UAE has emerged as the second-largest foreign investor in Africa after China. For the UAE, the pandemic is an opportunity to break out of the shadow of Saudi Arabia. In Africa, it has donated medical aid and supplies to Ethiopia, Guinea, Botswana, Mauritania, South Africa, Sudan and even Somaliland — which the U.N. doesn’t recognize — during the pandemic, writes Eromo Egbejule

  • The UAE is sending aid to countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and even South America, in a dramatic soft power drive.
  • It’s trying to emerge from the shadow of Saudi Arabia, and isn’t averse to helping even Riyadh’s enemies such as Iran and Syria.

By Eromo Egbejule


Guinea is used to aid from the U.S., Europe and China. Foreign assistance was critical in its fight against Ebola. But the plane that landed in its capital, Conakry, in early May carrying medical supplies for 7,000 health care professionals had come from a country the size of South Carolina but with ambitions that are increasingly global: the United Arab Emirates.

As the world’s leading economies focus on their domestic challenges amid the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, the tiny Gulf state is pulling out its spraying hoses, pitching itself as an unlikely firefighter for the world.

In Africa, it has donated medical aid and supplies to Ethiopia, Guinea, Botswana, Mauritania, South Africa, Sudan and even Somaliland — which the U.N. doesn’t recognize — during the pandemic. At a time the UAE has emerged as the second-largest foreign investor in Africa after China, these aid initiatives are aimed at securing goodwill for key projects. But its aid diplomacy isn’t limited to Africa.

UAE Seeks To Escape Saudi Shadow As A Global Player
Fireworks explode in front of the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on January 1, 2019. SOURCE GIUSEPPE CACACE/GETTY

In its own backyard, the UAE is distributing its largesse to internally displaced persons and refugees in Syria and Yemen. In the U.K., Abu Dhabi helped convert London’s largest exhibition venue — which the UAE owns — into a an emergency 4,000-bed facility called NHS Nightingale that opened in April. The UAE continues to shoulder the operational costs.

In April, the Emirati Embassy in faraway Colombia donated 15,000 meals to coronavirus-infected citizens in the country. That same month, the UAE dispatched planes with medical supplies to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Armenia, Lebanon, Mauritania, South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Ethiopia. The U.S., Spain, Switzerland, Italy and South Korea — all advanced economies — have also received aid during the pandemic from the country.

The UAE’s dramatic foreign aid drive during the current crisis is “a litmus test of influence in world politics,” says Diana Galeeva, a visiting researcher at Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College and an analyst of Gulf politics. By early May, the Emirati government, Emirates Red Crescent and foundations owned by members of the royal family had sent more than 437 metric tons of aid to over 38 countries.

It’s a stunning display of the country’s desire to expand its global footprint. For years, the oil-rich country has been ahead of its peers in the Gulf in diversifying its economy — turning Dubai into a major financial and tourism hub, and one of the world’s biggest ports. Yet in terms of influence, it has squirmed in the shadow of the much larger, powerful and older kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

UAE Seeks To Escape Saudi Shadow As A Global Player
Locations the UAE has sent medical aid and supplies to during the pandemic. SOURCE SEAN CULLIGAN/OZY

In recent years, it has identified soft power as an area where it believes the ultraconservative Saudi Arabia can’t compete against it. In 2017, UAE vice president and Dubai ruler Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum formed a Soft Power Council. The following year, junior foreign affairs minister Anwar Mohammad Gargash publicly confirmed that the country wants to become the world’s “soft power superpower.”

Now, the UAE is testing the limits of its reach like never before. Recipients of its support include Shia-majority Iran and Syria’s Bashar Assad, sworn enemies of Saudi Arabia. Careful to shield its image, Abu Dhabi has also distanced itself from Riyadh over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, says Jon Alterman, Washington, D.C.-based director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But the two countries still have “intertwined interests,” says Alterman.

Experts say the UAE, for all its soft power efforts, might not achieve the global status Gargash outlined. “The UAE has neither the size nor the wealth to be a superpower of any time,” argues Alterman. “But the UAE does have global interests. … [It] has also sought to advance its international reputation.” The UAE, he points out, now hosts the U.N.’s International Renewable Energy Agency. “This isn’t about altruism, but it isn’t about domination either,” Alterman says.

Missteps also continue to plague the country’s efforts. This April, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia deported thousands of undocumented Ethiopian workers to Addis Ababa in cargo planes because of the coronavirus scare. Since the 16th-century Arab slave trade, racism towards Africans across the Middle East has been historically documented and continues today.

Still, the UAE has built a reputation for being relatively progressive compared to its neighbors. In 2018, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development listed it as the world’s largest donor of development aid relative to its gross national income.

The country’s strategy of using the pandemic to strengthen that narrative appears to be working. Its foreign aid has already won applause from WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has described the Emirati state as “true friends.” And Arab ambassadors to the UAE have thanked Abu Dhabi for evacuating their citizens from Wuhan — the epicenter of the coronavirus.

And while the aid may not bestow true superpower status on it any time soon, it’s still likely to eventually “confer advantages, rather than disadvantages,” says Galeeva. For the UAE’s rulers, that might be enough.

Shadow of Saudi Shadow

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