US vice president, top officials visit UAE to pay respects

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In this photo made available by Ministry of Presidential Affairs, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, right, shakes hands with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, as she offers her condolences on the passing of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, late president of the UAE, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Monday, May 16, 2022. (Hassan Al Menhali/Ministry of Presidential Affairs via AP)

ABU DHABI – 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, a potent show of support as America tries to repair troubled relations with its partner amid the fast-changing geopolitical landscape precipitated by Moscow's war on Ukraine.

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Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s powerful national security adviser, greeted Harris on the windswept tarmac. The delegation also included 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 made a rare trip to Abu Dhabi that appeared to coincide with the U.S. trip. 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.

Iran's hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi also lauded Sheikh Mohammed's ascension, a sign of the pragmatic relationship between the neighbors that support opposite sides in Yemen's devastating war, harbor a long-running territorial dispute over islands in the Persian Gulf and yet retain crucial trade links despite sanctions.

Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s own upstart crown prince and de facto ruler who is close to Sheikh Mohammed, also paid a condolence visit to the UAE on Monday, jetting to Abu Dhabi after escorting his father King Salman out of a hospital in the kingdom where he had undergone medical tests.

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 sent a message congratulating 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.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, who the UAE recently has courted after the brutal civil war that made him a pariah, also made a condolence call to Sheikh Mohammed on Monday. So did Ramzan Kadyrov, the regional leader of Chechnya, who faces U.S. sanctions over alleged extrajudicial killings.

Before departing Abu Dhabi, Harris said she had offered condolences on the death of the long-ailing Sheikh Khalifa and sought to shore up America's crucial relationship with the UAE in her meeting with Sheikh Mohammed.

“We were here to discuss the strength of that partnership and that friendship and our commitment going forward ... to reaffirm the shared commitment we have to security and prosperity in this region,” she told reporters, without taking questions.

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.

In a vague statement after Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan's meeting with Blinken, the UAE said the two sides discussed “international issues of common interest, including the Ukraine crisis." It said Sheikh Abdullah expressed deep thanks to Blinken for the “good feelings he showed toward the Emirati leadership, government and people."

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 America's continued strong military presence across the Arabian Peninsula, it's 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.