Between 1971 and 2016, the United Arab Emirates channeled more than $60 billion in aid to foreign recipients. It became one of the world’s top donors in 2013, exceeding the United Nations’ aid target of 0.7 percent of gross national income. In 2018, UAE foreign aid contributions totaled $7.79 billion to forty-two states.
The roots of foreign aid policy, as with many things in the UAE, go back to its founder Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, who made supporting Arab Muslim nations a priority upon independence in 1971. While the government states that the “UAE’s aid has only humanitarian objectives,” other considerations factor in, such as advancing the country’s international standing, increasing its soft power, and fulfilling political objectives.
As in other Gulf states, the UAE’s foreign assistance policy has become more professional and bureaucratized over time. In 2008, it established the Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid, which was then subsumed in 2013 under the newly created Ministry of International Cooperation and Development (MICAD). A token of the rising importance of aid in UAE foreign policy was the 2016 merger of the powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs with MICAD, which involved the allocation of a high number of ministers (six) and the appointment of Abdullah bin Zayed (son of the country’s founder) as head of the combined ministry.
In January 2017, the revamped ministry launched its strategy, “Promoting Global Peace and Prosperity: UAE Policy for Foreign Assistance, 2017–-2021.” It identifies three aid priority areas—infrastructure, government effectiveness, and women’s empowerment—likely chosen to highlight components of the UAE’s brand and ensure that the UAE will not only support others financially but provide its expertise in the process. To further its brand, the UAE notes its commitment to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals of recipient states and its inclusion, since 2014, as the first participant member in the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Yet other motives behind and beyond UAE’s humanitarian diplomacy have become apparent. Neighboring Arab states remain top recipients of aid, namely Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Yemen. The UAE has a stake in supporting these states since the onset of the Arab Spring. For instance, aid in 2013 jumped 375 percent, with Egypt receiving 78.6 percent of it, coinciding with the UAE-supported Egyptian military takeover of the country. The same trend was evident in 2018, with close to half of Emirati aid directed to Yemen. Another notable 2018 aid recipient was Ethiopia, which has become a top priority for the UAE given its interest in the Horn of Africa.
Thus, while the pandemic and ensuing deep recession may force Emirati officials to pause and rethink strategy, the UAE cannot easily relinquish its aid policy given its multipurpose character. The challenge will be managing its aid policy in a post-coronavirus world where the government is openly discussing a novel reality that entails “government restructuring . . . and new national priorities,” in the words of the UAE vice president.