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Diplomatic Ties Shift as UAE is Accused of Shipping Weapons to Sudan

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The UAE finds itself facing increased diplomatic scrutiny as allegations emerge of arms shipments in defiance of international allies. 

The United Arab Emirates has long walked a delicate line between strategic partnerships and pursuing its own interests. As a regional power projecting influence worldwide, it must carefully balance relations with allies against its security and economic priorities. But recent arms trafficking accusations threaten to upset this balance. 

As the host of the UN’s climate summit, COP28, the UAE’s climate policies are under the international spotlight. But it is not just their approach to environmental issues that warrants examination.

Why, as COP28 host, would the UAE allegedly send weapons to Russian-backed forces fueling conflict? How far will the country go to advance its goals, and at what potential cost to vital relationships?

With diplomatic ties strained, can trust be rebuilt or will the damage prove irreparable?

On December 10th, Sudan declared 15 diplomats working at the United Arab Emirates’ embassy in the country as persona non grata, giving them 48 hours to leave. 

At the time, no explanation was provided for the expulsion, which came amid an eight-month civil war between Sudan’s ruling military and the rival Rapid Support Forces militia that has left over 12,000 people dead. Sudan remains embroiled in this conflict.

But now, there are claims that the UAE shipped weapons to the Rapid Support Forces, or the RSF, which has resulted in full-on diplomatic spat between the two nations.

The diplomatic spat began in late November when Yasser Al-Atta, the assistant commander-in-chief of Sudan’s army, publicly accused the UAE of being directly involved in Sudan’s civil conflict.

“We have intelligence information, from military intelligence and diplomatic sources, that the UAE has been sending planes to support the Janjaweed,” Al-Atta told members of Sudan’s intelligence service in televised remarks. He used the term “Janjaweed” to refer to the RSF militia, which evolved from the Darfur Janjaweed militias.

This feud comes just as the East African mediators were announcing a breakthrough in negotiations between the military and RSF to stop fighting that has killed over 12,000 people and created a refugee crisis.

Officials from African nations, the US, and Saudi Arabia are now scrambling to make sure the feud does not escalate further and jeopardize a planned landmark in-person meeting between RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan before the end of the year. 

The stakes are high, as this meeting is seen as critical to ending the civil war. 

And if the UAE somehow finds itself derailing the meeting and stalling progress, it risks severe diplomatic pressure and condemnation from its allies, and others who are not necessarily allies, on the world stage.

Yasser Al-Atta’s public accusations that the UAE has been providing air support to the Rapid Support Forces militia represent a major crisis for the UAE’s involvement in Sudan. 

Officials from the foreign ministries of the UAE did not respond to requests for comment. 

The UAE has repeatedly denied being involved in the Sudanese civil war, stating that it is dedicated to de-escalating the conflict and providing humanitarian assistance through a field hospital set up in Amdjarass, Chad.

And while the UAE has denied previous claims of its involvement, it seems that the severe damage is already done.

For the UAE, being linked to one side in Sudan’s civil war is a diplomatic nightmare. The UAE has cultivated close ties with Sudan’s military leaders since the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir, seeing Sudan as a strategic ally. 

Being accused of fueling the civil war ruins the UAE’s reputation as a neutral partner.

In fact, Sudan’s angry response of expelling Emirati diplomats signals a major deterioration in relations. 

This could jeopardize the UAE’s influence and interests in the country going forward. The UAE has invested politically and economically in Sudan, which it sees as an important regional counterweight to Qatar and Turkey.

And what are the UAE’s interests in the country anyway? And why should it matter?

The UAE has had its eye on Sudan’s coastline for some time now.

They even signed a $6 billion dollar deal to develop a port and farmland to boost food security. With such investments at risk, the UAE has a lot at stake.

So why would the UAE risk its interests? 

Actually, this seems more of an attempt to protect those very interests, which just happened to backfire into a diplomatic PR nightmare.

This port would actually provide the UAE strategic access to the Red Sea and boost trade flows. Supporting the RSF with arms may be a cynical bid to safeguard the port deal by backing the side most aligned with UAE interests.

A key interest for the Gulf nation is securing access to Sudan’s agricultural resources.

The UAE is highly dependent on imported food, due to its desert climate which isn;t very agriculture-friendly, and has been investing heavily in Sudan’s farming sector. Propping up the RSF with weapons could be an attempt to ensure its investments are protected regardless of who holds power.

If proven true, such actions would illustrate a morally bankrupt foreign policy. 

The UAE would be fueling genocide-linked forces and prolonging conflict solely to shield its own economic advantages. This recklessness also jeopardizes the UAE’s regional standing. Its credibility as a neutral stabilizing force would be destroyed.

Ultimately, the UAE faces a dilemma. It has major investments at stake but aggressively inserting itself into Sudan’s volatile politics could backfire. 

Similarly, the UAE seems to be on the brink of another diplomatic feud with the United States and its conflict-torn ally, Ukraine.

After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visit to Washington in an effort to persuade Congress to vote on an aid package, the US announced sanctions on over 250 companies in China, Turkey and the UAE for allegedly supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This put the UAE in a precarious spot. Several UAE-based companies were sanctioned specifically for supplying aircraft parts and equipment to Russian firms.

While the UAE has tried to maintain workable relations with both the US and Russia. It has avoided directly criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but also has not provided overt material support.

These sanctions now force the UAE to pick sides. Continuing to do business with Russian defense firms risks further US actions against it and jeopardizes the UAE’s critical security partnership with the US. 

However, abandoning economic ties with Russia entirely could strain the UAE’s delicate neutral positioning.

The UAE must now calculate how far it can still engage commercially with Russia without crossing a red line with the US.

Going forward, it’s easy to predict that the UAE will likely try to quietly wind down certain high-risk business dealings with Russia while publicly touting its neutrality. 

But these sanctions have narrowed the UAE’s room for maneuver. Its relatively muted response to the Ukraine invasion is no longer tenable as the US demands firmer stances from its partners. 

All in all, the UAE’s maneuvers in both Sudan and Russia raise some eyebrows, that’s for sure. 

On the surface, it looks like the UAE is willing to cut some sketchy deals to protect its own interests. 

Sending weapons to shore up the RSF in Sudan? Turning a blind eye to its companies selling tech to Russian defense firms? I mean, that’s pretty blatant pandering to whoever can safeguard the UAE’s investments.

It’s a risky game, though. The UAE likes to tout itself as a responsible global citizen. But how responsible is it to fuel conflicts like Sudan’s civil war or sustain Russia’s military while it bombs Ukraine? 

You have to wonder –  does the UAE have any red lines anymore when it comes to ethics versus self-interest? 

Maybe it’s gotten too used to sailing in moral gray areas. But the US sanctions over Russia show there are still consequences, and the possible outcomes of the UAE’s sketchy foreign policy would be more and more sanctions on its local firms and companies, limiting its economic legroom.

The UAE can’t just play all sides forever.

Sometimes you gotta take a stand. Maybe this is a wake-up call for the UAE to ground its foreign policy in something more principled. 

Its shadowy activities in both the Sudanese and Ukrainian conflicts provide no ethical cover, and with all eyes already on the nation as it hosts COP28, it cannot risk any more bad publicity which could possibly develop into more sanctions and cut ties with its allies in the region and beyond.

In the bigger picture, the UAE could turn this into an opportunity to live up to the values it preaches. That’ll pay off much more in the long run.

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