by William D. Hartung
Unlike Saudi Arabia, which has been strongly rebuked for its murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its strikes against civilians in Yemen, the other major U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has largely escaped criticism. This may be about to change.
The idealized version of the U.S.-UAE relationship is based on a history of military and intelligence cooperation that includes fighting side-by-side in Afghanistan, Syria, and other conflicts. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis has described the UAE as “Little Sparta” in recognition of its military prowess, and the former Trump administration official even served as an unpaid advisor to the UAE military prior to his stint at the Pentagon.
Alongside its military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, the UAE has invested large sums in burnishing its image as the good Gulf State: more tolerant, more modern, and more forward-looking than other governments in the region. It has done an excellent job from its own perspective, but its carefully crafted image hides a wide range of activities that are counter to long-term U.S. security interests.
First and foremost, the UAE’s role as an equal partner with Saudi Arabia in its brutal war in Yemen runs directly counter to the interests of peace and stability in the Middle East. The Saudi-UAE intervention has sparked massive suffering, opened space for the growth of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and tarnished the image of the United States, which has backed Saudi Arabia and the UAE with arms, training, and logistical support. A new report from the Center for International Policy documents over $27 billion in U.S. arms offers to the UAE over the past decade, as well as the training of 5,000 Emirati troops. A good portion of this training has been put to use in the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen, where the UAE is the main ground force, working with local militias that it finances, arms, and trains.
Recent reports by CNN and Amnesty International indicate that the UAE has “recklessly” transferred U.S. munitions, armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles, and guns to private militias inside Yemen. The weapons have also made their way into the hands of extremist groups inside Yemen, with some even leaking to the Houthi coalition that is fighting U.S. allies there and to fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It appears that this sharing of U.S. arms with private groups violates U.S. law. Congress and the State Department should immediately investigate these transfers and cut off arms to the UAE if they are indeed breaking the law.
There are also allegations of heinous acts of torture committed by the UAE and its allies in Yemen, dating back to 2017. A recent report in the Daily Beast cites victims of these practices who confirm that they are still going on, and that in some instances U.S. personnel may have been present during torture sessions. So far, the Pentagon’s investigation of these charges has been perfunctory at best.
The UAE has also hired ex-U.S. intelligence experts to help it develop both defensive and offensive cyber capabilities that have given it the capability to monitor not only its own citizens, but also journalists and other critics residing in the United States and the United Kingdom. This is unacceptable conduct from a nation that purports to be a U.S. ally.
The UAE may yet pay a price for actions that contradict U.S. interests and abuse fundamental human rights. There are efforts under way in both houses of Congress to end U.S. military support to the Saudi-UAE coalition in Yemen under the War Powers Resolution. The House version passed last week by a vote of 248 to 177, and the Senate version, sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT), will come up for a vote soon. There are also bills in the works that could end U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to their actions in Yemen, including a complete halt in sales of bombs of the type that have been used in the war to date.
The United States should withhold further arms, training, and military support for the UAE until it supports a ceasefire in Yemen, negotiates in good faith for a peaceful settlement to that conflict, and accounts for abuses committed by its own forces and those it has armed, financed, and trained. This is no time for business as usual in the U.S.-UAE alliance.