The United Arab Emirates has built an economic and political system reliant on its status as a safe harbor in an unstable region. The glittering prosperity and safety of cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi has enticed people from around the world to live, work, and invest in the small Gulf Arab country — just 150 kilometers from the coast of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The success of the Emirates has often felt like a bit of a miracle: a bubble of exorbitant wealth that has grown in the desert over a few short decades, thanks in large part to the contributions of expatriate workers and professionals. The fragility of this bubble however was highlighted this week, when the war in poverty-stricken Yemen, in which the UAE has taken a prominent role, finally arrived at its doorstep.
Two separate attacks claimed by Yemeni Houthi rebels this month struck the UAE, shattering the image of calm upon which the country’s economic model depends. The first attack, a drone strike on January 17 which hit the airport and a fuel depot in Abu Dhabi, set off explosions that killed three expatriate workers. That attack enraged Emirati leaders, who struck back by bombing a prison in the northern Yemeni city of Saada in an attack that killed dozens. The Houthis seemed undeterred by this retaliation, however, striking the Emirates again this week with a ballistic missile attack aimed at a military base outside Abu Dhabi which is home to thousands of U.S. service personnel.
Images of interceptor missiles lighting up the sky over the city went viral on social media, illustrating just how close the violence of Yemen had come to the wealthy Emirates. The second attack did not result in any casualties, but it further underlined that after several years of outside intervention, the war in Yemen is becoming more, not less, dangerous for the surrounding Gulf Arab states.
The gradual erosion of the UAE’s security bubble is attributable in large part to decisions made by its crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, or MBZ, who has charted an aggressive new path for Emirati foreign policy. MBZ has taken a leading role in supporting the Gulf Arab coalition’s war in Yemen, making his nation an active belligerent in a conflict that has devastated the region’s poorest country. The UAE has also fought in recent years in Libya, helping the country earn the nickname “Little Sparta” for its attempts to confront larger powers.
Emirati leaders have traditionally been conservative about their relations with other countries in the region, cognizant of their small size and the fragile nature of their expatriate-driven economic model. Under MBZ, however, the Emirates has sought to become a major player, taking a leading role in foreign military campaigns and aligning itself closely with countries outside the region, like the U.S., to contain regional powers like Turkey and Iran. MBZ has even felt confident enough to break with the traditional Arab consensus on relations with Israel, establishing not just diplomatic contacts but cordial relations with Israeli leaders in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
So far, the UAE has been able to reap the benefits of an active foreign policy without paying any of the costs. But the missile attacks from Yemen, whose poverty and suffering are not geographically distant from the opulence of Abu Dhabi, shows there are limits to how far the Emiratis can go on their own. In comments to the New York Times following this week’s ballistic missile attack on the Al Dhafra airbase, individuals connected to the UAE government expressed genuine puzzlement and concern that their country’s involvement in the brutal war in Yemen had rebounded back on it.
“We have to be honest that this is something that we are not used to,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political scientist, told the Times. “The U.A.E. has maintained a reputation of being a safe haven for investors, visitors and tourists.”
Abdulla expressed confidence that the attacks would not change the Emirates’ reputation as a safe place to live and invest. A sustained period of such attacks, however — should the war in Yemen further spiral out of control, or in the event of a larger conflagration between the U.S., Israel, and Iran — would put the Emirates on the firing line and could do irreversible damage to the country’s status as a safe harbor. Unlike other countries in the region with large native populations, the wealth of the UAE is almost wholly dependent on the millions of expatriates, both rich and poor, who live and work there. If the security upon which the country’s prosperity relies is disturbed, these foreigners will quickly leave for their home countries — taking their money and their skills with them.
There is still time for the UAE’s leaders to change course and return to a traditional path of regional dealmaking and compromise that has helped them preserve domestic peace. Such an approach is still exemplified by the neighboring Sultanate of Oman, which continues to act as a mediator among rivals in the Middle East. Absent that, it will be hard to keep the violence that has tormented the region from Abu Dhabi’s doorstep forever.
For all its many faults, the UAE genuinely has served as a place in the Middle East where people from many backgrounds have been able to live, work, and worship in relative peace. Protecting that political order requires thoughtful leadership as opposed to recklessness and belligerence. The missile attacks this month from Yemen show that the UAE is indeed a bubble, and a fragile one at that.