The reasons behind the Armenia–UAE alliance
In recent years, Armenia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have come closer and it seems that the two are working together to essentially form of an alliance. Armenia is a Christian nation in Transcaucasia. The UAE, on the other hand, is a Muslim Gulf State. Despite the geographical and cultural distance between the two countries, Yerevan and Abu Dhabi must have realised that they have common interests both, economic and political.
For Armenia, developing relations with the UAE is very important goal. It should be a priority to the country’s MFA considering that, by maintaining good relations with this wealthy Gulf state, Armenia’s economic performance in the regional financial markets will be improved. It would definitely enlarge Yerevan’s diplomatic and political footprint in the wider region as well, given that the UAE has become one of the major political actors in the Near and Middle East.
The Armenia – UAE rapprochement is not something new; more than a decade ago, the two States started strengthening their economic ties, in the context of Abu Dhabi’s initiative to expand its economic influence despite the global financial crisis. As a result, the two countries signed several Agreements and Memoranda of Understanding aiming at closer cooperation in trade, tourism, energy, medical services, technology, infrastructures and the financial sector.
In the following years, the coming of the Arab Spring shook the UAE’s establishment and rapidly changed its regional strategy. A coup attempt allegedly organised by the Muslim Brotherhood changed everything, including the UAE’s foreign policy. Hence, Abu Dhabi left behind its “just economics” soft-power policies and started acting as a potential regional power by getting involved in armed conflicts and following more active policies in order to forge alliances aiming at the interception of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political expansion throughout the Greater Middle East as well as the geopolitical expansion of that Organisation’s sponsors, Turkey and Qatar.
Alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE fought against the Muslim Brotherhood and has become one of the top antagonists of Erdogan’s Turkey in the Middle East. In 2013, the Saudi/UAE backed General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt led by Mohamed Morsi thus destroying the pro-Turkish Egyptian regime.
A few years later, in 2017, the Saudis, the Emiratis and their allies cut ties with Qatar because of its relationship with Turkey, the Brotherhood and other radical Islamist organisations, imposing an embargo and sanctions to the Qatari State. In 2019, the pro-Saudi Sudanese Armed Forces toppled Omar al-Bashir who tried to develop a strategic relationship with Turkey and whose party (the National Congress) was part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In addition, the UAE and its close ally Egypt support politically, financially and of course militarily the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar which fights against the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord under Fayez al-Sarraj.
Furthermore, the UAE – Saudi coalition supports the West Bank-based secular Palestinian government under Fatah against the Turkish –backed Islamist Hamas in Gaza. In Syria, the UAE support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces which are one of the main foes of Turkey in war-torn Syria.
In a few words, there is an ongoing proxy war between the Turkey-Qatar alliance and the Saudi-UAE coalition.
In its fight against Turkey’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony, Abu Dhabi has even adopted policies which harm the regional strategy of its closest ally, Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, the UAE back the secessionists of the South against the Saudi-backed Government because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in it. Moreover, the UAE reopened their embassy in Syria, thus restoring their relations with the Assad regime, a great enemy of Saudi Arabia due to its relation with Iran.
What is then Armenia’s role in this geopolitical environment?
The UAE seem to be determined to move their relationship with Armenia to the next level. By achieving that, Abu Dhabi enhances its role as a major investor in the Caucasus. This goal, however, is not the most important; by building a strategic relationship with Armenia, the UAE expand their anti-Turkey coalition in the wider region.
The UAE is already maintaining close ties with other countries which antagonise Turkey: Egypt, “Eastern Libya”, Syria and Greece. Yerevan shares a security dilemma with all these countries which comes from Ankara’s revisionist foreign policy.
The UAE and Armenia have taken some initiatives in order to develop their relations and they have set a framework to forge what essentially is a strategic alliance. These initiatives have become more and more frequent during the last year in view of the worsening of the UAE – Turkey relations mainly because of their opposing stands in the Libyan events.
The 2019 UAE-Armenia Intergovernmental Commission meeting, last January’s official meeting of president Sarkissian with sheikh bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the signing of many bilateral agreements are some examples of the efforts the two countries are making to build an alliance. All the above are leading in the direction of a future UAE – Armenia strategic alliance.
Another significant development is the advanced defensive cooperation that the two States have promoted. Furthermore, the UAE were one of the main countries which helped Armenia during the COVID-19 crisis by providing humanitarian aid. The UAE-backed Interim Government of Libya has recognised the Armenian Genocide.
Both countries are indirectly involved in the Syrian war; Armenia has sent non-combating military personnel to support the Russian operations while the UAE support the Syrian Kurds. Both of them maintain friendly relations with Damascus and they oppose the Turkish intervention in the country.
Last but not least, the UAE has recently vocally supported the Armenian-Greek-Cypriot decision to block the election of the Turkish candidate for the Presidency of the General Assembly of the UN.
Armenia needs to have a more active and decisive foreign policy in the Middle East. It has to continue maintaining good relations with Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan and it should do the same with the Arab Gulf States which oppose Turkey’s ambitions for regional hegemony. It is also time for Armenia to restore diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. Abu Dhabi could take the role of the mediator for this purpose. Moreover, the large Armenian diaspora in the UAE could be another factor for furthering cooperation between the two States.
Yerevan needs to support the Emirati regional policies against the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. It should designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, recognise the Interim Government of Libya and seek further cooperation with the Emirates in the sectors of defence, particularly intelligence. It is apparent that the two States share common political and security interests, as well as economic ones. On the other hand, it is high time for the UAE to recognise the Armenian Genocide. This courageous action will psychologically as well as actually secure the strategic relationship between the two.
By doing so, Armenia will first of all open its market for further investments. We should not forget that foreign investments are vital for the economic performance of the country. Secondly, a fully developed UAE-Armenia alliance will change the balance of power in Yerevan’s favour; Armenia has an open conflict with Azerbaijan over Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) and it is threatened by the domination of Pan-Turkist nationalism in Turkey. This is why Armenia needs strong alliances. The strategic relation between Armenia and Russia is not sufficient. We must not forget that Russia sells arms to Azerbaijan and it now has close ties with Turkey.
Armenia also maintains very close ties with Iran. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic is not capable of supporting Armenia sufficiently given that it faces its own problems because of the Western sanctions.
It is therefore apparent that the UAE and Armenia are taking important steps in developing an essential alliance. In this context the two States should take under consideration the fact that they share common security interests and therefore have to maintain a closer defensive cooperation and support each other at the institutional level. The time has come for Armenia to loosen its “Russia-centric bubble” and start having a more decisive and diverging foreign policy, forging new alliances, in order to serve its national interests and protect itself from the aggressive policies of some of its neighbours.
George Meneshian is an international affairs analyst and a research associate at the Institute of International Relations of Athens