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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

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, and opportunity for Iranian businesses based there to try to circumvent international sanctions. The social and economic freedoms have not translated into significant political change; the UAE government remains under the control of a small circle of leaders, although it allows informal and some formal citizen participation to supplement traditional methods of consensusbuilding. To date, these mechanisms, economic wealth, and reverence for established leaders have enabled the UAE to avoid wide-scale popular unrest. Since 2006, the government has increased formal popular participation in governance through a public selection process for half the membership of its consultative body, the Federal National Council (FNC). But, particularly since the Arab uprisings of 2011-12, discontent has risen somewhat over the unchallenged power and privileges of 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 leadership has resisted any dramatic or rapid further opening of the political process, and it is becoming increasingly aggressive in preventing the rise of Islamist and secular opposition movements—in the process drawing increased criticism from international human rights groups.

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 directed primarily to counter Iran’s expanding missile force. The UAE has deployed troops to Afghanistan since 2003. Since 2011, it has 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, and backed GCC and other regional action to support the rebellion in Syria. 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. 
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Date of Report: December 26, 2012
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: RS21852
Price: $29.95

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