UAE Restricts US Military Strikes from Its Territory

Fearing an attack by Iran or its allied militias in the region, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has restricted US military aircraft from targeting these proxy groups from its Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. The decision has led US military commanders to send additional warplanes to the large Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, whose government seems more accommodating to the United States on military matters, perhaps as a way to deflect Washington’s recent criticism that it is not doing enough to pressure Hamas in the Israel-Gaza war. UAE officials have become increasingly nervous that the huge investments in making their country a successful financial and business hub could be in jeopardy if the country were to be on the receiving end of retaliatory strikes. The Emirati distancing from the US military may also be related to the Israel-Gaza war. Even though the UAE has not downgraded ties to Israel, it has grown more critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, in part because local public opinion remains sensitive to Palestinian suffering and views US support for Israel’s military campaign as complicitity.

Despite the talk of the so-called American pivot to Asia, the United States maintains an extensive military presence in the Middle East. Beyond Qatar and UAE, this includes military bases or access to bases in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and eastern Syria outside of the government’s control. US aircraft carriers have made their presence known in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Gulf. Until recently, UAE officials saw US military forces as protection against an aggressive Iran or its allied militias.

Complicated Relations with Iran

The UAE and Iran have long had complicated ties. Trade between the two countries has existed for centuries, largely through dhows (traditional cargo boats) that have plied the waters of the Gulf and continue to do so today, defying economic sanctions that the United States and the international community have periodically imposed on Iran. In addition, as many as half a million Iranians reside in the UAE, particularly in the emirate of Dubai, and are an integral part of the business community there. In the fiscal year that ended in March 2024 Iran imported $20.8 billion in goods from the UAE, while the UAE imported $6.6 billion of Iranian goods.

The UAE and Iran remain at odds over Iranian control of the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs.

That said, the UAE and Iran remain at odds over Iranian control of three small islands (Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs) off the UAE coast that were seized by the Shah of Iran in 1971 as the United Kingdom was withdrawing from the Gulf. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic staunchly maintained that the islands were Iranian territory, even enhancing its military presence and conducting military drills there. Although the UAE has bolstered its military capabilities in recent decades (former Secretary of Defense James Mattis referred to it as “Little Sparta” in 2011 when he was CENTCOM Commander), it clearly does not want a military confrontation with its much larger neighbor across the Gulf.

Complicating matters, in early 2016 the UAE downgraded relations with Iran, in a show of solidarity with Saudi Arabia following a Tehran mob’s torching of the kingdom’s embassy to protest Riyadh’s execution of outspoken Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Relations between Abu Dhabi and Tehran improved in 2019 and were formally upgraded in 2022. Nonetheless, they have been on opposite sides in the Yemen conflict, which has pitted the Iran-backed Houthi rebels against the Saudi-led coalition supporting the internationally recognized Yemeni government.

Although the UAE and Saudi Arabia have pursued different paths in Yemen in recent years, Abu Dhabi still sees the Houthis as a threat. In January 2022, a Houthi missile and drone attack shocked the Emirati political establishment and business community. The strikes, which killed three people and set off a fire near the Abu Dhabi airport, served as a reminder to the UAE that its involvement in the Yemen war was not without costs at home.

Pro-Iran Militias, the US Response, and Use of Al Dhafra

The current Israeli war on Gaza, which has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, presented an opportunity for pro-Iran Shia militias in Iraq and Syria to exploit. Such militias targeted US military personnel and contractors in the region several times since October 2023, leading the Biden administration to retaliate. Reports suggested that at least some US strikes originated at Al Dhafra Air Base.

While these strikes seemed to have deterred the militias (perhaps through a stern warning to Iran), the Houthis have continued to attack ships in the Red Sea, supposedly because they are headed to Israel or have some other connection to it. The United States, United Kingdom, and France have responded by striking Houthi targets, though President Biden acknowledged that this was unlikely to deter the Houthis, who say that they will continue to strike in and around the Red Sea as long as the war in Gaza continues. Tellingly, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE refused to be part of a beefed-up international Red Sea naval presence operating under the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian. Riyadh may have calculated that such participation would jeopardize talks to end the Yemen conflict (from which it wants to extricate itself), whereas Abu Dhabi may be concerned that it could face retaliation again from the Houthis.

In February, Politico reported that some Gulf Arab countries, including the UAE, were restricting the United States from using their bases to launch retaliatory strikes on pro-Iran militias. One US official referred to countries “attempting a détente with Iran” imposing these restrictions. A Western official said that the UAE, in particular, does not “want to appear like they’re against Iran and they don’t want to appear too close to the West and Israel for public opinion reasons.”

In early May, UAE official told The Wall Street Journal that the Emirati government had banned US strike missions from its territory against targets in Iraq and Yemen, and that such “restrictions are coming from a place of self-protection.” Clearly, the UAE is wary of being drawn into a regional conflict in which it believes it has much to lose.

Qatar Open to More US Military Assets

In the wake of the UAE decision, the Department of Defense is repositioning some of its aircraft and drones to Al Udeid, as Qatar has not imposed similar restrictions. Although Qatar is also vulnerable to an Iranian proxy attack, it has forged closer relations with Iran in recent years, especially during the Saudi- and Emirati-led boycott that lasted from 2017-2021. Moreover, Qatar may want to publicize continued US access to Al Udeid as a hedge against US criticism, especially from some members of Congress, that it is not sufficiently pressing Hamas to accept a hostage release and ceasefire deal with Israel. Although Qatar has gained international prestige for its Gaza mediation, it has become a punching bag of sorts in recent months from some pro-Israel elements in Washington.

UAE in a New Protection Mode

The UAE likely fears that Iranian or Iranian proxy attacks on its territory would adversely affect the massive infrastructure and economic development projects that it has implemented in recent decades. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become successful business hubs and playgrounds for the world’s wealthy elites. According to a recent report, the number of people in Dubai who have liquid assets of a million dollars or more increased by nearly 80 percent from 2013 to 2023. There are now 72,500 such people residing in Dubai alone. Included in this group are 212 millionaires, each having more than $100 million in liquid assets, and 15 billionaires. Next in line as a venue for millionaires is Abu Dhabi, where the bulk of the UAE’s oil and gas reserves are based. Were the UAE to become directly embroiled in a regional war involving Israel and Iran, capital flight would surely follow—something UAE leaders want to avoid at all costs.

Although UAE officials initially saw the US military presence as a way to protect their country, this perception has apparently changed. They now seem to believe that the US presence may be a liability, especially if Iran and pro-Iran militias perceive the UAE as turning a blind eye to the retaliatory strikes against them from Al Dhafra. Moreover, the United States’ slow response to the January 2022 Houthi attacks likely convinced Emirati officials that the American security umbrella was not reliable. Hence, they now seem to believe that the best way to defend their country is to protect and enhance friendly relations with Iran, despite ongoing disagreements. It was probably not coincidental that in late April and early May, the UAE-Iran economic commission met in Abu Dhabi after a ten-year hiatus.

The UAE fears that attacks on its territory would adversely affect its massive economic development projects.

To be sure, UAE officials are also nervous about the political fallout from the Israel war on Gaza. Although diplomatic and business ties between Israel and the UAE have continued, UAE leaders are concerned about the perception of having too cozy a relationship with the Israeli government. In a January Arab world poll conducted by Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar, two-thirds of respondents viewed the UAE position on Israel as “bad” or “very bad.” Therefore, after Netanyahu said recently that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries could potentially assist a “civilian government” in Gaza following the war, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan charged that the Israeli prime minister does not have the legal authority to make this happen, and emphasized that the UAE “refuses to be drawn into any plan aimed at providing cover for the Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip.”

In addition, the UAE ambassador to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, has insisted publicly that there must be “irreversible progression” toward a two-state solution before the UAE and other Arab countries will commit to funding Gaza’s reconstruction. And a group of bankers and lawyers in the UAE told Reuters that, while business links between UAE and Israeli companies continue, few new deals are in the works. There has been a cooling of commercial ties after a couple of years of substantial trade following the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords.

Recommendations for US Policy

Following the Iranian revolution, when anti-Americanism was on the rise across the Middle East, the United States pursued a strategy dubbed “over the horizon,” in which the United States should pre-position equipment in friendly Arab states and deploy troops to the region only if needed, rather than maintain military bases in the region. This strategy eroded over subsequent decades to the point where the US military presence in the Gulf became widespread and politically contentious. Although the UAE is not calling on the US military to leave its territory (but only to restrict the activity of US warplanes), there may be some wisdom in reverting to the old strategy. The United States can undertake deterrence without the need for so many US bases. In addition to pressing for a ceasefire in Gaza, the US government should re-think its policy on bases, which has put some friendly Arab governments in an awkward and politically tenuous position that does not serve them—or US national security interests.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image: US DoD