The federation of kings

Once under British colonial rule, now known for its petrodollars, finance, trade, futurist architecture and top-end tourism. The smaller emirates try to hold out

A view of Dubai and the Burj Khalifa, the most imposing tower in the world and almost one kilometre high. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/Contrast
A view of Dubai and the Burj Khalifa, the most imposing tower in the world and almost one kilometre high. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/Contrast

If we turn our back on the infinite line of skyscrapers and buildings with the most daring shapes and head towards the old port of Dubai, at one point one happens upon a small district made up of small, rather old looking buildings which have all been very lovingly restored. This is the ancient palace of the Emir of Dubai, which used to welcome the emissaries from the East and the European imperial colonies. The quaint watchtower, which in the past was used to sight ships approaching what at the time was a small but strategic trading station, stands nearby.

In spite of the attempts to endow the area with as solemn an appearance as possible, the contrast with the Dubai of today is mind blowing. The small tower, once the tallest building in this minute emirate, stands no taller than fifty metres. In the background, beyond the mantle of skyscrapers, now stands the Burj Khalifa, the most imposing tower in the world, almost one kilometre high. But this unreal contrast is also a metaphor of the incredible development of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has moved on from its role as an "accidental" product of British colonialism to become one of the main financial, commercial and touristic centres on the planet.

The Burj Khalifa metaphor also tells us a great deal about the true balance of power within the federation. As much as Dubai has been for some time now the most well-known emirate within the federation, the real power is not held by the royal family, the Al-Maktoums. Ever since the birth of the federation the power has been in the hands of the largest and by far the richest emirate: Abu Dhabi. A supremacy that was entrenched even more during the crisis which in 2009 risked toppling Dubai's entire banking system. For months it seemed that the huge tower, which at the time was supposed to be named the Burj Dubai, would never be completed. In the end it was the Abu Dhabi emir, Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan who stepped in and funded its completion. That's when the tower changed its name to Burj Khalifa, literally speaking "The Caliph's tower", but few doubt who the "Khalifa" refers to. The Al-Nahyan emirs, besides being the emirs of Abu Dhabi, also hold the chairmanship of the federation, from which they supervise the Emirates foreign policy. Khalifa bin Zayed, now seventy, has held the post since 2004, but many now see him as more of ceremonial figure. The real power is supposed to be in the hands of his younger brother, the fifty-six year old Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi's crown prince who is considered the person primarily responsible behind the radical transformations that have taken place in the United Arab Emirates over the last decade. The commentators often refer to him with his acronym, MBZ, in an obvious attempt to equate his role with that of the young Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in his thirties, for whom he is supposed to have acted as a mentor.

But though they may both be driven towards establishing a more assertive foreign policy compared to their predecessors, they are nevertheless separated by the radical and undeniable differences between their two countries. The UAE is a small federation with no more than 10 million inhabitants (of which less than one million are actual citizens) while Saudi Arabia is a country of 32 million people and the site of Islam's holy cities. While the Saudi MBS has so far littered his aggressive power grab with blatant mistakes, crimes and international vilification, MBZ has made his moves on the quiet, certain that few would take any notice of a country that is so geopolitically peripheral as the UAE. A swift transformation based, as Qatar had done a decade before, on the smart exploitation of its own financial might.

Taking Qatar as its example, the emirate princes have certainly learned the importance of soft power, meaning the value of being associated with "positive ideas" such as culture, art and innovation. Today the Emirates host local branches of dozens of international universities and museums like New York University and the Louvre, and they've also built technology parks where they experiment with state-of-the-art systems in key sectors such as alternative energy sources. Dubai's International Exposition in 2020, for example, is likely to become the most impressive "Expo" in recent decades. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the third richest sovereign fund in the world, has been paying lobbying companies for years in order to convince rulers and public opinion of the advantages of having good relations with the UAE.

But, unlike the Qatar emirs, MBZ has also given notice that he has understood the limitations of what can be achieved with money and soft power. In 2014, as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, he introduced a compulsory draft and more than doubled the nation's military budget, investing in state-of-the-art weapon systems, professional combat training and highly efficient mercenary units: a "small Sparta", as it was nicknamed by James Mattis, now at the head of the Pentagon. An investment that soon began to produce results. The Emirates have provided backing to missions in every corner of the world, from Afghanistan to Libya, and supported the American-led anti-Isis coalition with its own air force. But their military capacity has proven even more effective in nearby Yemen. While Saudi aerial bombings were being criticized for the growing number of civilian casualties, the emirates' special forces, trained by American Navy Seals, successfully took over Aden.

Thanks to what is probably the only truly modern Arab army, the Emirates' leadership has started to expand the influence of the small federation beyond its borders, accompanying it with its usual source of leverage: cash. The UAE are among the main supporters of separatist forces in the area, such as the Cyrenaic leader Haftar in Libya or the Somaliland and Puntiland in Somalia. What they ask for in return for the financial aid is the opportunity to build military bases and expand their commercial networks. "Take a look at the map of the ports that are currently controlled by the Emirates and you'll see the old Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar coming back to life", was how the Economist recently put it. And like the maritime republics centuries earlier, its military expansion enables the UAE to promote its commercial interests throughout the region, particularly in key passageways between the East and the West.

Today the Emirates own one of the most important shipping companies in the world, DP World, and Emirates Airlines and Etihad are among the most important airlines. But while the UAE expansion owes a great deal to the partial withdrawal of the Americans from the area – which has left a vacuum that has in part been filled by the most competent regional forces – the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa are beginning to attract the attention of major powers who until recently played no part in Middle Eastern geopolitics. China has recently built a military base in Djibouti, Turkey is expanding its presence in Somalia and there's even talk of a future Russian military base in the area. Hard to see how the miniscule Emirates will hold their own against these giants. As history teaches us, small maritime republics often tend to succumb when bigger powers decide – or find the resources – to stake their claims.

@Ibn_Trovarelli

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