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Tuesday, October 16, 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 human trafficking, as well as opportunity for both illicit and legitimate Iranian businesses to operate there. Moreover, the social and economic freedoms have not translated into significant political opening; the UAE government remains under the control of a small circle of leaders, even as it allows informal citizen participation and traditional consensus-building. The leadership opposes any dramatic or rapid opening of the political process, such as the establishment of a powerful, fully elected legislature, and it has sought to prevent the rise of Islamist movements inspired by the 2011-12 revolutions in some Arab states. Economic wealth—coupled with some government moves against political activists—have enabled the UAE to avoid wide-scale popular unrest from advocates of such reforms. Still, there is evidence of simmering discontent about the privileges enjoyed by the UAE ruling elite as well as the government strategy of spending large amounts of funds on elaborate projects that cater to expatriates and international tourists.

The UAE leadership has asserted that political reform will be gradual and limited. Lacking popular pressure for elections, the UAE long refrained from following other Gulf states’ institution of electoral processes. It altered that position 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 sweeping the region, 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. And, the government has not announced a major expansion of the FNC’s powers.

On foreign policy issues, the UAE—along with fellow Gulf state Qatar—has become increasingly assertive in recent years - a product of the UAE’s ample financial resources and its drive to promote regional stability. The UAE has joined the United States and U.S. allies in backing and then implementing most international sanctions against Iran, causing friction with its powerful northern neighbor. It has ordered the most sophisticated missile defense system sold by the United States, making the UAE pivotal to U.S. efforts to assemble a regional missile defense network. It has deployed troops to Afghanistan since 2003. In 2011, it sent police to help the beleaguered government of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state Bahrain, supported operations against Muammar Qadhafi of Libya, joined the GCC diplomatic effort that brokered 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, for example for relief efforts in Somalia.

For the Obama Administration and many in Congress, there were early 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, concerns about potential leakage of U.S. and other advanced technologies through the UAE to Iran, in particular, have been largely alleviated by the UAE’s development of strict controls, capable management, and cooperation with international oversight of its nuclear program.

Date of Report: October 4, 2012
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: RS21852
Price: $29.95

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