Abu Dhabi networks on the global stage

24 October 2023


Abu Dhabi has been notably active on the world stage in recent months, forging stronger ties with partners from east and west by signing up to the Brics group and a new India-to-Europe trade route. The Cop28 climate summit in Dubai will provide another opportunity to reach out to countries in the global south.

For many years, the UAE has tried to leverage the commercial strength of Dubai and the oil wealth of Abu Dhabi to forge deeper connections with key partners around the world, from both east and west.

That strategy was on clear display in Johannesburg in late August when the UAE was one of six countries invited to join the Brics club of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

That was interpreted by some as a clear signal that Abu Dhabi was offering support to Beijing, potentially at the expense of its ties with the West. But a few weeks later, the UAE turned its attention in another direction again.

At the G20 summit in New Delhi on 9 September, the UAE signed up to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (Imec) – an initiative to create a new trade route backed by the US and the EU, among others, to stretch from Mumbai across the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant and on to Greece.

Such initiatives have some things in common, not least their potential to bolster oil and non-oil trade. Akanksha Samdani, an economist at UK-based Oxford Economics, said the decision to join the Brics club should help the UAE “by increasing trade and investment opportunities. Also, the group will likely trade with their regional currencies, reducing their dependence on the US dollar.”

The Brics grouping is growing in clout. Oxford Economics estimates the current five-strong club accounted for 26 per cent of global GDP in 2022, but that should rise to 30 per cent by 2024 with the addition of the UAE and the other new members.

Beyond trade and commerce

It is not just about trade though. Brics, Imec and other initiatives such as the I2U2 group with India, Israel and the US are all part of the UAE’s efforts to place itself at the centre of international flows of information, money and more besides.

“I see the UAE as a networking power,” says Andreas Krieg, associate professor at King’s College London. “They’ve found a way to redevelop and redesign their statecraft to position themselves as an indispensable hub … where flows of capital, people, ideas are going from east to west and north to south.

“Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the key hubs in the Middle East, but beyond that they’re becoming increasingly important connectivity hubs between east and west, particular in that multipolar competition we’re seeing now between western countries, China and Russia.”

All this fits in with the UAE’s wider search for economic diversification, something also seen in the surprise decision in early September to set up a federal gambling regulator.

Being an international hub gives the UAE influence or oversight over all sorts of trade. But it can also open the country up to less welcome elements, with those involved in illicit flows of capital and people just as likely to try to exploit the potential.

In March 2022, the Paris-based international financial watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placed the UAE on its list of jurisdictions under increased monitoring. The UAE has taken steps to address the FATF’s concerns, but has yet to persuade the body to take it off its ‘grey list’.

Further reputational risks come from allegations of UAE support for rebel groups such as Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s Libyan National Army in eastern Libya and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti)’s Rapid Support Forces in Sudan.

The UAE has denied providing weapons to those fighting in Sudan’s civil war, but it has yet to account for a large airlift operation between Abu Dhabi and the remote Chadian town of Amdjarass close to the Sudanese border that started in May.

Also steering between conflicting priorities, the UAE offered a guarded and diplomatic response on developments in Israel and Gaza, condemning the “serious and grave escalation” by Hamas-led militants while calling for the full protection of all civilians under humanitarian law. Days into the conflict, its trade minister said the UAE did not mix trade with politics.

 Top 10 UAE clean energy projects

The Cop test

A key test for the UAE’s standing on the international stage will come with the Cop28 climate change summit, due to be held in Expo City Dubai from 30 November to 12 December.

The UAE has been attracting some criticism for its failure to guarantee free speech for activists at the event, with the UK government issuing a statement on 3 October saying it was “disappointed” the UAE had not given concrete assurances over the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly. 

“In the year that the UAE will host Cop28, we ask that they share how they will assure citizens, residents and visitors of the UAE these rights now and in future.”

Cop28 is more about positioning themselves as a hub and advocate for the global south and for their needs in the climate change debate
Andreas Krieg, King’s College London

Western observers have also been critical about the decision to appoint Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) chief executive Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber as president-designate of the summit. 

Al-Jaber has appeared unfazed by the criticism and has said he will be using the event to focus on curbing emissions from the production of energy, scaling up renewable power and decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors such as steel, cement and aluminium.

He told the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference (Adipec) on 2 October that “everyone must be around the table to make the transformational progress needed, and especially the energy industry.”

The UAE was always likely to attract criticism from western climate activists, given its position as one of the world’s larger oil and gas producers, but Abu Dhabi’s focus for the event may in fact be directed elsewhere.

“Cop28 was never about appealing to the west,” says Kreig. “For the Emiratis, this is more about positioning themselves as a hub and advocate for the global south and for their needs and interests in the climate change debate.”

Image: UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan met with India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on the sidelines of the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. Credit: Wam

MEEDs November 2023 special report on the UAE also includes: 

UAE economy maintains robust growth
UAE banks enjoy the good times
Hail and Ghasha galvanises UAE upstream market
Adnoc spurs downstream gas expansions
> UAE closes ranks ahead of Cop28

UAE ramps up decarbonisation of water sector
UAE construction sector returns to form
> UAE aviation returns to growth


Dominic Dudley
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