When President Barrack Obama meets at the White House Monday with crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, he’ll be in conversation with a small, deep-pocketed Persian Gulf country that has mastered the art of public diplomacy to practically re-engineer Hollywood’s perception of Arab culture.
Al Nahyan’s visit to Washington comes at a time that the UAE is prominent in the minds of American cinema-goers; two landmark skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, provided the setting for the the climactic stunt of the action movie, “Fast & Furious 7”.
It’s not the first time UAE has provided a glamorous setting for an insane Hollywood stunt: in 2011’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”, Tom Cruise precariously dangled off the side of the 1,700-foot-tall Burj al Arab, the world’s tallest building, which is located in Dubai, the UAE’s commercial hub.
UAE has used Hollywood’s receptiveness to provide a positive image for Arab governments whose reputations have not always been well received in the United States. Now the country is at the forefront of trying to defend the actions of a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, that for nearly four weeks has been bombing Yemen in a push to block the advance of Houthi rebels believed to be aligned with Iran.
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The Obama administration is backing the Saudi-led coalition with midair refueling and intelligence information, though the Arab states are fearful that the U.S.’s policy of engaging Iran on its nuclear program has emboldened Iran to back the Houthis.
The UAE is hoping its public posture will help push a message that the alliance represents a new form of Arab nationalism made necessary by the unprecedented wave of conflict now sweeping the Middle East. Unlike the Soviet-supported Arab narrative introduced in the 1950s by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser which promoted Arab political unity as a means of violently reclaiming Jerusalem, Palestine and other Arab lands from the newly created state of Israel, UAE-promoted Arab nationalism finds it roots in Yemen.
“If we, as Arabs, like to say our origins are from Yemen, we must protect our origins. Some want to complicate this, but we did not attack anyone, they attacked us in our homes. If we do not stand by Yemen today, we’ll regret it,” UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan said in recent comments on the Yemen bombing campaign.
To other Arabs, that is powerful signaling; Yemen is home to one of the two historical lines of Gulf Arab heritage, the other claiming descent from the Israelite prophet, Abraham, who the Quran says built the Ka’aba, Islam’s holiest site, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammad, was born in the 7th century of parents from either lineage.
The UAE supports the Arab League position of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian political dispute, but has limited its involvement to funding the Palestinian Authority and humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
When the UAE ordered 80 new-version F-16 warplanes in 2000, it accepted the U.S. condition that 50 of the warplanes would be supplied to Israel, to main its military edge in the Middle East, although UAE money paid for its development. Last April, the UAE ordered 25 more, a deal valued at $4 to $5 billion by the Pentagon.
Thirty of the so-called “Desert Falcons” have been contributed by UAE to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Its F-16s also conducted bombing raids against Islamic State fighters in Syria last September, which the UAE turned into a public relations’ triumph by showcasing the combat role of a female UAE warplane pilot, Major Marian al Mansouri.
It followed U.S. criticism of UAE for allegedly launching two bombing raids last August on Islamist militias in Libya, using older French-built Mirage 2000-9 warplanes based in neighboring Egypt. The UAE has denied any participation.
Since the 1991 Kuwait war, the UAE has relied on the U.S. and other Western powers to deter aggression by the bigger Persian Gulf powers, Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Shiite Iran, but has leveraged its extraordinary spending power to build influence with its allies.
Like other Persian Gulf Arab states, the UAE has been perturbed by the Obama administration’s policy of disengagement from military conflicts in the Middle East – the U.S. has provided intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, but has not participated militarily.
They are particularly worried about the president’s willingness to re-engage with Iran, the Gulf Arabs’ enemy, subject to Tehran’s implementation of an April 2 framework agreement aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons.
The UAE apparently took affront at President Barack Obama’s explanation of his Middle East policy in an April 5 interview with the New York Times, in which he said the biggest threat faced by the U.S.’ Sunni Arab allies “may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their countries.”
“Arab nations should no longer accept Iranian, Turkish or Israeli watchmen in the Middle East,” responded Mohammed al Hammadi, editor-in-chief of al Ittihad, the official UAE Arabic-language daily newspaper.
About 10 million people live in the UAE, only a quarter of whom are citizens; the rest are foreign workers. Its economy is founded on its production of 3.5 million barrels of crude oil a day, second only to Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, but it has diversified its export base rapidly over the last 20 years, and hydrocarbons revenues account for only a quarter of its economy, compared to 90 per cent for Saudi Arabia.
U.S. trade with the UAE reached nearly $24 billion in 2014, heavily weighted in favor of American exports, notably through passenger airplane sales to UAE state-owned airlines, Emirates and Etihad.
Emirate airline is the top operator, globally, of the Boeing 777 passenger jet, and in November 2013, placed a $76 billion order for 150 new-generation derivatives of the airliner, powered by General Electric-built engines – the most valuable deal in U.S. commercial aviation history.