Implications of U.S. Arab Spring Involvement For the United Arab Emirates & U.S. - U.A.E. Relations

By Margaret Schnuck Post date: Feb 03, 2016


In early 2012,as the Arab Spring continued to give rise to demonstrations and revolutionsin several Middle Eastern nations, sentiments of political dissent spread to the United Arab Emirates, a small oil-rich Middle Eastern country with an autocratic government and limited civil rights. The Emirati government responded by making government opposition a punishable offense and jailing journalists for speaking out against U.A.E officials.The U.S., which vocally and militarilyintervened in Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations, did not incite or encourage potential Emiratidemonstrators in any way, perhaps due to concerns over straining U.S-U.A.E relations.  Despite an American policy of inaction in the U.A.E during the Arab Spring, the Emiratigovernment forced the exit of theAmerican-sponsored National Democratic Institute from its Dubai office in March 2012, ostensibly because of a permit issue.This actionresulted in tension between American and Emirati officials, and the closure of a strategic regional base for U.S. democracy promotion efforts.  From this example, it is apparent that American involvement in one country not only can affect relations with neighboring countries but also can inspire neighboring countries to feel threatened by and take action against the United States.

Key Findings

  1. Countries such as the U.A.E. value maintaining relations with neighboring countries such as Egypt more than avoiding minor tension with the United States.
  2. American intervention in Egyptdirectly impacted the perceived threat of the U.S. to the U.A.E and inspired the U.A.E to act out against the U.S.
  3. Refraining from democracy promotion in a country does not ensure that the country will not falsely perceive and feel threatened by U.S. democratization efforts.


The United Arab Emirates government is a federation of absolute hereditary monarchies. The U.A.E federation contains seven emirates, each with its own monarch. The seven monarchs, known as emirs, sit on the Supreme Council, which makes all major state decisions.  The Council elects a president, who functions as the Head of State, and prime minister, who functions as Head of Government, every five years. Typically,the council has elected the Emir of Abu Dhabi as president, making the role de facto hereditary.Similarly, the current Emir of Dubai has always been the prime minister.The U.A.E has no political parties.  The U.A.E has a fortymember Federal National Council (FNC), which serves as an advisory body to the Supreme Council on policy matters. The Supreme Council elects half of the FNC and appoints a small electorate to elect the remaining twenty members. While the U.A.E has basicframework similar to a democracy, the Supreme Council controls all aspects of U.A.E policymaking, either through legal or de facto means. 

The United Arab Emirateshas a constitutionalgovernment and is known as relatively tolerant in comparison to its fellow Islamist states, but Emirati citizens still face censorship and restricted civil and political rights.[1]The Arab Spring especially highlighted this reality, as the U.A.E made expressing one’s negative opinion about the government an offense punishable by jail time or deportation. In 2012, at the height of the Arab Spring, the U.A.E enacted Internet firewalls to prevent citizens from using social media to organize demonstrations.[2]These reactionsreflected the extent of theU.A.E’s desire to prevent any remnant of the Arab Spring from spilling across its borders and threatening its autocratic government.[3]By doing so, the U.A.E government successfully stamped out an Arab Spring movement before it could begin. 

While the United States and United Arab Emirates operate fundamentally differently on a governmental level, the two nations have enjoyed a close strategic and economic alliance in recent years[4].According to a U.A.E report, the United States and United Arab Emirates share key interests, including “enhancing stability and security in the Arabian Gulf and the broader Middle East, ensuring reliable energy supplies to world markets, encouraging global free trade and investment, and confronting terrorism and extremism in the region and the world.”[5]The United States exports more goods to the United Arab Emirates than any other Middle Eastern market per year.[6] The U.A.E is often supportive of U.S. security initiatives in the Middle East, and recently the two nations have worked together to combat terrorism insurgency in the region.[7]

Key Actors & Stakeholders

As this case study focuses on events in the United Arab Emirates during the Arab Spring, the Emirati government is a key actor.  Along with the U.A.E government, the Emirati people,United States government, National Democratic Institute, and Egyptian political actors are also stakeholders in this case.

The almost one million Emiratis are key stakeholders in the reaction of the U.A.E government to the Arab Spring.  While journalists and activists in the U.A.E did face strong penalties during the Arab Spring, it is important to note that demonstrations and political unrest are relatively rare in the U.A.E, in large part to its tolerant culture relative to its neighbors and its economic prosperity.[8]

The U.S. government became very involved in the Arab Spring, following unrest especially in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.However, the United States did not intervene in the United Arab Emirates at all during the time period surrounding the Arab Spring, including via statement of any form.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is an American nonprofit founded in 1983 that seeks to promote democracy through government transparency and political participation.NDI receives funding from the U.S. State Department, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), several foreign democratic nations, international groups such as the United Nations, and various foundations.NDI opened an office in Dubai in 2008, and according to its own reports has never conducted democratization initiatives in the United Arab Emirates.[9]Rather, NDI used the Dubai office as a home base for democratization initiatives other Middle Easter countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.[10]NDI, like the U.S. government was also highly active in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Most notably, NDI provided aid to Egyptian demonstrators, resulting in the raiding of and expulsion from its Egyptian office.[11]

Egyptian officials and demonstrators, while not present in the United Arab Emirates, cast a shadow over the Arab Spring period in the U.A.E. Primarily, the U.A.E viewed the events in its neighboring countries such as the revolt in Egypt with the fear of such sentiments spreading to Dubai or Abu Dhabi.[12]The U.A.E government perceived a real threat from the Muslim Brotherhood that rose to power during the Arab Spring in Egypt and sought to cause a rift between Egypt and the U.A.E.[13]


Initial Impact

Despite the U.S. and NDI’s lack of democratization efforts in the U.A.E during the Arab Spring, the Emirati forced NDI to close its Dubai office in March 2012.[14]The U.A.E government did not initially offer a reason for this sudden ban, but later announced that NDI had violated the terms of its license.[15]This unexpected event fell just days before Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s pre-scheduled visit to the United Arab Emirates for Gulf Cooperation Council talks. Both U.S. State Department and NDI officials expressed their surprise at the event, especially given the U.S.’s friendly relations with the U.A.E. and the lack of democracy promotion by NDI in the U.A.E.[16]Secretary Clinton and the State Department offered full support to the National Democratic Institute following its ousting from Dubai.[17]

Implications for U.S.-U.A.E. Relations

The implications of these events extend further than NDI’s ability to have an office in the United Arab Emirates. The U.A.E’s actions against the National Democratic Institute created awkward tension in American-Emirati relations during strategic military planning between the U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council. Presently, the U.A.E is still hostile to organizations such as NDI and its conservative counterpart the International Republican Institute.However, this incident did not irreparably damage relations between the U.S. and U.A.E, and the two countries continue to work together in the Middle East. In February 2015, the U.A.E rejoined the U.S.-led airstrike campaign against ISIS after briefly suspending involvement over safety concerns.[18] The U.S.and U.A.Ecurrently engage in friendly diplomatic relations.[19]

Implications for U.S. Democracy Promotion

Beyond American-Emirati relations, the U.A.E’s closure of the Dubai NDI office removes a key base for American democratization efforts in the Middle East. This closure limits the ability of the U.S., via NDI, to implement initiatives promoting free and fair elections in neighboring Gulf States, specifically Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, should NDIlaunch an initiative aimed at Emirati citizens, it will not have a local platform from which to do so.

Lesson Learned

The U.S. remained silent on the unlawful imprisonment of journalists in the U.A.E, yet the U.A.E. forced U.S.-sponsored NDI out of its Dubai offices because of NDI’s involvement in Egypt.If the U.S. avoided intervening in the United Arab Emirates during the Arab Spring to protect its strategic alliance, the U.S. did not achieve this objective. This event, which caught the United States by surprise and created tension with the U.A.E, shows that American intervention in one country deeply affects the perceptions other countries have about America, even those countries that are closely allied with the U.S.While taking a harsher stand against Emirati limitations on free speech may not be in the U.S.’s strategic interest in the region, this action would have also led to the ousting of NDI and could additionally have pushed the Emirati government to be more transparent, which would have advanced the cause of democracy in the Middle East.