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 UAE-based Iranian businesses 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 who allow citizen participation primarily through traditional methods of consensus-building. 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 that began in 2011, there has been an increase in domestic criticism of the unchallenged power and privileges of the UAE ruling elite as well as the spending of large amounts of funds on elaborate projects that cater to tourists. The leadership has resisted any dramatic or rapid further opening of the political process and has suppressed Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamists and secular opposition activists, drawing substantial criticism from human rights groups.
On foreign policy issues, the UAE has become increasingly assertive in recent years to try to achieve regional stability, using primarily its ample financial resources. The UAE was the first Gulf state to order the most sophisticated missile defense system sold by the United States, demonstrating its support for U.S. efforts to assemble a regional missile defense network against Iran’s missile force. The UAE also has implemented significant financial and economic sanctions against Iran, while seeking maintaining trade and commercial ties with and thereby avoiding antagonizing that large neighbor. The UAE has deployed about 250 troops to Afghanistan since 2003 and pledges to keep some forces there after the existing international security mission there ends in 2014. In 2011, it sent 500 police to help fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state Bahrain confront a major uprising by its Shiite majority; UAE pilots flew combat missions against Muammar Qadhafi of Libya; and the UAE joined the GCC diplomatic effort that brokered a political solution to the unrest in Yemen. The UAE is financially backing armed rebels in Syria and it is giving substantial aid to the transitional government of Egypt that followed the military ousting of President Mohammad Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. The UAE also donates large amounts of international humanitarian and development aid, for example for relief efforts in Somalia and for the Palestinians.
For the Obama Administration and many in Congress, there were initial concerns about the UAE oversight and management of a complex and technically advanced initiative such as a nuclear power program, particularly for the potential leakage for U.S. and other advanced technologies to leak illicitly to Iran. These concerns were 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. The concerns have since 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 17, 2013
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: RS21852
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