by Daniel Wagner, Giorgio Cafiero, and Sufyan bin Uzayr*
Since the revolutions that swept across the Middle East in 2011, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government has arrested dozens of Emirati and Egyptian nationals allegedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Declaring the MB a threat to the UAE’s ruling order, social fabric, and economic prosperity, Emirati authorities have since 2011 waged a crackdown on Al-Islah (AI), a MB-influenced group. Throughout the Arab Awakening movement, Abu Dhabi has deepened partnerships with other states determined to eradicate the MB. Given that the UAE and Kuwait support Saudi Arabia’s efforts to establish the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as an MB-free zone, shared hostility toward this Sunni movement appears to unite the GCC members more effectively than fears of Shi’ite Iran.
The MB’s activity in the UAE dates back to the 1960s when scores of Egyptian MB members fled Nasser’s Egypt to take haven in the Gulf. These Egyptians were sophisticated, educated, upwardly mobile, and they gained high-ranking posts in the UAE’s public and private sectors, playing an important role in the nation’s judicial and education systems. The Egyptian MB followers influenced scores of conservative UAE nationals who founded AI, which became an official NGO in 1974.
Initially, AI was heavily involved in the UAE’s educational, religious, and social affairs. In time, however, its orientation grew increasingly political, and relations with the government grew tense. The government’s belief that AI was loyal to a transnational Islamist movement, rather than the UAE, has been a primary source of tension. Since the 1990s the state has prohibited AI members from holding public office or making calls for political reform.
The UAE maintains that AI is an armed group with 20,000 followers determined to overthrow the federation of seven emirates and establish a caliphate in the Gulf. AI claims that it rejects violence while supporting peaceful reforms in the country. Regardless of what constitutes reality, the potential for instability and the threat of ending a relatively harmonious status quo between the Gulf state’s diverse ethnic and sectarian communities have contributed to the support the government is receiving from many Emiratis who credit their rulers with maintaining stability as chaos destabilizes many Arab nations.
When Mohamed Morsi and the Egyptian MB’s newly-established political party — the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) — won the 2011/2012 elections, authorities in the UAE became deeply unsettled. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a close UAE ally and the prospect of democratic revolutions spreading from Egypt into the GCC was a central concern for all Gulf monarchies.
Egypt-UAE relations were marked by tense diplomatic spats throughout Morsi’s presidency. In July 2012, Dubai’s Police Chief accused the MB of plotting to topple the government in order to seize its sovereign wealth. In October 2012, the UAE Foreign Minister alleged that the MB was “encroach[ing] upon the sovereignty and integrity of other nations.” After UAE authorities arrested 11 Egyptians in January 2013, accusing them of training local Islamists to overthrow the government, an FJP spokesperson dismissed such allegations, stating that UAE officials were conducting an “unfair campaign” against Egyptians that had “no basis whatsoever”.
The UAE viewed Morsi’s downfall as a strategic opportunity to reset the course of events since 2011. Since the coup, Abu Dhabi has not been shy in showing support for Egypt’s military-backed interim government. In October 2013, Emirati officials announced a $4.9 billion aid package to Egypt that included cash, petroleum products, and funds for clinics, education, housing, and infrastructure. This, along with aid from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, has made a significant difference in Field Marshal Abdul Fatah el-Sisi’s ability to govern effectively by delivering on some of his promises to the Egyptian people.
Sisi’s visit to the GCC in March 2014 was rich in geopolitical context. While in the UAE, the two countries’ militaries conducted joint training exercises and the UAE-based contractor Arabtec signed a memorandum of understanding to construct approximately one million housing units across Egypt, costing $40 billion. It was understood at the time that this deal, supported by the UAE government, was another part of the Egyptian military’s effort to garner greater support for Sisi among low-income Egyptians, with presidential elections scheduled for May 2014.
Egypt’s military has for decades asserted greater power by playing an increasingly important economic role. Since the coup, Egypt’s generals have made power grabs by designating their allies to major economic posts while securing contracts for major infrastructure deals, and a lucrative Suez Canal project. As Egypt’s military is determined to seize even greater control of the national economy, the billions of dollars in aid from the UAE will aid Sisi’s efforts toward this outcome.
In March 2014, immediately after Saudi Arabia’s government declared the MB a “terrorist organization”, the UAE’s government expressed support for Riyadh’s decision, calling it a “significant step”. This declaration came in the aftermath of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar on the grounds that Doha did not implement a security pact regarding non-intervention in fellow GCC states’ affairs. Among other motivations, the move was largely intended to signal a message to Qatar about supporting the MB in Egypt and elsewhere. Doha’s relationship with MB branches has contributed to the tense state of relations between the UAE and Qatar.
Ongoing sectarian violence in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia showcases how the GCC is not immune to the Arab Awakening. Although calls for political or social change in the UAE have been minimal since 2011, the potential for income disparities to fuel unrest in the UAE is a concern for the ruling order. Given that AI has functioned as a charity and social welfare organization for decades, the government believes there is potential for the group to gain influence in the UAE’s poorer emirates.
While sectarian fault lines largely define the Middle East’s geopolitical order, a “Sunni Cold War” is simultaneously influencing the regional network of alliances. On one side, the distinctly undemocratic polity in Saudi Arabia vehemently opposes Islamist political parties that promote democratic institutions. On the other, Turkey and Qatar support the spread of ‘democratic Islamism’ throughout the region.
In this struggle, the UAE has made its position abundantly clear. While Abu Dhabi will continue to use its massive natural resource wealth to attempt to neutralize its citizens’ aspirations for democratic reforms, the UAE appears determined to conduct an increasingly activist foreign policy that counters the MB throughout the region while seeking to prevent the organization from gaining any foothold in the GCC. In doing so, the UAE underscores its intention to preserve the status quo power structure in the Gulf and Egypt.