full ties with Iran. And the pressure exerted by the Gulf allies appears to be working, with Doha increasingly eager to negotiate.

The UAE also stands tall in the world of ideas. As the UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, wrote in a recent piece, his country’s mission in the region and world at large is to be “a path guided by the true tenets of Islam: respect, inclusion, and peace.” This is a vision that “empowers women, embraces diversity, encourages innovation, and welcomes global engagement,” Otaiba wrote.

Setting out to establish a strong, capable, and accountable post-carbon economy “driven by innovation, human capital, rule of law, and open trade,” the country is also working in conjunction with NASA to develop the UAE Space Agency to the extent that it can put a probe around Mars by 2021.

As part of the Emirate’s broader goal of demonstrating that it is possible to be “Muslim, moderate, and modern” without batting an eye, the Mars probe is hoped to be a source of inspiration for an entire generation of Emirati and Arab youth—a Kennedian “moon shot” for the 21st century Gulf.