Competitors or Partners? How Germany and the UAE Can Cooperate on Stabilization

23 March 2021   ·   Eleonora Ardemagni

The UAE’s and Germany’s approaches towards stabilization are fundamentally different in their relation to national authorities, non-state actors, and multilateral cooperation. Nevertheless, cooperation can be furthered in specific key areas where common interests prevail, such as police training and demining activities in Afghanistan and Yemen.

In the 2010-2020 decade, both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Germany have stepped up their presence in stabilization theatres in the broader Middle East, as well as in several African countries. In foreign policy, both Abu Dhabi and Berlin adopted a networked approach and “think local” in dealing with operative contexts – but this is the outcome of different strategies. Moreover, the UAE and Germany show a divergent understanding of the meaning and goals of stabilization. In some countries, Abu Dhabi and Berlin are partners (such as in Iraq or Afghanistan) and could invest in cooperation (Yemen). In other conflict settings (for instance, in the Sahel, Libya, or Somalia) they are indirect competitors due to diverging approaches (military-centered vs. civilian-oriented) and potentially conflicting alliances with domestic players (local forces vs. national actors) or international ones.

In such a complex puzzle of interests, the UAE and Germany should focus on practical cooperation in areas of shared expertise, such as police training and demining, to overcome politically-sensitive issues in third countries. This path could enhance the Emirati-German partnership for stabilization, despite a context of subtle competition, which is the product of different foreign policy strategies.

The UAE and Germany: Two Different Approaches Towards Stabilization

Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, the UAE has increased its engagement in stabilization activities. This adds to, and in some cases intersects with, the rising Emirati military involvement in conflict settings. This endeavor can be direct as, for instance, in Yemen between 2015 and 2019, or indirect as in Libya. Since stabilization is a transitional, comprehensive, and flexible concept, the UAE has developed its own understanding of it. The international elaboration of stabilization dates to the mid-1990s, when the Emiratis started to engage in Peace Support Operations (PSOs) abroad. Due to long-time defense cooperation and training, Abu Dhabi has since revealed an “American-style” operationalization of stabilization, which is quite different from the German one.

Both the UAE and Germany adopt a networked approach, based on multiple policy dimensions, in dealing with the operative context. However, while Germany elastically coordinates diplomacy, development cooperation, and security policy, the UAE usually has a security-first approach, centered on defense cooperation, with a special eye to military education and training. In fact, the UAE perceives stabilization as a civilian component of counterinsurgency (COIN), and this was conceived in the framework of the US experience in Afghanistan. Not by chance, the Emiratis work “by, with, through” local partners – including hybrid forces – in COIN operations against jihadists, as shown in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Conversely, Germany prioritizes a civilian-oriented approach to stabilization, as stressed by the German government’s 2017 guidelines on Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflict, Building Peace. This way, Berlin usually links the political process of conflict resolution to the broader stabilization effort. Quite the opposite is true with respect to Abu Dhabi’s approach: the Emirati involvement in stabilization activities aims to shape the best geopolitical outcome for the UAE and this goal prevails over the efforts to neutrally support political processes in third countries.

1. Different Ways to “Think Local”: Strengthening vs. Bypassing National Authorities

These different approaches to stabilization are evident when it comes to engaging with local actors: the UAE and Germany have different ways to “think local.” For Germany, the political process should be locally-designed to be sustainable within a national framework. Conversely, the UAE often involves local actors and spins local dynamics bypassing the national level to maximize direct leverage. This choice weakens state capacity in already fractured states (for example in Yemen, Libya, or Somalia), as it rather empowers autonomist or secessionist players and agendas.

At this backdrop, partnering with local actors is a stabilization tool for Germany while, for the UAE, partnering with local actors is the goal of a broader foreign policy strategy to be built upon stabilization.

2. Diverging Goals of Security Sector Reform: Multilateral Action vs. Bilateral Partnerships

Divergent approaches and goals regarding stabilization can also be identified in Germany’s and the UAE’s respective efforts for Security Sector Reform (SSR). Germany adopts a “do no harm” principle, with a special emphasis on multilateral action. While the UAE is accustomed to work within multilateral fora and participates in PSOs, it strongly invests in bilateral partnerships for capacity-building and security forces professionalization. This allows the UAE to gain political leverage in the assisted country, building trust and often personal connections through military education and training.

3. Hybrid Security Actors: Indirect vs. Direct Engagement

A third point comes to mind when discussing the different approaches towards stabilization. In security cooperation and SSR, the UAE works with “regular” security forces as well as with local, hybrid, and sub-state actors bilaterally. For example, in Yemen, Abu Dhabi cooperates with Southern local forces such as the Security Belt Forces, the Hadhrami and Shabwani Elite Forces, and the West Coast Forces; in Somalia, they work with the police and military of the self-declared independent entity of Somaliland, and with the Maritime Police Forces of the autonomous Puntland state of Somalia. Conversely, Germany engages with local, hybrid, and sub-state partners only in contexts of multilateral SSR, when new security forces integrate these actors, as it was the case with the Afghan National Police and community-based branch of the Afghan Local Police. This indirect engagement complies with Germany’s guiding principles in foreign policy, while the Emirati bilateral approach to stabilization follows pragmatic stances and is oriented towards UAE’s political leverage.

Partnering Where Possible: Police Training and Demining Activities in Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan

Despite strategic differences, the UAE and Germany could strengthen their partnership on ad hoc projects. Those could focus on subjects of shared interest and expertise such as community-oriented police training and clearance of mines and military ordnance (especially to clear and rehabilitate civilian infrastructures). In Iraq, the UAE and Germany co-chair the Working Group on Stabilization of the Global Coalition Against Daesh which focuses on government capacity, public services, and Explosive Remnants of War (EWR) clearance. From 2003 to 2011, the Emirati federation hosted a German-run training program for the Iraqi police with police instructors from the UAE.

A similar Emirati-German cooperation on police training could also be explored in Afghanistan. In Kabul, Berlin runs the GPPT Bilateral Police Project which is engaged in citizen-focused policing and literacy courses for male and female officers; in 2003, Abu Dhabi has launched community policing programs, both at emirate and at a federal (UAE) level, building a promising expertise on the topic. Therefore, Germany and the UAE could partner on soft police training in Afghanistan, a country in which they are both troops contributors to NATO’s Resolute Support.

Cooperation on community policing education and training could also be worthy of engagement in Yemen. According to a 2019 Yemen Polling Center survey, 61% of the respondents across the country indicate they want the police to have authority, although Yemeni police is traditionally under-trained and under-equipped. Furthermore, demining could drive the Emirati-German cooperation in Yemen. Germany is a top donor for clearance of mines and military ordnance and the first financial contributor (27% of the total as of 2020) of the UNDP Peace Support Facility in Yemen, which completed the rehabilitation of the Hodeida port. The eponymous governorate and the Yemeni Red Sea coast report the highest numbers of fatalities due to Houthi-planted land mines. In the Red Sea area, the UAE organized and trained the West Coast Forces and keep a minimum presence of military advisors in Mokha. Since 2019, Germany is present with unarmed observers as part of the United Nations Mission to support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), monitoring the ceasefire and troops’ withdrawal from the port-city.

Competition Where Partnership Is Not Possible: Germany Should Focus on Local Communities

While cooperation can be explored in Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, there is less room to do so in the African theatres of the Sahel, Libya, and Somalia. In Libya and to a lesser extent in Mali and Mauritania, the Emiratis prioritize support for local forces and bilateral funding even within multilateral contexts. This way, a UAE-funded campus of the G5 Sahel Defense College opened in 2018 in Mauritania. The UAE’s security-driven approach to stabilization emerges in the Sahel, in Libya, and Somalia with direct training support for autonomist forces in Somaliland and Puntland. On the contrary, in 2019, Germany shifted to a civilian-oriented stabilization approach in African countries, with the launch of the Berlin Process for Libya and new economic, development, and agricultural projects in Somalia.

In contexts of subtle competition, Germany should strengthen its bottom-up and civilian pattern of stabilization to enhance the role of local actors and authorities in projects in national frameworks and within multilateral venues. Community engagement and buy-in are key to undermine autonomist agendas, since otherwise, they risk to produce further hybrid security players and political fragmentation. In this scenario, states like the UAE reveal to be effective players, prioritizing bilateral relations and a security-oriented approach. Germany, however, should focus on projects that link local development to local security, thus providing assisted communities with an alternative to UAE’s approach: for example, the reinvestment of locally-produced revenues from energy or development projects could contribute to pay salaries of police or army units, thus generating a sustainable local trade-off under the monitoring of central institutions

Security Sector Reform United Arab Emirates Stabilization

Eleonora Ardemagni

Eleonora Ardemagni is an Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), where she focuses on security issues in Yemen and the Gulf monarchies. @ispionline