The UAE air strikes in Libya carried out in late August may not have decisively shifted the balance of power between the warring militias battling for control of Tripoli airport, but the military intervention is still hugely significant in heralding a more muscular foreign policy out of Abu Dhabi.

The confirmation that the UAE air force had deployed in an effort to thwart the advance of the Islamist-linked Misrata militia – without the prior approval of the US – represents a stark statement of intent from Abu Dhabi. And it stands in sharp contrast to the mediating role that UAE foreign policy traditionally stood for under its founder, the late UAE president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan.

More assertive

Sheikh Zayed’s strategy involved maintaining contacts and relations with all Arab countries. With the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed now driving a far more assertive foreign policy, the former even-handedness is giving way to a partisan strategy that reflects the polarisation of Middle Eastern politics in the past three years. The rulebook of Gulf statecraft is being torn up, say analysts.

“When Sheikh Zayed passed away in 2004, power passed to this younger set of princes with a different and more active vision of what the UAE could or should be doing in the region,” says Andrew Hammond, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). “The new leadership as represented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed views [the UAE] as an economic power that should have political power in consequence.” 

The UAE has emerged as the most forceful Gulf state, prepared to deploy its formidable air power to rebalance a complex factional dispute in Libya, while bolstering a burgeoning alliance with President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, with which it coordinated a series of air strikes in the final two weeks of August.

The calculated intervention was not simply about assisting one particular Libyan militia to gain the upper hand over another; it forms part of a broader geopolitical contest in which Abu Dhabi is attempting to contain what it perceives as a destabilising drive for regional supremacy by organised political Islam under the sponsorship of fellow Gulf state Qatar.

Two-fold message

The message the UAE air strikes carry is two-fold. “The immediate purpose is to lend support to their anti-Islamist allies on the ground. But the broader purpose is to check Qatari intentions and designs in theatres of the Middle East that affect Emirati interests,” says Bilal Saab, Brent Scowcroft Center resident senior fellow for Middle East security at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.   

Abu Dhabi’s animus towards Doha over the past year has surpassed that of Qatar’s traditional regional challenger, Saudi Arabia. In April, when GCC leaders withdrew their diplomatic representation from Qatar, it was the UAE that pushed the strongest for decisive action against the recalcitrant Gulf state.

The rising anger towards Doha reflects the latter’s support for regional Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood. There is deep suspicion in senior Emirati circles at the motivations of a Gulf monarchy siding with a movement whose implicit aim would be to drive out the ruling families from the GCC.

This goes well beyond the traditional feuding between Gulf states. The rapid deterioration in regional security has raised the stakes.

“To some extent, it is an extension of the bitter rivalry between the UAE and Qatar, sending a clear message to the Qataris saying: ‘We’re also involved in North Africa and we will basically support our guys until they crush your guys’,” says Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at the US-based Baker Institute.

Deeper concern

While the more assertive regional role for the UAE may find much of its initial impetus from countering Qatari interventions across the region, it is primarily motivated by deeper geostrategic positioning.

“The perception of threat in Abu Dhabi has little to do with the Qataris themselves,” says Saab. “It’s really about the rise of the Islamists. They see them as formidable opponents whom they really need to combat at the early stages before things get out of control. This threat cannot go unchallenged because it undermines everything they have been trying to accomplish over the past two decades in terms of opening up to the world. And frankly, they don’t understand why their US partner doesn’t get that.”

Although Qatar is supporting Islamist groups across the region, analysts point out that it does not need Qatar’s involvement in Libya and Egypt for the UAE to have a desire to intervene.

“The Emiratis are concerned about instability on Egypt’s border and that forms part of a broader policy of supporting the regime in Egypt. Qatar is a secondary factor, not a prime mover,” says Hammond.

This is consistent with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s ambition to project Abu Dhabi’s influence on the Arab states undergoing transition. The rapid extension of financial support to Egypt, the rush to punish Qatar diplomatically for perceived transgressions and now the Libya air strikes form part of a broader recalibration of strategy.

Stronger role

The message that the UAE is ready to play a stronger regional role is also intended for a wider international audience, notably Washington and the Nato countries. Reports that the Obama administration had not been informed of the UAE air strikes were inaccurate; officials had briefed the US government about the military engagement, even if they had not sought Washington’s explicit approval.

This represents another seismic shift in the way the UAE engages with the outside world. Saab says it also sends a message to Nato and the West that the UAE will not hesitate to protect itself and support what seems to be a common interest with Nato states to combat the rise of violent political Islamists and terrorist groups. “The message is to show they have a capable partner that can intervene forcefully whenever the circumstances call for it,” he says.

Man in charge

Western policymakers have formed increasingly close ties with the UAE crown prince, who is viewed as a forceful and credible regional point man with a clear strategic vision. “It’s no secret that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is the man in charge,” says Saab. “He is also the main man for Washington; there is a strong perception [there] that he is the go-to person, handling multiple files – military, political and economic.” 

His calculation that the UAE should play to its strengths – such as by deploying its powerful air force – in forging a new regional role is one that appears to still be being digested in the West.

Washington and its coalition partners have struggled to appreciate the scale of the UAE’s anxiety about the existential threat posed by the rise of political Islam across much of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. Emirati officials have long vexed about the US and Europe’s failure to realise movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood will challenge the political systems in the GCC. They have tried to convince their Western allies that the battle they are waging is part a broader global strategy against Islamist terrorism.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed must also keep his Gulf allies on board. The UAE air force is by far the strongest in the Arab world, so there is an operational component to this military attack in Libya.

Saudi dominance

However, Saudi Arabia’s willingness to let the UAE intervene in the Libyan-Egyptian theatre does not mean the kingdom is ready to cede its regional leadership to Abu Dhabi. In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, it is Saudi diplomacy that has made its presence felt – whether in the form of financing Lebanon’s army, fostering the official Syrian opposition or engineering favourable outcomes to prevent both the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) and Shia-backed groups from carving up Iraq.

A division of labour between Saudi Arabia and the UAE is starting to emerge, with North Africa a sphere of influence for Abu Dhabi and the Levant, a region where Riyadh’s reach is far stronger.

Iran is another matter. The UAE’s position is complicated by Dubai’s preference for an outreach to President Hassan Rouhani’s leadership, which contrasts with Abu Dhabi’s traditional sceptical line towards the Islamic Republic.

Such nuances have in the past been disguised by the UAE leaders’ willingness to compromise in the cause of federation unity. However, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s rise means Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, with his less hawkish views on many regional issues, has become sidelined recently.

“With the rise of Abu Dhabi over the past five years within the UAE, it is now the real engine of decision-making,” says Coates-Ulrichsen.

Pivotal leader

In an era where mainstream Gulf states are consciously seeking to restore strongmen to positions of power in Arab states undergoing transition, the UAE crown prince himself is emerging as a pivotal regional figure. “Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is already seen as a strongman of the Gulf, with a clear vision of projecting Gulf power,” says Hammond.

Of course, he is not the only such figure. A growing clique within Saudi policymaking circles is also becoming increasingly activist, with figures such as Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud shaping regional security policy.

Abu Dhabi’s leadership has an advantage over Saudi Arabia’s in not being encumbered by the latter’s more complicated factional and generational intricacies, as a new generation limbers up to succeed the ageing sons of King Abdulaziz.

Unfinished business

The UAE authorities see themselves as sensible and sober-minded players. This self-image will be tested by likely future military engagements. The air strikes in Libya had little material impact on the UAE-backed Zintan militias’ success in holding positions, and this presents some unfinished business.

If the primary intention behind the Libya engagement was to show what the UAE is prepared to do in stemming the advance of Islamist movements, it succeeded. Abu Dhabi has drawn a line in the sand.

“They will say that as they’ve done it once, why not do it again? But they will have to look at the consequences,” says Hammond. “Libya’s a very complicated situation, with lots of different militias fighting for influence. And they have to be careful of blowback.”