The Washington Post

How ‘Little Sparta’ might become ‘Little Singapore’


Though it’s easy to miss amid the turmoil in Afghanista­n, there’s a new trend of de-escalation in global foreign policy — symbolized by the country that once was seen as “Little Sparta,” the United Arab Emirates.

With a raw pragmatism that would make Machiavell­i blush, the UAE has recently changed course from urging confrontat­ion against Iran and Islamist parties to advocating dialogue. Over the past year, it has moved to settle quarrels with Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Libya and other former foes.

The UAE’S most visible adjustment was its open embrace of Israel in the so-called Abraham Accords, whose first anniversar­y is Wednesday. That breakthrou­gh was nurtured by the Trump administra­tion, but it had deeper roots in the UAE’S decision to embrace regional cooperatio­n, regardless of religion or ideology, at a time when U.S. hegemony in the Middle East was waning. UAE officials say they expect more than $1 trillion in trade with Israel over the next decade.

The UAE’S aggressive­ly independen­t approach to foreign policy has also sometimes crossed the line in its dealings with the United States. The latest example, described by the New York Times, is the hiring of former U.S. intelligen­ce officials who admitted in court documents that they conducted illegal hacking in their work for the Emiratis.

Still, the UAE’S evolution is illustrati­ve of a larger global shift. Its approach — de-escalation of regional conflicts coupled with greater focus on the domestic economy — matches that of the Biden administra­tion and other U.S. partners. Even Beijing is stressing an authoritar­ian version of “build back better” in recent statements stressing shared domestic prosperity.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n, though badly botched, reflected a growing global consensus against “endless wars,” U.S. and foreign officials agree. An early sign of that trend was the UAE’S withdrawal from ruinous conflicts in Yemen and Libya, after it became convinced that the costs outweighed any benefits.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the country’s de facto leader, “has a bit of the Arab Kissinger in him, in his ability to read shifts in the balance of power and adjust to them without sentiment getting in the way,” argues Martin Indyk, a former U.S. diplomat. He’s author of the forthcomin­g book “Master of the Game,” a fascinatin­g assessment of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy.

The UAE dubs its new approach “zero problems,” explains Anwar Gargash, the UAE’S former minister of state for foreign affairs. He said in an interview Tuesday that this “reexaminat­ion” began in 2019 after the rising danger caused by the war in Yemen, Iranian missile and drone attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and a sense of “erosion” of American power in the region.

In an increasing­ly tense region, “an escalating or confrontat­ional approach would get us involved in prolonged conflicts,” Gargash said. So the UAE decided to change course, focusing on economic developmen­t as a path to security. UAE leaders also recognized that they were nearing “the end of the oil age,” which had powered the Emirates’ early growth.

The UAE’S moves were also partly a course correction after a dangerousl­y close embrace of the Trump administra­tion. The Justice Department has accused Trump inaugural chairman Thomas Barrack of lobbying illegally to support UAE interests, and a private lawsuit filed in a California federal court has accused Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy of similar activity. Both have denied any improper actions.

“Our outlook has changed. We see the world slightly differentl­y,” said Yousef alOtaiba, the UAE’S ambassador in Washington. Where the Emiratis once hectored Washington to take tougher stands on Iran, Turkey and Islamist radicalism, UAE officials now counsel conciliati­on — and hedge their bets by expanding economic and security links with China.

The UAE has always been something of a weathervan­e — a small country that used its oil wealth to become one of globalizat­ion’s most important hubs. Gen. Jim Mattis, former secretary of defense, dubbed it “Little Sparta,” but the country now aspires to be something closer to “Little Singapore,” a UAE official told me.

Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MBZ, is the UAE’S decisive voice, but the point man for the recent policy moves has been his brother Tahnoun, who serves as national security adviser. Tahnoun operates in the shadows, travelling secretly to Iran, for example, to begin discussion of what now “amounts to a non-aggression pact,” says Indyk. Tahnoun often works through a network of powerful intelligen­ce chiefs in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other nations.

Last month, Tahnoun traveled to Turkey and Qatar to broker reconcilia­tion with those countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described by UAE officials a year ago as a threat potentiall­y equal to Iran, enthused after meeting Tahnoun that the UAE “will make serious investment­s in our country in a very short time.” As the United States learned in years past, money and economic cooperatio­n make friends.

Sometimes, trends in foreign policy are hidden and mysterious; this one is staring us in the face. Foreign policy begins at home, with a sound economy — whether that’s in Washington or Abu Dhabi.

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