US Vice President leads large team to meet new UAE leader

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US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks as she meets with the leaders of ASEAN countries. (AFP)
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  • Day after the death of former leader Sheikh Khalifa, Mohamed bin Zayed was chosen as UAE's new president
  • Diplomatic relation between US-UAE were further strained when the UAE abstained from condemning Russia over the invasion of Ukraine
US Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday led a high-level delegation to meet the United Arab Emirates’ new president, who takes over after his half-brother’s death, following months of strained ties between Washington and the oil-rich Gulf state.
Harris, whose team included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and CIA chief William Burns, headed the strongest delegation to visit UAE since President Joe Biden took office last year.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Abu Dhabi on May 16, 2022, to offer condolences to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan or “MBZ”, for years the de facto ruler, was chosen as president on Saturday, a day after the death of his long-ailing half-brother, former leader Sheikh Khalifa.

Harris said the UAE was a “friend and partner”, as she congratulated Sheikh Mohamed on his election and expressed Washington’s condolences.

“We are here as a delegation… to reaffirm the shared commitment we have to security and prosperity in this region, and also how the American people have benefited from this relationship in terms of security and prosperity,” Harris said.

World leaders have flocked to Abu Dhabi to pay their respects, demonstrating the rising prominence of the major oil exporter after the decline of some of the Middle East’s traditional powers.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was in Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences.

The high-level US visit appears intended to repair a relationship that has deteriorated since Biden replaced Donald Trump in the White House in January 2021.

Ties have soured over issues including Abu Dhabi’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Washington’s reopening of nuclear talks with Iran, long accused by Gulf states of creating regional chaos.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the US, admitted in March that relations were going through a “stress test”.

‘Close cooperation’

Blinken, who arrived in Abu Dhabi early Monday morning ahead of the delegation, offered his “warm congratulations” to Sheikh Mohamed on becoming president.

“He will carry on the legacy of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed. I look forward to continuing our two peoples’ close cooperation,” Blinken tweeted on Sunday.

John Kerry, the special presidential envoy for climate, and Brett McGurk, the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, were also in the US team.

The UAE hosts US troops and has been a strategic partner to Washington for decades, but it has recently also grown closer to Russia economically and politically.

After a period of cosier ties under Trump, Biden shifted to a tougher stance on human rights and arms deals.

Relations were further strained when the UAE abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution demanding a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.

Abu Dhabi has also shown no interest in increasing oil production after prices were sent sky-rocketing by the Russian invasion.

It has repeatedly urged Washington to “support re-designating” Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a “foreign terrorist organization” a label imposed by Trump but rescinded by the Biden administration.

The UAE is part of the Saudi-led military coalition that has been fighting for Yemen’s internationally recognized government in a civil war against the Houthis since 2015.

In December, the UAE threatened to scrap its mega-purchase of US F-35 fighter jets, protesting stringent conditions set by Washington.

In January, three oil workers were killed in a Houthi drone and missile attack on Abu Dhabi. US forces based there fired Patriot interceptors to help thwart a further attack.

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