Politics & Policy

Dating-Game Diplomacy

Getting to know U(AE).

The Dubai Ports deal appears to be dead, killed by the overwhelming opposition of ordinary Americans. Now conventional foreign-policy experts worry about the damage this allegedly rude, Arab-phobic act will do to our ongoing diplomatic courtship of the United Arab Emirates and its Arab sister states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As these anxious experts see it, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain have been doing us a great favor by hosting our military on their territories, and if we had any sense, we would reward them for these generous acts of friendship by approving any investments in our country their governments care to make. Instead, we have recklessly offended them all by rejecting the UAE’s Dubai Ports deal, arousing their justified anger, and putting their willingness to continue hosting our military at risk. To undo the damage and avert these potentially dire consequences, these experts tell us, we must now work harder than ever to soothe and placate them, and get back into their good graces.

Call that the dating-game school of diplomacy.

Now let’s take another look at our relations with the UAE and its sister states, based on the geopolitical realities of the Gulf region. From this perspective, we see that the UAE and four of its sister states don’t host the U.S. military as a favor to us, out of friendship. They host our forces because it is in their national interest to do so; because America is their protector; because without our military might, they would cease to exist, being gobbled up by their larger neighbors, just as Kuwait was gobbled up by Saddam Hussein until we threw the Iraqi invaders out and restored the country to its ruling emirs in 1991.

Iraq isn’t much of a threat at present, thanks to our toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and our ongoing military presence there, but this is an unstable region, long riven by a multitude of bitter and old border disputes. Two other Gulf neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have longstanding claims to some of the UAE’s oil lands and to oil rich parts of its sister states too. Saudi Arabia is the sixth member of theGCC, the big sister of the group, and her relationship to the other five was, until quite recently, something like that of Big Nurse to the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the last few years, the growing instability of the Wahhabi kingdom has weakened the Saudi’s ability to dominate and bully. Nevertheless, the smaller states’ existential peril remains very real.

To begin to understand just how vulnerable and threatened the UAE and its sister states are, it helps to have a clear picture of their size in relation to the size of the neighboring Gulf states that covet their territories and their oil. So let’s look at population numbers, using estimates on which the U.S. Census Bureau and the CIA World Factbook agree. (Our State Department offers somewhat different figures, but no matter; whichever figures you use, the UAE and its four Arab sisters are tiny little statelets, surrounded by hostile, rapacious giants.)

Here are the numbers: The UAE has about two and a half million inhabitants, making it a little bigger than Kuwait, which has two and a third million, and a little smaller than Oman, which has three million. Qatar and Bahrain are smaller still, with less than a million inhabitants each. All five together have less than ten million inhabitants, and most of these are hired hands who can never become citizens–either pampered foreign managers who run the countries’ state-owned businesses or much-abused foreign laborers and domestics who do the countries’ dirty work. Compare that to Saudi Arabia’s more than 26 million natives and Iran’s 68 million, and you get some idea of how perilous a situation the UAE and its little sisters are in, and how completely they depend on the protection of a strong outside power for their existence. Indeed, they have lasted this long only because they have always had a powerful foreign protector–before us, it was the British. To put it in plain English, we don’t owe them; they owe us.

Our failure to recognize this basic fact and act on it by demanding a fair price for our protection allows statelets like the UAE to play on both sides, befriending Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda before 9/11 and terrorist groups like Hamas today. Their ties to Hamas are especially close because so many of these statelet’s foreign managers are Palestinians, except in Kuwait, which drove about 370,000 of them from its territory after they collaborated with Saddam Hussein in the invasion and despoliation of their country. Still, even Kuwait remains fiercely committed to the Palestinians’ cause–the destruction of our ally, Israel–and all five support the boycott of Israeli goods, although Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain have occasionally shown signs of wanting to relax it.

The UAE has been especially relentless in resisting any such softening of Arab rejectionism, and why not? It earns them brownie points with all the Arab fanatics and all the terrorist groups in the region, and costs them nothing in terms of our support. We don’t grasp the diplomatic leverage our position gives us, and therefore we cannot use it to advance our interests and those of allies who actually share our goals. Instead, we let ourselves be bullied by arrogant and hostile little statelets who shrewdly exploit our indiscriminate eagerness to make all Arabs like us, and win what our diplomats are pleased to call their “friendship.” In fact, friendship among states–to the extent that it exists–is based on respect, and an easily manipulated over-eagerness to please is more likely to generate contempt. As Harry Truman, a genuine foreign-policy maven, used to say about another hard place, Washington, if you want a friend, get a dog.

Barbara Lerner is a frequent NRO contributor.


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