Monday 01 August 2016

Many strategic analysts talk about the complex geopolitics of our century, but most ignore one of the less understood but critically important aspects of international power: sovereignty. Strategy is about power and power is directly related to each nation’s sovereignty; the more sovereign the better a state is able to conduct its affairs. Effective security in our globalized age comes from many sources, but a great strength of the UAE is its sovereign institutions.

Sovereignty identifies the supreme authority over a location or group. Since the 1660s it has served as the basic principle underlying the dominant Westphalian model of international relations. Current thinking about state sovereignty focuses on four aspects of sovereign authority: control of territory, management of population, type of authority (authoritarian, democratic, legal or societal) and international recognition by other groups. Stephen D. Krasner, an influential professor of international relations, has proposed four different ways to consider sovereignty: the actual domestic control of a state within its borders, the control by a state of movement across its borders, the formal recognition accorded by other sovereign states, and the prohibition of other authorities control over a state’s domestic organizations or groups.

All of us recently observed sovereignty in crisis, as Great Britain (technically the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - a sovereign group of three nations) decided to leave the European Union (a politico-economic union of 28 member states) in order to reassert its national sovereignty. Interestingly, as a consequence, Scotland (part of Great Britain which wanted to remain part of the EU) is considering leaving Great Britain. The Gulf Coordination Council is analogous to the EU in many ways and the issues surrounding the BREXIT crisis should be well understood by all in the Gulf. We have also recently seen attacks on sovereignty by Houthi rebels in Yemen and by Da’esh fighters in Syria and Iraq; in fact we are probably witnessing the failure of Da’esh’s attempt to develop a new version of sovereignty. Some also believe that proxy wars and international corporations menace our national sovereignty in ways we do not fully realize.

The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, each of which is governed by a ruler, but together those rulers jointly form our Federal Supreme Council, which binds all seven emirates together under one President with one federal government structure. This unique approach to sovereignty has served the UAE extremely well since its founding, allowing for tremendous growth yet impressive resilience. Still, as sovereign institutions like the EU and the GCC continue to adapt to the forces of globalization and demographic changes, and other actors (such as Da’esh) threaten the status quo, the UAE is certain to experience both challenges and opportunities of sovereignty in the years to come.

There can be no doubt that such issues will continue to test the UAE, but its simple, yet powerful and flexible system of sovereignty, strengthened by unity, patriotic spirit and a strong bond between the people and their leaders, will undoubtedly serve it well. Sharing language and faith, and living confidently in an orderly environment coherent with strong Emirati culture will enable the UAE to prosper despite chaotic conditions in the region, but the nation must also be open to the opportunities that changes in sovereign relations can reveal. A stronger, albeit perhaps more intrusive GCC or growth in economic or thematic power structures, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the International Renewable Energy Agency (both of which include the UAE), could offer exciting advantages to the nation. The key is to determine the true national interests and the best strategy to leverage influence while retaining essential national sovereignty.