The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has had to cope with the severe impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the collapse of international trade and travel and dropping oil prices. Nevertheless, its technocratic authoritarian rule and rent-based economy gave it the leeway not only to handle the pandemic domestically, but also to further position itself as a regional power. While power politics remain important in this endeavour, international status and reputation have become essential preconditions for recognition as a regional power by other states. Building on the approaches of international status and status-seeking strategies in International Relations, this chapter will show how the UAE turned the global COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to reconfigure its regional relations and gain international status.
Extending the existing policies of distributing foreign aid, the UAE appeared to be the most active provider of COVID-19 assistance in the world in early 2020. In total, it offered support to more than seventy states, including regional rival Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and developed countries such as the USA, Italy and Greece. Regarding the Abraham Accord between Israel and the UAE, the official normalisation of relations started with cooperation on COVID-19 research in June 2020. At the same time, the status rivalry between the UAE and neighbouring emirate Qatar has complicated reconciliation within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Overall, the global COVID-19 crisis enabled the UAE to boost its regional power ambitions through humanitarian diplomacy and other status-seeking strategies, which form the centrepiece of the UAE’s foreign policy.