Will the UAE bring change to the UN Security Council? - opinion

From a geopolitical perspective, the UAE’s presence on the Security Council could be influential.

 THE UN Security Council meets on Friday amid Russia’s continuing attacks on Ukraine. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
THE UN Security Council meets on Friday amid Russia’s continuing attacks on Ukraine.
(photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

The United Arab Emirates became a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council in January and will hold the position for the next two years.

For a country that perceives itself as a world leader in multiple areas and a key regional player, the UAE’s ascension to the Security Council fits neatly with its vision of promoting innovation, inclusion, resilience and peace.

Other UAE initiatives, like sending a probe to Mars, cleverly promote the same kind of ambitions, this time on behalf of the Arab world.

The UAE’s election to the Security Council happened around the same time as the signing of the Abraham Accords in August 2020. Like the Abraham Accords, this was the result of lengthy, successful planning by Emirati leaders. Arab states seeking endorsements as nonpermanent members have traditionally sought the support of the Arab League. The UAE received this endorsement in 2012, once again showing that achieving this position was a long time in the making and not an overnight move.

This is the second time that the UAE serves on the Security Council (the last time was in 1986-87), and this represents no small achievement for the rather small state, amid over 190 UN member states.

 United Nations Security Council meets after Russia recognized two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, in New York City, US. February 21, 2022.  (credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS) United Nations Security Council meets after Russia recognized two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, in New York City, US. February 21, 2022. (credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)

Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh, who has been the UAE’s representative at the UN since 2013, has been a vocal promoter of women’s empowerment in diplomacy, peace and security. She has vowed to make two-thirds of her office staff women, and she is certainly a nonconformist and an interesting character, while aligning her activities closely to the UAE’s political elite. She will no doubt lead initiatives at the Security Council and influence its agenda.

This is also an opportunity for the UAE to play a more prominent role vis-à-vis other international institutions: Nusseibeh recently met with the new prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, to engage on regional and global issues.

From a geopolitical perspective, the UAE’s presence on the Security Council could be influential.

On the one hand, the UAE cannot veto resolutions, but on the other, for a resolution to pass at the council, four out of 10 nonpermanent members need to vote in favor (in addition to the concurring votes of the five permanent members, Russia, China, the UK, the US and France).

This means that the nonpermanent members have a distinct influence on the passage of resolutions.

The UAE now has an opportunity to further push the issue of the Iranian-backed Houthis, who have recently been behind a series of UAV and missile attacks on the UAE, and to seek recognition of the Houthis as a terrorist organization.

Tensions between the US and Russia can spill over into the Security Council, and the UAE may be forced to take a position on Ukraine-related issues, placing it in the spotlight. Voting on these “hot” issues could potentially embarrass Russia and China – two superpowers with which the UAE is keen to maintain proper relations. Russia is an important player in the Middle East, and the UAE will likely tread carefully on any votes regarding the evolving situation in Europe.

Ultimately, although the position on the Council affords the UAE influence, it can also be a trap when votes are called for on difficult topics that can alienate world powers.

The UAE could also use its privileged position on the Security Council to advance Palestinian issues, and perhaps to urge Israel and the Palestinian Authority to kick-start negotiations in the future.

But here, too, the UAE could face tricky situations. A resolution on Israel or on Palestinian membership at the UN, even if an unlikely scenario, would require the UAE to vote – and any vote it casts could upset fellow council members. Even abstaining, in a situation like this, is a statement.

FOR ISRAEL, the question of whether it has a new ally on the powerful Security Council is a valid one to ask. The other nine nonpermanent members include countries friendly to Israel, such as Albania, Kenya and India. Importantly, Israel has diplomatic relations with all countries currently serving on the council.

Whether or not the UAE’s position on the Security Council will alter the council’s dynamics remains to be seen, but what can be stated with more confidence is that the current composition of the council is quite favorable to Israel.

Opportunities could arise for Israel to work with the UAE on issues of common interest at the UN, from climate change to international security and pandemic readiness. Israel could also use this opportunity to share its concerns on the buildup of Hezbollah’s military capabilities in Lebanon, and the inaction of Lebanese authorities.

The big question going forward is whether the UAE’s new influence at the Security Council will, over the next two years, trickle down to the rest of the United Nations.

With three new Arab countries normalizing ties with Israel, the traditional tendency of Arab countries to vote with one another as a bloc might fade over time.

Greater sub-bloc cooperation between the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, as well as possibly Saudi Arabia, could become a feature, and not only on issues related to Israel. The arrival of the UAE on the Security Council could help kick-start this process.

There is also the possibility that this process of change could affect the infamous UN Human Rights Council.

In November 2021, a joint statement was issued at the Human Rights Council on the role of women in peace and security as part of a joint initiative of the UAE, Bahrain, Israel and Morocco. Another 51 states signed on to this historic statement. Is this a small sign of change? Quite possibly.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the UAE is highly skilled at cultivating and maintaining good relations with everyone – including Turkey and Iran. The UAE does not cut off dialogue with anyone.

The UAE can be expected to figure out how to balance opposing pressures, whether at the regional or global levels, while promoting its interests. This could make for an interesting two years at the Security Council and the General Assembly.

The writer is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. She is an assistant professor in the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, where she heads the International Program in Government.