The world around the United Arab Emirates swirls with changes pulling several directions at once. So far the leaders of this young country and their peoples have written a success story. Together they have carefully chosen among alternative goals and policies by following the traditions of the majlis, today wrapping these in the technology of commercial and social media.
They have kept their balance by looking forward, building on knowing their past, rather than ignoring it. They have engendered ambition, opened their minds and energies to science and reason and tolerance. UAE think tanks, both independent and government, pursue intellectual growth and political development in a responsible self-respectful spirit that counters blind obedience. Freedom of thought is prized, not demonized.
But the UAE may be unsure what to write on its new pages of international policy.
It wrestles with conflicting perceptions of current questions about the country’s direction, objectives, manner, and resources. The UAE not only rides the wake of shifts impending in US and Iranian geopolitical roles in the region; it also has to sort among pressures from its neighbors.
The UAE has always had a foreign policy agenda, of course. These have included participation in the United Nations, respect for international law, support for the Arab and Islamic Worlds, development aid in Asia and Africa, and trade and strategic relations with the world’s major powers and the Third World. More recently the UAE has added humanitarian action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, security tasks in the Maghreb, restoring stability in Egypt, and holding Iran at bay through military involvement in Yemen and the Levant.
Especially serious concerns now appear under a filing tab marked: “Islamic State” (or “DAESH”) and under another marked “coalition partner - the United States.”
In trying to unwind the “DAESH Dash” across Syria and Iraq, the UAE and United States differ on some objectives, in part because of previous US engagements in this region. The United States continually expresses angst about possible terrorist attacks in the United States. For the UAE, however, such prospects register lower on a political worry scale than does reverberations in its memory of US actions in Iraq in Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003. Further, the UAE defines action against the Islamic State more as protecting Sunnis in the context of Iranian Shia geostrategy than as a threat of terrorism. 
The full-force US arrival in the Middle East in 1991 and its culmination in the “Highway of Death” -- strafing of Iraqis fleeing Kuwait -- unsettled many in the Arab World, including in the UAE. Arab communities noted that their governments paid the United States to act but at home the US leaders justified the attack in language of religion that echoed the eternal warring of pre-Islamic days and the later Christian Crusades.
While Arabs felt no love for Saddam, the ferocity of the West’s military machine closed the mental as well as geographic distance between the West and the Arab world. It unleashed latent fears in the Arab psyche. The United States suddenly was inside the protective walls of their governments – in the name of democracy and freedom. This loosed political desires in Arab individuals. It raised insecurity in rulers and ruled alike. Arabs before and since – in Algiers, Rabat and then Tunis, Manama, Muscat, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus – have filled city squares calling for individual liberties . This has caused some trepidation for those who find security by living behind walls of obedience. They understand that “freedom” can mean a lack of the self-discipline essential for long term social order.
A second shock for the Arab World occurred in AlQaeda in Iraq’s and then DAESH’s Kharijite-like violent suppression of individual liberty in the name of rebuilding the ethical walls around Muslims. This will bring justice, DAESH contends. Social media have facilitated mobilizing a mass of human swords to serve the Islamic State -- a global caliphate that believes or claims itself to be the agent of divine will. The Islamic State's seeks to control, first, all of Iraq and Syria, then neighboring countries, and eventually the entire world.
The would-be caliphate combines a radical Muslim Brotherhood political program with Salafist notions of who can bring peace and rule justly. Islamic State leaders use portions of the Quran and Hadith that suit their own tastes and objectives. These religious appeals are important in recruiting fighters, sustaining a narrative of freeing and protecting Muslims (especially Sunni), and rationalizing coercive managing of those it conquers.
Needless to say, little of DAESH’s prescriptive view or violence resonates well in the UAE. But the cause of “protecting Sunnis” does. Though no government openly support Islamic State, cheering sections exist throughout the Middle East. Donations will continue to flow from Sunnis in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia as long as Islamic State destroys resources of Iran and its proxies and harasses Shi’a.
Islamic State follows a proven narrative that “success brings success.” News and social media reports of the DAESH dash across Syria and Iraq attracted thousands of foreign recruits. Islamic State maneuvers continually to keep this image alive. Many commentators have assessed that above all other intentions the Islamic State military moves against Ramadi and Palmyra, for example, were not only to gain ground. Even more important was to show that, despite losing Tikrit and suffering coalition air strikes, Islamic State still commands a vast swath of Iraq and Syria. It can stand up to the conventional militaries of the regimes and the coalition.
Thus, with Ramadis and Palmyras, Islamic State can continue to promise the angry or disheartened or alienated or idealistic young Sunnis they target as recruits around the world: a daring glamorous holiday adventure, joining their friends on a “kick ass” winning team – winning for a cause greater than themselves, “being a man” with a prospect of returning home a hero, having a well-paying job that lets them escape from feeling second class in foreign immigrant communities in Europe or North America, and answering their search for salvation and honor by being a “good Muslim” who defends fellow Sunnis. And young Muslim women join to be with young men whom they see as “strong” and “good”.
In addition to refurbishing its narrative of success, Islamic State benefited in increased morale and bank cash, continued willingness of suppliers to smuggle to it, decrease in Iraqi morale (political as well as military), and the rise of accusations in the United States that either President Obama has no strategy for DAESH or that his strategy isn’t working. Islamic State also showed the geostrategic weaknesses of its primary target, Iraq: Baghdad’s dependence on Iranian militia and Tehran-backed attackers in Syria.
Not everything favors Islamic State fortunes. When they assess Islamic State many Western news agencies ignore that Baathist officers the United States dismissed in 2003 handle the military planning and operations side of Islamic State. These men may pragmatically switch sides to fight against the caliphate when the time is propitious. Iraqi regular forces resisted DAESH for 17 months in Ramadi. But they may have run from Mosel and finally in Ramadi in part because they believe that one day they will be answering to these Baathist officers, against the caliphate’s hold-outs.
In some ways US strategy seems to take the Baathist officer factor into account and the coalition would benefit from any UAE diplomatic initiatives that enhance it. Coalition members could try to bring about a deal among the Baathist officers in Islamic State, the military leaders in Baghdad, and the political leaders in Baghdad and Tehran. Perhaps signs of this will appear if Iran makes its peace with the international community on its nuclear energy program rights and responsibilities. Such a road contains multiple hazards and inevitable costs but offers possible reconciliation.
A second factor to note is that losing Tikrit briefly reversed the Islamic State success narrative; an Iraqi reclaiming of Mosel would set Islamic State back on its heels (unless Islamic State achieved a comparable win elsewhere). Important for future coalition policy, then, is knowing the Tikrit success back story: Shi’a militia were unable to conquer Tikrit in a month of bloody fighting. Throughout that month the United States insisted, as a condition of coalition air support in Tikrit, that Iraq move its regular forces into the battle, displacing some Shia militia. When Baghdad relented, coalition air support arrived and the battle finished within a week. The lesson for Iraqis was that Iranian support is not enough; they need Iraqi regulars to assure coalition help. That reality also pressures Iraqis in Baghdad and Islamic State alike to negotiate.
Substantial agreement exists in the coalition on certain moves: increase military forward observers (initially with US assist) to call in air strikes. Provide more arms and technical assistance to Iraq (especially Sunni tribes) to compete with Iran. Finance what Iraq cannot – replacing income lost from its occupied territory and importing essential high priced commodities. Train and equip more Iraqi regulars and Sunni tribesmen. In short, government of Iraq – and, somehow, Syria – must respect and allow full participation of Sunnis in local and federal governing and security.
UAE diplomatic gamesmanship could contribute to preventing expansion of Islamic State and even cutting into Islamic State holdings, so that Islamic State recruitment falls off and the movement begins to implode. For that to happen, Iraq and Syria must credibly promise to include their Sunni populations in governing, as majority in Syria and as a respected minority in Iraq.
Where the UAE and perhaps other coalition members weigh tactics and political priorities differently than the United States is on whether and, if so, when and how to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad to put Sunnis in charge in a territory in which they are a majority. In the United States, serious discussion has risen of whether to negotiate with Islamic State to leave it in command of what it has captured, with some territorial and human rights adjustments. The United States is obviously failing in its objective of building up a Syrian rebel entity it could “live with” that can throw out President Assad. US voters are war-wary and the US Army is war-weary.
Longer term regional order requires reconciliation of Sunni and Shia and respectful treatment of Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and other minorities as well. Negotiators will face the reality that governments use religious differences to bolster their legitimacy. Thus reconciliation will need a non-sectarian focus on mutual interests and shared issues: job creation, water and other basis utilities, trusted first responders, police, health care, schools, community buildings and houses of worship – that is, working together to develop local community-wide plans.
In the near term, to end Islamic State terrorism will require defeating the Islamic State narrative as well as offering improved governance to those now occupied. Further, Islamic State showcases its rapid restoration of public services and uses its oil earnings and donations and war booty to improve lives in communities it rules. That it continues to employ brutal terrorism exposes the gap between Islamic State objectives and its capability to achieve them. It usefully terrorizes enemies, tempting them into ill-considered actions that make them vulnerable to attack and it imposes obedience on Islamic State recruits and conquered persons. But over time that violence will become self-defeating.
Policy makers need to understand that any international campaign to eradicate terrorism by eradicating “terrorists” will fail. Such a campaign will grow the numbers; it will feed the terrorism. Less risky and usually less costly in the long run is removing the elements of life causing the frustration and triggering the active outbreak of political violence. The causal elements in the Middle East seem to be poor governance and identity confusions arising from deficient education, discrimination, and lack of employment. Thus, the major goals for regional entities and global partners would seem to be: increase the perception and the reality of justice, universalize education, assure individual rights, and enable all peoples’ participation in the making of decisions that they feel importantly affect their fate.
The UAE stands as a model of successful policies for achieving these goals. And the UAE shines brightly in evidence of the rewards of living its model.
Discussions of and even the discussing of government policy in the UAE have sometimes been contentious. But open consideration of the nation’s policy options and implications has increased several fold in recent years and it has produced a number of noteworthy constructive outcomes: Emiratization, for one. Investing in science and taking gradual positive steps in political development have been others.
Now the country stretches new muscles and calls for an enlarged understanding of the UAE’s place in its region and the world. It is writing a new page but can trust in its tested ways of thinking about and tackling challenges.