Maintaining friendships through the storm: America’s fraying ties to its allies

The American journalist Walter Winchell had it right when he wisely observed that “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” What holds true for individuals is doubly the case for countries. In the crucible of war, with all the world’s pressures on the line, the like-minded countries that rally around the United States are truly worth their weight in gold.

Indeed, it rightly has been much remarked upon that during Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine — the sternest geopolitical contest to confront the West in years — most of the world has rallied around the United States and taken steps to isolate Russia. However, amid this generally positive initial response, there are a number of holdouts whose failure to condemn the invasion reveal some unpleasant surprises.  

The countries bucking this general condemnation of Russia include significant powers such as China, India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All pointedly and conspicuously have avoided directly criticizing Russia, despite the fault for the invasion self-evidently being theirs.

Each of the outliers has a different reason for its diffidence. Competing superpower China is making strategic calculations. A hard-pressed Russia, diplomatically assailed on all sides, becomes far more likely to drift into the iron-clad strategic partnership (as the junior partner) that Beijing desires. Pakistan largely is following China’s lead here. For its old rival India, whose close ties with Russia stretch back into the mists of the Cold War, the more concrete reality is that Delhi still obtains much of its high-tech arsenal from Moscow. This is more than enough to keep India diplomatically quiescent.

However, the omission of the UAE from the anti-Russian global alliance should be of greater concern to the United States in many ways. While the others’ differences can be explained away by a clear reading of their national interests, the UAE’s diplomatic path is more puzzling and more problematic for the U.S.

Historically, the UAE has been one of America’s closest allies and partners in the Middle East. It has functioned as the host of a strategically important U.S. military base at Al Dhafra. Given the UAE’s long struggle with the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels of Yemen, like the good friend that it has been, the U.S. granted it military support to defend against Houthi missile attacks, totaling an additional $65 million in air defense weaponry.

Because the U.S. has been a friend in need for the UAE, it is hard for many in Washington to stomach what is seen as a failure by a longstanding ally to do the right thing and close ranks over Ukraine. Dismay is all the more palpable because the UAE presently has a seat on the UN Security Council, as the representative of the Arab bloc. Its abstention over a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion should serve as a wake-up call that all is not well in Arabia for U.S. diplomacy. 

In the Security Council, the fact that the UAE refused to join the ranks of those defending a member state against unprovoked military aggression speaks volumes about the reliability of partners on whom the U.S. thought it could count. Even more troubling is the statement by the leader of the UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, in a March 1 call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that “Russia has a right to ensure national security.”

What explains this strange ambivalence? First, there have been years of Emirati and Saudi hedging: The UAE has sought to diversify not just its economy, but also its geopolitical exposure. When the Obama administration ignored the region’s concerns over both the Iranian threat to the region and the Yemeni war, the UAE concluded it could not count on the U.S. to look after its interests.

As such, it expanded its trading and strategic links with both Russia and China. Even beyond this hedging, the UAE on its own reached a convergence of interests with Russia, with both countries supporting authoritarian Arab regimes in Libya and Syria. 

The UAE’s general dissatisfaction with the U.S. increased with the advent of the Biden administration. Despite the White House sending F-22 fighter aircraft and a guided missile destroyer to defend the UAE against attacks from Yemen, its failure to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organization has rankled the authorities in Abu Dhabi. President Biden’s refusal to deal directly with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, leader of the UAE’s crucial ally, is also a major irritant.

The UAE’s abstention, then, is indicative of a larger problem for the U.S.: the fraying of its previously rock-solid relationships in the Arab world. The present focus rightly has been on repairing and resuscitating trans-Atlantic relations, but clearly the U.S. cannot just forget about the rest of the world. Or, as a leading UAE diplomat put it, “Confidence has a lot to do with this vote, that finally we are independent enough, competent enough to take this kind of position, which is consistent with our own way of doing things. Maybe it doesn’t resonate too well in Washington, but that’s the way things are going to be from now on.”  

To put it mildly, this isn’t good for the United States. Even as it rightly mends the frayed European alliance, Washington must at the same time rebuild some bridges in the Arab world with its erstwhile friends.  

This post was originally published in The Hill.

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