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UAE's foreign policy looks beyond regional security

posted on 28/11/2010: 772 views

The UAE has been quietly working for years to raise its international influence on the global stage. For decades it was a respected voice, but only in Gulf and Arab affairs, largely due to personal respect for the late president Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and his consistency in support for both far-sighted social development and the search for peaceful solutions to the region's problems.

But the UAE did not have a high profile in the world at large. This is now changing, and it is becoming very clear that the UAE is taking a more structured position in international affairs.

For example, to the uninformed observer, it would have been a shock to see Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE's Foreign Minister, participating in the NATO summit in Lisbon, since the UAE is not a member of 26-member nation alliance. But it is one of only two Muslim or Arab contributors of troops from 12 non-NATO nations which joined the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The other Arab state is Jordan.

But typically for the UAE, its efforts in Afghanistan go beyond the basic minimum. While its contribution to ISAF shows that it wants to be part of the international consensus in trying to solve Afghanistan's chronic insecurity, the UAE knows that there is no way a military force can impose peace in Afghanistan. The country desperately needs investment to encourage economic development and social security.

And on November 30, the UAE will host an investment conference attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and hosted by Sheikh Abdullah. This meeting will look at practical steps to get commercial investment flowing targeting three areas: infrastructure, mining and agriculture.

It is this kind of practical can-do initiative that is a hallmark of how the UAE is making a difference in its diplomacy, working with other nations to find useful ways to move beyond the immediate need for better security.

This week's happy coincidence of visits by two heads of state, Queen Elizabeth II and Indian President Pratibha Patil, also allows the UAE to celebrate the depth of its relations with two very long-term friends, and look at how they are taking shape in the 21st century.

British connection

The Queen is visiting the UAE for the first time after 31 years, and comes as an old friend of the country and its leaders, which gives the visit a special intimacy. The visit is based around the theme of UAE-UK partnership, and is designed to celebrate the many fields in which the UK and UAE are working in close cooperation as allies, and illustrates how the UAE has successfully re-calibrated its relationship with the former colonial power.

Patil's visit is important as India is the hemisphere's superpower, and is also the UAE's largest bilateral trading partner. Her visit was noticeable for its good humour and warmth, and also how the discussions led to practical ideas of progressing cooperation in areas like improving quality of desalination and agricultural yield, and support for India's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This kind of overt joining in support of a friend's aims is how the UAE is building a wide network of international allies.

An important part of the UAE's foreign strategy has been to be active in taking a more organised position in foreign affairs, with a focus on energy where its position as one of the world leading oil producers gives it a particular expertise. It has been an important member of Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for many years, helping shape the international oil industry, but it is also now a board member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and it also hosts the International Renewable Energy Agency ( Irena).

Another part of the UAE's activities which contribute to its foreign standing, if not part of its direct foreign policy, is the country's aid programme. The UAE is one of the most generous donors of international aid which has played an important part in raising its international profile. It has given an average of 1.5 per cent of its combined gross national income, which is more than twice the United Nations average of 0.7 per cent and five times the average of the OECD-DAC countries.

The numbers are important, but they do not reflect the powerful impact of the startlingly efficient and clean refugee camps managed by the UAE army in Kosovo, or the excellent field hospital set up this year near Karachi to help children suffering from the impact of the shocking floods.

The totality of all this action adds up to the emergence of a Gulf Arab state with solid friendships and alliances in most parts of the world. Its core starting point is obviously with the GCC partners, the Arab states, and Muslim countries.

The UAE has expanded from traditional allies in Europe, North America, and the Indian subcontinent, to take an active interest in developing new relationships in Asia. It has been clever to move out of traditional geo-political system into issue-based global politics with its interests in energy and sustainability, which will give it an important forum for decades. – by Francis Mathew – Gulf News


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