For a large part of history, the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula were on the fringe in the rise and fall of empires. They alternated raiding and trading as this wheel of fire rolled on across the dunes. But eventually, the Arabian caravan would be equipped with both sword and word to make haste across the Old World in a relentless raid that would change both history and humanity.
Yet just as quickly as the prized Arabian horses would gallop into newly conquered lands, the Arabs would soon scatter leaving their language, faith, and the prestige of their roots behind in strange lands. Tribalism trumped their newfound unity and the Arabs would once again retreat into their wildernesses and pilgrimages.
That is until wealth erupted from its wastelands. The old elites of the Middle East would now return from their desert exile to begin another round of a game of thrones.
Hadar and Badw
Arab history has been defined by the ebb and flow of hadar (settled people) and badw (nomadic or Bedouin people). Indeed this paradigm could be extended across the world as mobile nomadic people violently rained down upon settled folk, acclimated to the fine life, and then were promptly capsized by another nomadic or more hardened peoples. The Arabs viewed this bedouin journey as their origin and romanticized the harsh desert life where people would move with the dust and sand.
This “Arab” identity would form from 3 reservoirs of people across the Arabian peninsula:
- The Nabateans – the famed builders of Petra and extremely cosmopolitan folk who inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant. They incubated the precursor to Arabic script and later aided in formalizing Arabic. Influences from the Persians and Mediterraneans would be pivotal in future empire building by their descendants.
- The South Arabians – Non-Arabic speaking Sabaeans and Himyaris of Yemen were the classic settled (hadar) civilization of Arabia. Their expertise in commerce and engineering would provide cities that gave many of the foundations and myths of Arab culture. A deity named al-Rahman was their supreme god and the legendary Marib dam break led to a fabled exodus across Arabia, both referenced in the Quran itself.
- The Bedouins – the ideal imagery of Arabians finds a home in the nomads of the desert. Initially looked down upon by their settled cousins, it would be the ways of Bedouin that won out in the end with their High Arabic dominating tongues, swords ruling cities, and their God’s message conquering minds.
And yet, the ancestors of the Emirati are not really featured prominently in any of the above. Instead, they form a center point amidst the Arab trinity. Setting the Bedouin movement to sea, embracing the diversity of the Nabateans, and eventually emulating mercantile South Arabians, the Khaleeji (Gulf Arabs) would wait centuries for their zenith – and what a zenith it would be.
Pearls, Petroleum, Portfolios
The Emirates has been blessed both with location and resources, but what defines the UAE is it taking its advantages for a ride through new avenues, transforming a tiny coalition of city-states into the Venice of the Gulf.
For hundreds of years, the region was awash with the pearl trade as well as being an important link between Mediterranean lands and the riches of the Orient. With the pearl industry’s collapse in the 1930s, the locals fell back onto latitude and longitude to carry them forward with the British using Sharjah as a crucial stopover for colonies in India and Australia. Oil sprung from the region in the late 1950s and the British colonial Trucial States as they were then known would then coalesce into the United Arab Emirates in 1971.
Unlike the other Gulf States, the UAE’s sheikhs made a point to diversify away from their black blessings. Dubai particularly has been wildly successful becoming a supply chain and financial juggernaut despite having much fewer oil reserves than its neighbors. Dubai’s Jebel Ali shipping port and associated Jebal Ali Free Zone (JAFZA) double down on its vital location with incentives such as tax breaks, custom duty benefits, and no foreign ownership restrictions. JAFZA is one of more than 20 other such free zones which have allowed the flow of capital to overtake the flow of oil in the stream of Dubai’s success. Yet while this frenzy of finances finds its way in Dubai, the power of profits materializes truly in Abu Dhabi.
It is in Abu Dhabi where the actual capital and political power of the Emirates lays. Abu Dhabi holds almost 90% of the UAE’s oil reserves but has taken the tip from Dubai and diversified its economy highly. The UAE holds a sovereign wealth fund totaling $1.3 trillion dollars of which $900 billion find a haven in 2 of Abu Dhabi’s funds. The funds fuel a robust financial system that plays a key role in the UAE’s foreign policy, which is backed by a small but highly trained and expertly equipped military – one that has given the UAE, the nickname, “Little Sparta.”
Nonetheless, the Emirati military isn’t the most important card in the UAE’s diplomatic hand. The royal flush begins and ends with the dollar and the dirham.
Old Caliphs and New Friends
The Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun was obsessed with a world beyond Arabia. Knowledge trumped luxury in his quest for the unfamiliar as Al Ma’mun vociferously imported the science and literature of the Indians, Greeks, Persians, and Babylonians to create an empire that took the greatest minds of the world and put them into an Arabian body. Today, this thirst for progress and hunger for foreign expertise is found in the UAE with Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE.
MBZ demarcates the Emirati foreign policy with an intent to preserve the Arab monarchy as well as promote inflows of human and monetary capital. The UAE’s sovereign wealth fund has hands in pockets across the world using its investments as leverage and influence. Close ties with other GCC nations (save for Qatar) also form a bedrock of its foreign relations. In many ways, the UAE serves as an experimental ground for Saudi Arabia while MBZ serves as a tutor to Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. An essential lesson MBZ has imparted onto MBS is the lesson of diversification in assets (the Saudis have started late and are feeling an oil-slicked squeeze currently) as well as cracking down on Islamism. And here is where the UAE becomes a very unique spearhead in the Islamic World.
Diversification in economics is now being matched with diversity in culture. The UAE has donated land for a massive traditional stone Hindu temple to be erected in its capital emirate, Abu Dhabi. This symbolic gesture is one of many lotuses to bloom in the relationship between the UAE and India, a nation that has caught much ire from more hardline Islamic nations. India has become the UAE’s 3rd largest trading partner and garnered continued investment especially in critical areas such as infrastructure, energy, and defense. The UAE also houses a large Indian population including many migrant workers, though rightful criticisms remain of their treatment. The UAE has even batted for India’s team during recent OIC meetings when clashes over Kashmir erupted with Pakistan on the other side of the field.
But now the Emirati spear against Islamism has reached a whole new territory – Israel. And the scandal of this diplomatic affair can be felt across the Middle East and beyond.
Blood and Belief
A unique yet ancient scenario plays out in the UAE that harkens back to old caliphatic battles – the battle and betrothal between arabiyyah (Arabness) and Islam.
You see, Islam was born out of the smattering of Levantine philosophies on a distinctly Arab mythos and foundation. Conflict would simmer as hadar Levantine ideas met badw Arab customs. Soon the most pious would not even be Arabs when Turks, Persians, Berbers, and other converts toppled the Arabian caliphates as Arabs retreated into the night while the crescent was donned by foreign armies and coin across the world. Sound familiar?
MBZ is betting on nationalism over religion as well as monarchy over democracy. In his mind, democracy in the Arab world just leads to extremism, and only monarchs and strongmen can usher in the values of openness and tolerance that are needed to prepare Arabs for eventual democratic transitions. MBZ believes that a new “Arab” must step into the future; one that is not held down by the dogma of fanaticism but proud of the diversity and history of Arabness. In this way, the UAE has abandoned earlier tidings of Islamists and now focuses on thwarting them as well as Iranian cohorts in Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and on the geopolitical stage. Though many times this does involve actions and partnering with elements who some find just as unsavory. One of the biggest affronts to Islamists has happened recently with the Emirates crossing a red line to establish relations with Israel.
In a geopolitical parting of the Red Sea, a flurry of Arabian countries are now following suit to break bread with their Semitic cousins. Already, Emirati businesses are planning to set up shop in Israel with the foremost commercial entity being the Jebel Ali port authorities setting their sights on Haifa. The UAE is now turning away from the Great Wall of China to the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem in its pursuit of technology that serves as a fulcrum of future diversification. And in this great global bifurcation, the UAE is doubling down on its American adamancy and Indian inception.
Movement is the manifest destiny of Arabs. From their humble beginnings in the barren empty quarters of the desert to their explosion across continents, a spirit of adventure envelops the deep myths of Arabia. Squalor has embraced much of the past millennium for Arabs as their empires fell and a gift of oil begot the curse of fanatic violence in their lands. But with difficulty comes detachment. Just as their ancestors had ventured out of the peninsula to deliver the message of Islam and might of conquest ages ago, the Emirates seeks to chart a new journey in the saga of Arabs; not a movement of hooves, but instead a movement of minds.