Foreign Relations

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

Since obtaining full independence at the end of 1971, security concerns have been a major focus of the UAE's foreign relations. Indeed, it was uncertain in the early 1970s whether the UAE would endure as a viable state. Saudi Arabia, for example, refused to recognize the new federation because of an unresolved border dispute with Abu Dhabi over the Al Buraymi Oasis. Iran and Oman also contested UAE claims to certain territories. In addition, the discovery of extensive petroleum deposits in the 1960s prompted Iraq and other states to challenge the legitimacy of the UAE's ruling families. Because the UAE was a relatively small state, its leaders recognized that defending the country's security from both internal and external threats depended on skillful management of diplomatic relations with other countries, particularly larger and more powerful neighbors such as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

A principal goal of the UAE's foreign policy has been to contain the spillover effects of various regional crises. For example, during the initial years of UAE independence, a major insurrectionary movement threatened to overthrow the government in neighboring Oman. This movement also supported a group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf, which aimed at establishing a republican regime in the UAE. During the mid-1970s, repercussions of the escalating civil war in Lebanon reverberated throughout the Persian Gulf. Subsequently, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the civil war and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and the Iran-Iraq War all affected the UAE in various ways.

Despite its criticisms of United States policies toward the Palestinians, the UAE perceives its evolving relationship with the United States as providing a measure of protection from these crises. Thus, by 1990-91, when it joined with the United States in the military effort to force Iraq out of Kuwait, the UAE already had become a de facto member of the United States strategic umbrella over the region.

The Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait were a shock to the UAE. Prior to that crisis, the UAE had tried to demonstrate solidarity on inter-Arab issues. In particular, it had supported the cause of Palestinian Arabs, both within the League of Arab States (Arab League), of which it was a member, and within international forums. In practical terms, this meant that the UAE did not recognize Israel. When Egypt signed a separate peace agreement with Israel in 1979, the UAE joined other Arab states in breaking diplomatic relations with Egypt. The UAE did not, however, expel the thousands of Egyptian workers in the UAE or interfere with their transfer of remittances home. For the UAE, the crisis over Kuwait demonstrated a lack of Arab unity on a critical Arab issue. The UAE joined the Arab states that opposed the Iraqi invasion and supported the use of force to compel Iraq's withdrawal of troops.

More fundamental for the UAE, this crisis exposed the failure of the GCC, of which the UAE had been a founding member in 1981, as a deterrent collective security organization. Although it was not prepared to abandon the GCC--it derived other benefits from this alliance with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia--the UAE believed that new security arrangements were necessary. The UAE initially supported expanding the GCC framework to include formal military ties with Egypt and Syria. When this option seemed unrealistic, the UAE concluded that a security relationship with the United States should be continued. Consequently, negotiations began during the summer of 1991 and continued for more than a year. In late 1992, officials of both countries signed an agreement that permitted the United States to use some UAE bases temporarily and to pre-position supplies on UAE territory.

The negotiations with the United States may have been a factor in the UAE's 1992 problems with Iran, a country that opposed a continuing United States military presence in the region. Like Iraq, Iran is a large neighbor--and a much closer one--with a recent history of policies that discomfited the UAE. Throughout the 1980s, the UAE had striven with difficulty to maintain neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War. That conflict was also a source of internal UAE tension because Abu Dhabi tended to support Iraq while Dubayy was more sympathetic to Iran. After the war ended in 1988, Iran appeared to single out the UAE for special and friendly attention. By 1992 the UAE was the Arab country with which Iran had the closest commercial relations. Thus, the crisis that erupted in April 1992 over disputed islands in the Persian Gulf seemed unexpected.

The dispute with Iran over the sovereignty of three small islands--Abu Musa, Greater Tumb, and Lesser Tumb--had been dormant for twenty years. It was rekindled in 1992 when Iranian officials on Abu Musa refused to permit UAE contract workers to disembark, in apparent contravention of a shared sovereignty agreement. Iran had claimed all three islands in 1970, before the UAE was formed. On the eve of independence in 1971, the amirate of Sharjah, which had jurisdiction over Abu Musa, accepted an agreement negotiated between London and Tehran that permitted Iran to establish a military garrison in the northern part of the island and allowed Sharjah to administer the civilian population living in the southern part. The agreement provided for Iran and Sharjah to share the proceeds from an offshore oil field but otherwise left the question of ultimate sovereignty to be resolved at some unspecified future time.

Greater Tumb and Lesser Tumb are two uninhabited islands claimed by Ras al Khaymah but occupied by Iran since 1971. Unlike Sharjah, Ras al Khaymah never accepted an Iranian claim to the islands and protested Britain's failure to interfere with Iran's occupation. Indeed, it was the amirate's anger over the 1971 occupation that caused it to refrain from joining the UAE for several months. In the midst of the 1992 crisis over Abu Musa, Ras al Khaymah resurrected its grievance over Greater Tumb and Lesser Tumb, thus enflaming an already delicate situation. At the end of the year, Iran and Sharjah quietly agreed to a restoration of the status quo ante the crisis, but the incidents left the UAE feeling wary of Iranian intentions.

In 1993 the UAE maintained relatively cordial relations with countries outside the Middle East. It was a member of the United Nations and its specialized agencies. It also was a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress