ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris led a high-powered American delegation to the United Arab Emirates on Monday to pay respects to the federation’s late ruler and meet with the newly ascended president.
The trip marks the highest-level visit by Biden administration officials to oil-rich Abu Dhabi, intended to be a potent show of support as America tries to repair troubled relations with its partner, particularly amid the fast-changing geopolitical landscape precipitated by Moscow’s war on Ukraine.
The delegation includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, CIA Director William Burns and climate envoy John Kerry, among others.
The UAE named the assertive Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan its new president following the death of his half-brother last Friday. Sheikh Mohammed has served as the country’s de facto ruler and shaped the country’s muscular foreign policy since Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan suffered a stroke nearly a decade ago.
Under Sheikh Mohammed’s de facto rule, the UAE has intervened in regional conflicts from Yemen to Libya, used its vast oil wealth to exert sway abroad and transformed into a regional financial hub.
Underscoring Abu Dhabi’s great influence in Western and Arab capitals, an array of presidents, prime ministers and princes descended on the desert sheikhdom over the weekend to honor the late Sheikh Khalifa, praise Sheikh Mohammed and solidify ties. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were the first European leaders to jet to the UAE capital.
More dignitaries filtered through the Abu Dhabi airport’s marbled presidential terminal on Monday. Britain’s Prince William came Monday to pay tribute to the late ruler of the former British protectorate, marking his second visit to the emirate so far this year.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian flew to the emirate for a meeting that could coincide with the U.S. visit. Iran has refused to meet American officials face-to-face, even as they negotiate a return to Tehran’s tattered nuclear accord with world powers.
The mourners, close allies of the UAE, have included some bitter rivals, like Iran and Israel, India and Pakistan, Qatar and Egypt - a dramatic reminder of the country’s powerful role in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also congratulated Sheikh Mohammed on Monday, saying he was “certain that your leadership will further strengthen the friendly Russian-Emirati relations,” according to the UAE’s state-run WAM news agency.
Before heading to Abu Dhabi, Harris said she was traveling on behalf of President Joe Biden to offer condolences on the death of the long-ailing Sheikh Khalifa and to shore up America’s crucial relationship with the UAE.
“The United States takes quite seriously the strength of our relationship and partnership with the UAE,” Harris told reporters. “We are going there then to express our condolences but also as an expression of our commitment to the strength of that relationship.”
It was widely expected officials would address the UAE‘s long-simmering frustrations about American security protection in the region as well as tensions that have emerged between the countries over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, has faced American pressure to shun Russia and pump more oil to improve stability in energy markets as Europe tries to wean itself off Russian crude.
But the UAE is a key Russian trading partner and member of the so-called OPEC Plus agreement, of which Russia is an important member. Emiratis have rebuffed American demands - resistance rooted in an apparent feeling that despite its continued strong military presence across the Arabian Peninsula, America is no longer such a reliable partner.
After taking office, Biden lifted a terrorist designation on Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels that have fired missiles and drones at the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and is trying to revive Tehran’s nuclear deal - an accord that Gulf Arab states fear could embolden Iran and its proxies.
America’s abrupt and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer and its long-term foreign policy goal of pivoting away from the Mideast and toward China has added to Gulf Arab concerns. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has suspended a multibillion-dollar sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE agreed by former President Donald Trump.
Trump abandoned Tehran’s nuclear deal and heavily courted Emirati and Saudi officials.
This spring, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE‘s ambassador to the U.S., described the allies as going through a “stress test.”
DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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