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US seeks to reset relationship with oil-rich UAE

President Biden is signaling an effort by the White House to reset its relationship with Abu Dhabi after a high-profile list of cabinet officials led by the vice president took a Monday visit to the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich nation in the midst of a critical leadership change.

Rejection and perceived disinterest from Washington has led the UAE to recently act more boldly on the global stage. It abstained from a U.S.-led resolution at the United Nations that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Emirati officials have also refused to increase oil production in an effort to lower gas prices while it continues to pursue closer ties with China.  

But following the death of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the country’s second president, who had officially ruled since 2004, Biden this week dispatched his most senior cabinet officials led by Vice President Harris. She was joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and CIA Director William Burns.

The visit by the Biden administration’s top brass was one to express condolences — and congratulations — to the new leader, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Known as MBZ, he is the late president’s half-brother.

Harris, in remarks after a meeting that lasted less than one hour, said the purpose of the trip was to “reaffirm the shared commitment we have to security and prosperity in this region and also how the American people have benefited from this relationship in terms of security and prosperity.” She called the UAE a “friend” and “partner.”

The trip came as U.S. officials attempted to woo the monarchy amid a long list of strains between Abu Dhabi and Washington. Another issue is that of a longtime American foe Iran, as the UAE has rejected the Biden administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Tehran.

The tensions stand in stark contrast to the close ties the UAE held with the former administration.

Abu Dhabi welcomed then-President Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal. Most notably, the Gulf state benefited from normalizing relations with Israel through American proposed military sales and Washington pulling its support from Israeli plans to annex the West Bank. 

“MBZ, because he sees himself as a man of vision, and Abu Dhabi of being a significant and important country, he expects respect and certainly under Biden, doesn’t think he’s been treated with respect,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at The Washington Institute.

“Trump and Jared Kushner [the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor] sort of treated him with respect.”

Experts said that the trip by Biden officials signals the administration knows it has some work to do.

“I think the high level delegation signals that Washington would like to repair the relationship and it’s really important that they do that,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Mohammed, 61, has been considered the de-facto ruler of the Emirates for nearly 10 years, since then-President Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014 and was largely sidelined from power up until his death. 

Mohammed has held tremendous sway throughout the region during his time as crown prince of Abu Dhabi and is described by regional watchers as having a “vision,” focused on growing the Emirates wealth, making its economy an important global player and pushing back against what it views as the threat of political Islam, in particular in neighboring Iran and Qatar.

Gerald Feierstein, former ambassador to Yemen and a distinguished senior fellow on U.S. diplomacy at Middle East Institute, said Mohammed’s influence on the Trump administration’s “Abraham Accords” — the normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain — signaled the crown prince’s desire to be a “driver of events of the region more broadly, than just the Gulf.”  

The UAE has also garnered greater independence from the U.S.

“For the Emirates, they consider the U.S. a less reliable security and regional partner than it has been considered in the past and so they’re willing to craft their own independent foreign policy,” said Courtney Freer, nonresident fellow with the Brookings Institution.

Abu Dhabi took issue early on in the Biden administration with what it viewed as a weak response to threats and attacks the Emirates faced from Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, including Biden removing the Houthi terrorist designation.

Ibish, of the Arab Gulf States Institute, said the robust U.S. response to support Ukraine following Russia’s invasion underscored the feeling that Washington was abandoning its security commitments in the Middle East.  

“They look at the firm and united and resolute response to the invasion of Ukraine and compare it to those missile attacks [by the Houthis] and they feel very second best and not particularly looked after,” he said.

That has left leaders in the Emirates looking for help elsewhere.

“Whatever Washington wants, he [Mohammed] will make his own deal with Iran because they’re neighbors across the waters of the Gulf. And Dubai in particular, has important contacts with Iran at least on a commercial level,” Henderson said. 

Also at issue are negotiations that were reportedly rejected by the UAE to buy 50 F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. amid “defense security conditions for the acquisition,” a UAE official told Reuters in December. 

A State Department spokesperson, requesting anonymity, told The Hill that the administration remains committed to the sales and “are continuing consultations with the U.A.E. to ensure that we have a clear, mutual understanding with respect to Emirati obligations and actions before, during, and after delivery.” 

Before the Biden administration visit this week, the U.S. had already started to take steps toward repairing the diplomatic relationship, Ibish noted, in the form of an apology by Blinken to Mohammed last month for the Biden administration’s delay in responding to Houthi attacks in Abu Dhabi this year.

“It’s the apology that goes a long way because the response really did seem insufficient and particularly in the light of the Ukraine invasion, where the difference of the Western response is very stark,” Ibish added.

Feierstein added that the Blinken-Mohammed meeting in Morocco was a step in the “right direction” that “cleared away a lot of the underbrush in the relationship.”

“No two states ever see anything eye to eye, there are always differences in opinion and of position. But what you do want is a strong institutional link that allows you to work through those issues,” he added.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden administration Donald Trump Hussein Ibish Joe Biden Kamala Harris Kamala Harris Lloyd Austin UAE William Burns

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