Joe Macaron | Fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C.
The United Arab Emirates’ opening to Iran is tactical rather than strategic and is primarily a message to the Trump administration as their relationship has recently turned sour on several issues, including the U.S. rapprochement with Qatar. While it is true that the UAE’s economy—mainly Dubai’s—cannot afford a confrontation with Iran, the Emiratis’ calculation was that President Donald Trump would not confront Iran or protect navigation in the Strait of Hormuz and would seek to begin talks with Tehran. Hence their move seems preemptive.
There are three implications for the UAE’s opening to Iran: First, it undermines the core of the Trump administration’s strategy in the Middle East—an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran, driven by a flawed Israeli-Palestinian deal—and it complicates the U.S. attempt to form a Gulf maritime coalition. Second, it tests the strong Saudi-UAE alliance, leaving Riyadh alone with Bahrain to rhetorically challenge Iran and with little option but to compromise with the Houthis in Yemen. And third, it might indicate a turning point for what has been an interventionist Emirati foreign policy.
Fatima Alasrar | Policy analyst specializing in Yemen and the Gulf
For the time being, the United Arab Emirates is avoiding conflict with Iran and its militias in Yemen. The Iran-backed Houthis’ attacks on Saudi Arabia, which have been growing bolder and more deadly, as well as what appears to be Tehran’s attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, have revealed Iran’s inclination to escalate with impunity. Tehran sent a strong message to the Gulf states that they would be the first to lose should the United States pursue military action, instead of diplomacy, with Iran. The subsequent seizure of oil tankers and inability to secure their release demonstrated that Washington is neither in a position to pressure Iran to deescalate nor to protect its allies in the region.
Furthermore, the United States has not been clear or consistent in its strategy with regard to Iran, choosing diplomatic overtures at times and threatening military action at others. Within this context, and given the high economic cost the UAE could pay if Iran and its allies decide to target it as they have the Saudis, Abu Dhabi, which tends to play a leading role in the UAE’s foreign policy, had no choice but to open this diplomatic door with its rivals in Tehran. And the UAE’s military drawdown in Yemen and deescalation around the port of Hodeida were gestures of goodwill that it was directing at Iran.
Hussein Ibish | Senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C.
The United Arab Emirates’ outreach to Iran makes perfect sense. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the UAE has never sought a U.S.-Iran conflict, instead advocating for realistic and achievable policy changes rather than unachievable regime change in Tehran. And, while Emirati officials have welcomed the U.S. administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran, they have been quietly warning for almost a year that there has to be a political track to translate the pressure into improved Iranian conduct.
The UAE’s longstanding concerns that it could become a primary target in any military conflict with Iran were underscored by Iran’s recent campaign of low-intensity “maximum resistance” warfare, which appears to have included the targeting of UAE oil tankers. Combined with the UAE’s decision to draw down its military presence in Yemen, all this logically leads to the UAE’s unilateral outreach to try to translate Iran’s new vulnerability into policy gains and add badly-needed carrots in dealing with Tehran to the well-established sticks.
Ahmed Nagi | Nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut
The United Arab Emirates’ decision to revive its relationship with Iran will enable it to ensure that Iran and those aligned with it do not pose a security threat to Emirati interests. It has been reported that the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, for example, have the ability to target the UAE with their weapons. Meanwhile, such an opening will also help secure shipping lanes, energy exports, and external investment for the UAE, especially at a time when tensions are increasing in the Persian Gulf.
Internally, such step is in line with the preferences of Dubai’s leadership, which has not been happy with the military approach adopted by the UAE in its foreign policy, regarding this as danger for the country’s interests. In recent years there have been differences in viewpoints between the two key states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai over the nature of the relationship with Iran and other related issues in the region, including the Yemen war. While Abu Dhabi has viewed most of those issues through a security lens, Dubai has tended to look at them through the lens of the UAE’s economic interests.
In addition, the UAE’s strategy toward Iran will most likely be reflected in its relations with Iran’s allies in the region. For instance, in Yemen the UAE-backed southern separatists and the Houthis will find a way of reaching new understandings under the sponsorship of the UAE and Iran, respectively.