After years of controversial military projection abroad, the UAE is accelerating on diplomacy, with a specific focus on maritime security. In fact, “straits diplomacy” now stands at the core of Emirati foreign policy. This focus on the maritime domain allows the UAE to promote both national and global goals, balancing power ambitions with an international image.
The Emirati economy, upheld by trade and shipping, guides foreign policy, as highlighted by the UAE’s Principles of the 50 document, released in September 2021. Therefore, repeated Iranian-related attacks on commercial vessels around the Arabian Peninsula represent a national security risk for the UAE, coupled with its already vulnerable geographical position vis-à-vis Iran. The UAE was elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 2022-23, and in that context, maritime security has also emerged as a primary commitment.
UAE’s straits diplomacy focuses on three maritime straits – Hormuz, Bab al-Mandeb, and Suez – and combines three interdependent policy dimensions: maritime security presence, pragmatic and institutional dialogue on maritime security, and geo-economic investments around critical waterways.
This approach is wider, but not opposite, to the military-driven foreign policy the Emiratis have followed so far. Moreover, it may provide room for building maritime de-escalation between Iran and Israel.
The UAE Recalibrates its Foreign Policy
From 2011 to 2019, the UAE pursued a foreign policy based on power projection, mainly through military interventions and support for local players (including military training) in third-party countries, especially in the Bab al-Mandeb area. For instance, the Emiratis have built a rimland of militias along Yemen’s coastal cities and islands, indirectly controlling these areas through local armed groups in the southern and western regions. Since 2019 and onwards, however, UAE foreign policy has embraced a power protection phase instead: a less assertive posture to preserve the geopolitical leverage the UAE acquired as a result of power projection after 2011. The Emirati military withdrawal from Yemen in 2019 and disengagement from the military outposts in Eritrea and Somaliland (2019-2021) epitomize this recalibration. Today, the UAE prioritizes diplomacy over military adventurism to reduce geopolitical risks and improve its international image, and straits diplomacy also serves this scope. Nevertheless, the UAE is modifying its foreign policy without abdicating to its ambitions of middle regional power: the adjustment is tactical – related to the means chosen to achieve geopolitical goals – not strategic. This means the rimland of militias policy persists, although now overshadowed by diplomacy.
UAE’s Straits Diplomacy: Three Interdependent Dimensions
The stability of the Arabian Peninsula’s maritime straits supports both Emirati regional leverage and economic interests like infrastructure and export and global security goals like freedom of navigation. Straits diplomacy can be conceptualized as a political effort to reduce maritime threats to regional security and international trade, and it has been developed as three interdependent dimensions in Emirati foreign policy. The first is maritime security presence: in 2019, the UAE joined the US-led International Maritime Security Construct, also known as Operation Sentinel, to protect navigation and international trade in Hormuz strait. At the same time, the headquarters of the EMASOH, the France-led European mission to patrol and surveillance in Hormuz, is based in the UAE. The UAE also has an indirect military presence in critical Yemeni islands: Perim (in the Bab al-Mandeb strait) and Socotra (off the Somali coast), where newly built military outposts are run by Yemeni political-military groups that the UAE helped organize, train, and equip, such as Tareq Saleh’s forces and the Southern Transitional Council.
The second dimension consists of pragmatic and institutional dialogue on maritime security. In 2019, the UAE held de-escalation talks with Iran after a series of attacks occurred against oil tankers passing through Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. As the 2019-2021 president of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the UAE supports maritime security, trade, and investments under the theme “Promoting a Shared Destiny and Path to Prosperity in the Indian Ocean.” The flagship initiative of IORA, entitled the Indian Ocean Dialogue (IOD), was also held in Abu Dhabi in February 2021. In 2017, the IOD had already agreed through the Abu Dhabi Consensus on the need to enhance cooperative mechanisms in the area.
The third dimension concerns geo-economic investments around waterways. The Abraham Accords have boosted projects for Emirati investments in Israel’s ports: the Dubai-owned DP World plans to build a deep-water port in the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba, which is shared by both Israel and Jordan, to create a new shipping and railway commercial route to Haifa. This will effectively link the Gulf with European shores. In Somaliland, DP World has invested $442 million to expand the Berbera port and transform it into a regional trade hub (with an Economic Zone included) in the Bab el-Mandeb. The UAE’s most eastern emirate, Fujairah, is also attracting domestic and foreign direct investments, especially from Asian powers.,
Building Room for Maritime De-escalation Between Iran and Israel
As Iran and Israel engage in hybrid maritime warfare, maritime security has become a pressing issue also for the UAE. The Emiratis have more room to maneuver than Saudis on regional crises and straits diplomacy; the former talk both with the Iranians and the Israelis. Differently from Riyadh, the UAE signed the “Abraham Accords” with Israel in 2020, shares pragmatic relations with Iran and is its largest economic partner in the Gulf, and can rely on a network of Yemeni coastal players with increasing maritime capabilities.
After the maritime attacks in 2019, several assaults on Emirati and Israeli-owned oil tankers occurred again in 2021 east of Hormuz, off the UAE and Oman’s waters. After the Emirati-Israeli normalization in 2020, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the UAE against allowing “a foothold in the region” to Israel, emphasizing that Tel Aviv could now access the Gulf via Emirati soil.
Despite being an involved player in maritime security, the UAE may indeed carve out a broker role for itself. In 2019, Abu Dhabi avoided overtly blaming Iran for the attacks; later, the foreign affairs minister of state Anwar Gargash stressed the necessity of “collective diplomacy” on Iran.
In the latest weeks, the UAE made significant diplomatic steps with both Israel and Iran: it opened its embassy in Tel Aviv in July 2021 and sent the Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence to Tehran to meet the newly elected Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi in August 2021. At the Baghdad Summit held in late August 2021, the UAE’s Vice President and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met and discussed “neighborhood policy and diplomacy.”
The UAE was elected to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for 2022-23. On August 2021, the UAE’s statement at the UNSC on Maritime Security urged “Member States to uphold freedom of navigation as a key principle of international law,” and encouraged all actors “to commit to building trust by opening lines of communication at sea”, thus preventing miscalculation and “promoting restraint.” In such a context, the UAE non-permanent seat may represent a timely institutional framework to build ad hoc dialogue to defuse maritime tensions around Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandeb straits, bilaterally engaging both Iran and Israel. Since 2011 and onwards, UAE’s military projection has increased the Emirati leverage across the region, and the rimland of militias the Emiratis have built along Yemeni coasts and islands are an important tool for its advancement. In today’s evolving scenario, Abu Dhabi is prioritizing straits diplomacy to protect its geopolitical leverage: this could play a role in reducing maritime tensions, thus balancing Emirati national ambitions and global security.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan.