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  • Writer's pictureRed Line Producer

Episode 46. The UAE's Red Sea Strategy

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Dubai's transformation from a fishing village to a global hub epitomises the unlikely country that is the United Arab Emirates. Massive oil wealth has enabled them to punch above their weight, but as the world marches away from oil, the pressure is building to secure their future while they still can. How will the UAE diversify? And what is its ambitious Red Sea strategy?



Hilal Khashan

  • Professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut

  • Geopolitical expert specialising in the Gulf States

  • Author of several key books on the region

Helen Lackner

  • British writer and academic well-known for her work on the Middle East and Yemen

  • Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

  • Researcher for the SOAS University in London

  • Author of "Yemen in Crisis"

Bilal Saab

  • Political and Military analyst specialising in the Middle East and US Regional Foreign Policy for The Middle East Institute

  • Former Senior Advisor for Security Cooperation in the Pentagon's Office of the Under Secretary of Defence Policy

  • Author of "Rebuilding Arab Defence: America's Quest for Military Partnership in the Middle East"


Part 1: Black Gold (02:13)

  • Hilal Khashan takes us through what constitutes the state of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is in fact a union of seven emirates, dominated by UAE because of its size, population, and oil wealth.

  • Initially the UAE sought to include Bahrain and Qatar in their union. We look at the early days of competition and disagreement between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and how that has evolved over time. Although they work together, there is no love lost between them.

  • Although the emirates officially share power, Abu Dhabi is fundamentally synonymous with the government of the UAE. We track how Abu Dhabi has kept the UAE afloat and united, and why it continues to dominate the union.

  • Oil transformed the UAE oil politically, economically, diplomatically, and militarily. Khashan takes us through some of the history of this development, and what the UAE is looking at doing to strengthen their economy long term, with the knowledge that oil won't be key forever.

  • We look at how the UAE fared in the Arab Spring. The indigenous population of the country has been well-provided for before, during and after the Arab Spring, and the government is very responsive to any discontent within the country. Thus they have been able to avoid any significant domestic disruption, unlike many of their neighbours.

  • Finally we analyse the country's longevity and the nature of their power in the region. Regional instability and oil wealth have elevated the UAE's role significantly, but they lack the base of power required for long-term relevance and influence. Limited natural resources, a small population and regional competition will naturally diminish their strength over time.


Part 2: A Borrowed War (16:51)

  • Helen Lackner tackles the UAE's role in Yemen. She takes us through why they have worked so closely to the United States both in Yemen and the Middle East more widely, and how their relationship began and grew in the first place.

  • Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have a very mixed historical relationship, marked by a great deal of rivalry, tension, and cooperation. We examine their relationship's changes over time particularly in the last few years, as both states have new de facto leaders. We look at the regional consequences of these two power's growing tensions.

  • Lackner takes us through the reasons for Saudi Arabia and the UAE's involvement in Yemen respectively, and the development of their cooperation and rivalry over time. Although initially very cooperative, in recent years and months the two states have become more and more opposed.

  • Sudanese and Chadian soldiers have become more and more involved in this conflict as Private Military Companies (PMCs) paid by the United Arab Emirates. We examine the influence and role that these PMCs are playing.

  • We look at the UAE's de facto seizing of the island of Socotra. With useful physical characteristics and a powerful geographic location, the UAE is cementing its control over the territory through military presence and tourism from states like Israel.

  • Socotra is a part of the UAE's larger ambitious Red Sea Strategy, which seeks to put the Red Sea under significant control or influence of the UAE. Lackner takes us through the state of this strategy and how long the UAE will continue to be able to punch this far above its weight.


Part 3: Dividing the Red Sea (41:25)

  • Bilal Saab takes us through how the UAE is more efficient, effective, and industrious in utilising its natural resource gifts. In only a couple of decades it has turned from a footnote into a regional powerhouse, through a combination of strong leadership, economic investment, and strategic thinking.

  • We look at what it took to become the model for governance, tolerance, and coexistence of varying groups that it is. How was it able to manage its resources better than any other comparable state?

  • Saab takes us through why the UAE is so invested in growing their role internationally, and what regional factors enabled them to. This includes analysing its various involvements in Yemen; its effectiveness, its interests and its ongoing presence through proxies and allies.

  • Another key factor in UAE's foreign policy is its diametric opposition to Political Islam. We look at how this view has informed their actions domestically and overseas, as well as factors like competition with Iran, and seeking to illustrate their counter-terrorism capacity to the United States.

  • We also overview the state's wider geopolitical strategies and plans, from the Red Sea, to the Horn of Africa, to Libya. We look at how PMCs have played a role in these strategies and in Yemen, and why they have become so critical for the UAE.

  • Finally we look at how the UAE is involved in wider geopolitical competition, from the United States to China, to the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.


The Red Line's United Arab Emirates Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of the United Arab Emirates


Rebuilding Arab Defence: America's Quest for Military Partnership in the Middle East

Bilaal Saab

Yemen in Crisis

Helen Lackner

The End of Empire in the Gulf

Tancred Bradshaw



For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Mac Macsparrow.


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