The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been one of the leading countries in the Middle East in terms of aggressive foreign policy. This activism is easily observed in Abu Dhabi's response to the revolutionary uprisings in the Arab world. The UAE has supported the Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi regime in Egypt; it has become an active player in Libyan politics and played a great role in Yemen's civil war. The Emirati leadership has also pursued hostile policies toward countries like Turkey and Qatar, particularly during the past couple of years.
According to claims made frequently on international media, the United Arab Emirates supported the military coup attempt in Turkey that took place on July 15, 2016. The Emirati policy was also targeting the tiny Gulf nation, Qatar. During the summer of 2017, together with Saudi Arabia, the UAE led the political and economic blockade on Qatar, in order to force Doha to stop its active foreign policy.
While practicing these policies, the UAE has not refrained from using its economic and military power. This was clearly visible in the country's policies in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Abu Dhabi has continuously supported Yemeni forces that fight against the Iran-backed Houthis and Libyan groups in Tobruk, led by Gen. Khalifa Hafter, who was planning to establish a military regime against the internationally recognized central government.
In both cases the Emirati intervention took place in the form of military support such as operations, weaponry and equipment. The Emirati Army also took park in the Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis in Yemen. These developments reveal that Emirati foreign policy increasingly employs hard power capabilities.
In line with this target, the UAE increased its activity in the region and carried out strategic moves like establishing military bases on the islands of Socotra and Perim in Yemen, the port town of Assab in Eritrea and Puntland and Somaliland regions in Somalia. These military bases are located particularly in the Horn of Africa, a region that is crucial for the security of international trade.
As the gate to Horn of Africa, the Bab Al-Mandab Strait is seen as an important transit point of global trade especially for the European, Middle Eastern and Asian markets. Around 8 percent of the global trade has been passing through the strait both from Asia to Europe and vice versa. The strait is also crucial location for the Middle Eastern energy exports. Oil and LNG exports from the Gulf countries to Europe are transported through Bab Al-Mandab, the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Imports from the European countries to the Gulf region follows the same route in the opposite direction. The Bab Al-Mandab Strait is home to the passing of 25,000 oil ships and 4.8 million barrels of oil per day.
One of the leading oil-exporters of the Gulf region is the United Arab Emirates. The country has 97 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which constitutes nearly 10 percent of the global oil market. This makes the UAE the seventh largest country in the world in terms of oil exports. Therefore, it is of great importance for the UAE to secure this sea route from any threats that can harm the safety of the oil trade.
In order to eliminate possible threats to the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, the UAE government has been following a more active policy of intervention in the region and establishes military bases that are capable of land, sea and air forces to operate.
Through these bases, the UAE administration aims become an influential actor in the Horn of Africa region by having a military presence in the Gulf of Aden, Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea. The Emirati leadership also aims to influence the region through political, military and economic means. Therefore, it should be emphasized that these military bases established by the UAE are clear indicators of the transformations that have been taking place in the Emirati foreign policy.
The main motivations for this policy are becoming an effective actor in regional policies, fighting against the Houthi threat in Yemen and creating a secure corridor for ensuring oil exports in the Bab al-Mandab Strait. By establishing these bases, the UAE aims to become a strategic regional player by creating of a safe passage for the energy supply from the Middle East to the world. The UAE, which produces two million barrels of oil a day, aims to maintain its export level by establishing a secure environment in Bab al-Mandab for the flow of oil to mostly European markets.
Considering these observations on the transformation in the UAE's foreign policy, it can be argued that there are six major motivations for the Emirati leadership to establish the military bases in the Horn of Africa region. Firstly, the UAE aims to become an influential player in regional politics. The increasing military presence of the Emirati army will give the UAE the necessary power to play the role of a regional actor. The second motivation is the willingness to successfully confront the security threats in the region. One of the main threats to the Emirati interests in the region is the armed violent actors such as the Houthis, al-Qaida and Daesh.
Another motivation for the UAE is to secure international trade route that is vital for the transfer of the Gulf's oil and gas to particularly Western markets. Protecting the interests of the regional and international allies is another reason for the Emirati leadership to increase its military activities.
Finally, regional political rivalries have been also an important factor for the UAE to try to increase its military activities in the region. There are three major rivals for Abu Dhabi: Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The Emirates have been considering Iran as one of the main threats to its regional ambitions while Abu Dhabi competes with Turkey and Qatar for power. By establishing new military bases in the region, the Emirati government aims to create long-running security cooperation in order to prevail over the ambitions of its political opponents.
Despite its ambitious foreign policy objectives, the Emirati leadership faces serious challenges in advancing its strategy of establishing military bases. The main challenge is the Abu Dhabi's disagreement with Saudi Arabia on the political processes in Yemen. It's uncertain that the cooperation between these two countries will continue in the coming years. Secondly, there are regional powers that have similar ambitions to the Emirati government.
Countries like Turkey and Iran are the main rivals that can threaten the UAE to achieve its regional objectives. Finally, the local reaction against these military bases has also been source of concern for Abu Dhabi. Countries and local populations in these regions are distressed about Abu Dhabi's motivations for establishing these military bases.
Although the Emirati leadership provides financial assistance to the people of these regions, it cannot prevent the negative perceptions against these bases. Therefore, the Emirati leadership faces difficulty in confronting the negative public reaction against its military activities. Considering these challenges, it is not clear whether the policy of opening military bases brings success to the foreign policy objectives of the UAE.
* Assistant professor at Sakarya University, Middle East Institute and SETA