Originally published under the title "Hedging Bets in the Gulf."
In recent years, it has been an open secret that Israel and the United Arab Emirates enjoyed shared positions on a wide range of key issues in the Middle East. The existence of some level of communications between the two countries was also widely known. Israel and the UAE shared deep concerns in two key areas: first, regarding the Iranian ambition to attain regional hegemony; and second, on the threat of Sunni political Islam in general and of the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.
The UAE lacks the Islamist foundations of Saudi Arabia, and in Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed Bin Zayed, it possesses a leader highly regarded by Western and Israeli officials as a sophisticated strategic thinker.
Nor were the Emiratis focused only on theorizing. The UAE has invested heavily in its armed forces in recent years. Its air force recently provided effective air support to Gen. Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army.
The UAE's Presidential Guard, commanded by former head of the Australian SAS Maj.-Gen. Mike Hindmarsh, is a premier fighting force in the Arab world. The readiness to engage the UAE's armed forces led former US defense secretary James Mattis to dub the country "little Sparta."
As a result, those analysts who posit the existence of a "moderate alliance" of Middle East countries, of which Israel is a member, united by concerns regarding Iran and Islamism, tend to give the UAE high billing within this group.
Recent moves by the UAE, however, suggest this rosy picture only reflects part of the reality, and needs to be amended. Observe.
In Yemen on July 8, the Emiratis announced the drawing down of their forces from the country. Abu Dhabi's soldiers have played the key military role on the ground against the Houthis since 2015.
Having departed the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Ansar Allah or Houthi insurgency, the Emiratis subsequently threw their weight behind their local allies in Yemen. From August 7, fighters supporting the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, which seeks autonomy for Yemen's south, have been clashing with units loyal to the Saudi-supported government of Abd-Rabu Mansour al-Hadi in the city of Aden. It remains to be seen whether the Emirati drawdown will result in a renewed offensive by the Houthis from the north.
The UAE has notably refrained from directly accusing Tehran of carrying out the attacks on four tankers in UAE territorial waters which took place in May. This despite there being no other serious candidate for responsibility. And in late July, a UAE delegation travelled to Tehran and, with exquisite irony, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iranians to "enhance maritime border security cooperation."
In the Syrian arena, too, the UAE is charting its own course. Saudi Arabia and the US remain determined to maintain a stance of non-cooperation with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have good relations with the Western-supported, Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces in the east of the country.
The UAE wants "to ensure that Syria returns to the Arab region," in the words of UAE Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed. The Emiratis re-opened their embassy in Damascus in December. The UAE is cooperating closely with Russia on the Syrian file.
So what lies behind this recent series of moves by the UAE? Is there a coherent strategic pattern behind them?
First of all, it should be clarified that the UAE is not moving toward rapprochement, still less an alliance with Iran (nor, of course, with Sunni political Islam). There is no danger of a second Qatar emerging in the Gulf region. Recent reports have revealed that Israel and the UAE have taken part in a series of US-brokered meetings in recent months to discuss issues of common concern. The core, common analysis of regional trends and dangers surely persists.
But conversations with individuals close to the power circles of the UAE suggest what is taking place is a kind of hedging of bets.
This derives primarily from the UAE's lack of confidence in the seriousness of the attempt to build a cohesive, united, US-led front against the advance of Iran.
The US failure to respond to Iranian provocations with decisive force was carefully noted in all regional capitals.
The US failure to respond with decisive force to the downing by Iran of its RQ-4A Global Hawk drone over the Strait of Hormuz in June was carefully noted in all regional capitals, including Abu Dhabi. Many in the West saw this as a sign of American refusal to be drawn into a hasty over-reaction by an Iranian provocation. But in the Middle East it was widely interpreted as hesitation, and lack of commitment.
The erratic nature of US regional policy – the stop-start, zig-zagging on northeast Syria being a case in point – has solidified this perception. The Western confusion and disunity behind Gibraltar's refusal to agree to US requests to extend the detention of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1, and the subsequent release of the tanker confirm this picture.
The perception is not that the US and the West are weaker than Iran. It is rather that the US, and far more Europe, are not all that focused on the Iranian threat and the need to meet it and turn it back. Israel, of course, has no choice but to resist the Iranian push forward. The Iranians have marked the Jewish state for destruction. No diplomatic path is possible.
The far less formidable UAE, by contrast, has a broader range of diplomatic options. These include attempts to woo Iranian assets away from Tehran (Syria), efforts at partial rapprochement with Tehran itself (the MoU on maritime security), and a partial quitting of a stalemated conflict (Yemen).
The latest moves by the UAE should serve as a caution to analysts in Israel who too quickly celebrate the supposed "alliance" of status quo or Western-aligned regional powers. Other than Israel and Egypt (which is of necessity are mainly concerned with internal issues), this alliance consists of some of the region's most fragile polities. It is raised, meanwhile, against two of the Middle East's strongest powers (Iran and Turkey). Israel can be confident of its own strength in the contest with these regional rivals and enemies. But the notion of an emergent, Western-led push against Iran needs to be seriously qualified. The strategists in Abu Dhabi have evidently noticed this. They are acting accordingly.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.