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Friday, January 6, 2012

The United Arab Emirates (UAE): Issues for U.S. Policy

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The UAE’s relatively open borders and economy have won praise from advocates of expanded freedoms in the Middle East while producing financial excesses, social ills such as prostitution and human trafficking, and relatively lax controls on sensitive technologies acquired from the West. The social and economic freedoms do not necessarily translate into rapid political opening; the UAE government remain authoritarian, even as it allows informal citizen participation and traditional consensus-building. Members of the elite (the ruling families of the seven emirates and clans allied with them) routinely make national decisions unilaterally, obtain favored treatment in court cases, and are favored for lucrative business opportunities. However, economic wealth has allowed the UAE to largely, although not entirely, avoid the popular unrest and demands for political change that have erupted elsewhere in the Middle East in 2011.

Political reform has been limited and halting. Lacking popular pressure for elections, the UAE long refrained from following other Gulf states’ institution of electoral processes. It altered that stance in December 2006 when it instituted a selection process for half the membership of its consultative body, the Federal National Council (FNC). Possibly to try to ward off the unrest confronting other Middle East states, in March 2011 the government significantly expanded the electorate for the September 24, 2011, FNC election process. However, turnout was only about 25%, suggesting that the clamor for democracy in UAE remains limited or that the citizenry perceived the election as unlikely to produce change in UAE. The government has not announced an expansion of the FNC’s powers, which some intellectuals seek.

On foreign policy issues, UAE appears has become increasingly assertive in recent years, making use of its ample financial resources. It has joined the United States and U.S. allies in backing most international sanctions against Iran, causing friction with its powerful northern neighbor. This friction could increase if the UAE boosts oil production to guard against the adverse affects of what appears to be a growing international move to stop purchasing Iranian oil. It has deployed troops to Afghanistan since 2004. In 2011, it sent police to help the beleaguered government of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state Bahrain, hosted meetings of the anti-Qadhafi opposition of Libya, joined a GCC diplomatic effort to broker a political solution to the unrest in Yemen, backed the Arab League suspension of Syria, and appointed an Ambassador to NATO. It gives large amounts of international humanitarian and development aid. The UAE’s growing assertiveness on foreign policy marks its recovery from the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and recession. That downturn hit Dubai emirate particularly hard and called into question its strategy of rapid, investment-fueled development, especially of luxury projects.

For the Obama Administration and many in Congress, there are concerns about the UAE oversight and management of a complex and technically advanced initiative such as a nuclear power program. This was underscored by dissatisfaction among some Members of Congress with a U.S.-UAE civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. The agreement was signed on May 21, 2009, submitted to Congress that day, and entered into force on December 17, 2009. However, expert concerns about potential leakage of U.S. and other advanced technologies through the UAE to Iran, in particular, remain. For details and analysis of the U.S.-UAE nuclear agreement and legislation concerning that agreement, see CRS Report R40344, The United Arab Emirates Nuclear Program and Proposed U.S. Nuclear Cooperation, by Christopher M. Blanchard and Paul K. Kerr.

Date of Report: December 2
3, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R
Price: $29.95

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