The recent visit to Iran made by UAE National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, reflects an important shift in the UAE’s policies towards its regional neighbors. Abu Dhabi seems to be adopting a more pragmatic approach for the sake of security and economic benefits. 

During his meeting with Iranian officials in Teheran on December 6, 2021, Sheikh Tahnoun extended an invite to Ibrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, to visit the UAE. Tahnoun was quoted saying that the visit would be a "turning point" for the two countries’ relations. No Iranian president has visited the UAE since 2007.

Tahnoun’s visit to Iran is but an additional sign that the UAE has decided to launch the third decade of this millennium by adopting a “zero problem” policy towards its regional rivals and adversaries: Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. The new policy entails building bridges of communication, expanding diplomatic and mediation efforts, and avoiding all confrontations that may deter Abu Dhabi’s endeavor to boost the country’s national economy in the post Covid era. 

As the UAE embarks on its post-Golden Jubilee period and lays the strategic foundations for the next 50 years, it seems to be focusing more on diplomatic solutions and soft power to consolidate its economic interests and trade partnerships. This transpires amidst strong competition from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, particularly from powerful neighbor and ally, Saudi Arabia.

During the Arab Spring uprisings, the UAE was depicted as a muscular regional actor who didn’t shy away from robust military intervention, however, that image is being replaced with a much more demure and softer role. This shift, however, does not mean that the UAE will stop building its military and national security apparatus. In fact, the country is going forward with the F-35 deal with the United States—although concerns in the Biden Administration might result in suspending it, and the $19 billion deal with France for the acquisition of 80 Rafale fighters. 

This raises questions about an arms race in the region, the extent to which the saying "Little Sparta" has declined, and the extent to which Abu Dhabi's desire for military interventions in the region has declined, especially since the New York Times reported that the UAE, Turkey, and Iran supplied Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s forces with the latest armed drones. This support helped to turn the scales of the war in Ethiopia in favor of Abiy against the Tigray Front. If true—as the New York Times quoted an Emirati denial, this confirms the calculations of military intervention or support did not disappear from the UAE’s foreign policy agenda.

Dialogue Replacing Proxy Politics

The UAE has long viewed Iran’s regional expansion as one of the greatest threats to its national security, especially because of Iran’s potential possession of nuclear weapons. However, by its rapprochement with Iran and Turkey, the UAE is employing a more pragmatic approach in the conduct of its foreign policy to ensure its national security.

Differences between the UAE on the one hand and Iran, Turkey, and Qatar on the other remain strong. However, the UAE is beginning to realize that the lack of a healthy bilateral dialogue with regional powers will make progress towards de-escalation much harder. The country acknowledges, after a decade of regional conflict and proxy politics, that the divergent policies of regional players should not prevent diplomatic cooperation. 

There is no doubt that if both Iran and the UAE maintained a more rational approach, they will be able to have more prosperous commercial relations than they ever did as trade between the two neighbors is expected to reach its highest levels in the coming few years. According to official Iranian figures, the value of trade between the two countries hit nearly $1.5 billion in the first five months of the current Iranian calendar year (March 21-August 22). The UAE is also Iran's fourth largest export market for non-oil trade with an estimated value of $2.9 billion in goods.

Relations with Iran and Israel

The UAE government is walking a very tight political rope when it comes to balancing its relations with Iran and Israel. And although Abu Dhabi was continuously asserting that normalizing its relations with Israel should not be construed as a hostile move towards Iran, it was the visit of  Tahnoun that helped ease some of the tensions felt in Iran by the UAE-Israel rapprochement.

Statements made by Iranian officials regarding the outcome of the visit suggest a high level of relief. Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s deputy foreign minister who also serves as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, said that Iran and the UAE have agreed to usher in a “new chapter” in their relationship. Although Iran might seem to be reluctantly adjusting to the UAE-Israel normalization agreement, Teheran is perfectly aware that the accord does not entail a zero-sum policy for either Iran or the UAE. Iranian policy makers realize that the UAE-Israel normalization needs not be viewed as counterproductive to Teheran’s relations with the UAE, just as the Iranian dialogue with the UAE does not affect the strategic gains Abu Dhabi stands to reap because of its normalization with Tel Aviv. 

Everchanging Geopolitics

Spurred on by the need to prioritize economic prosperity and a growing realization that shared security concerns are best addressed collectively, a new, pragmatic policy vision is emerging and superseding a decade of confrontational approaches and excessive political polarization

However, any change in the geopolitical reality of the Middle East remains contingent on Iran’s willingness to place its trust in cooperation with regional actors, instead of relying solely on international players to determine its share of influence in the region. It is important to note that what derailed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was not only the US withdrawal in 2017, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the regional dissatisfaction with the expected outcomes of the deal. 

From its side, Iran criticized French President Macron’s last recent visit to the UAE and the subsequent Rafale deal. Additionally, on December 21, 2021, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard launched ballistic and cruise missiles during war games in the Gulf, amid escalating tensions with the United States and Israel over possible Israeli plans to target nuclear sites in Iran. This indicates that the UAE's attempt to solve the dilemma of its relations with both Iran, on the one hand, and Israel and the United States on the other, is not easy.

Previous Experience

The visit of Tahnoun reflects the delicate balance Abu Dhabi is trying to strike with Iran to avoid the recurrence of the divergence that colored their relations in the past turbulent decade and caused great concern to the UAE, the business and services hub of the Gulf region.

The UAE’s diplomatic adviser to the president, Anwar Gargash, speaking at the Brookings Institute in February 2021, made clear that “other than diplomacy, we [the UAE] see no option at all” with Iran. He explained that “even with maximum pressure [under Donald Trump], we sent messages [to Iran] through the Europeans about the need for diplomacy and de-escalation.” When asked about comments by Israeli officials that float a military option with Iran, Gargash called it “very dangerous.”

Tahnoun’s visit also serves as a testament to the UAE’s long history and experience of avoiding confrontation with Iran, even during difficult regional crises. In 2016, for example, when Saudi Arabia announced that it was severing diplomatic ties with Iran following attacks on its embassy in Teheran and consulate in Mashad during protests against the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shia cleric in the Kingdom, Abu Dhabi took a more cautious approach. It recalled its ambassador from Teheran and reduced its diplomatic presence to the level of chargé d'affaires, avoiding to cut ties with Iran. Furthermore, in November 2020, the UAE government condemned the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, as a heinous crime and called for restraint to avert the region from sliding further into instability.

The Emirati repositioning, as manifested in Tahnoun bin Zayed’s visit to Iran, builds on these previous experiences and the UAE’s ability to not cut the ropes of communication even in difficult regional events and to balance ties with inherently adversarial regional players such as Israel and Iran.

Mohammad Barhouma is a Jordanian writer and researcher in Gulf affairs. He wrote for the London based Al Hayat newspaper (1994-2018) and the Jordanian Al-Ghad newspaper (2007-2018). In 2014 he published his book, Moral Consciousness and Its Role in Religious Reform. Follow him on Twitter @MBarhouma.