Dubai Ports World as the UAE Foreign Policy Tool
Established with the merger of the Dubai Ports International and Dubai Ports Authority under the government-owned Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation holding company in 2006, the global logistics giant Dubai Ports World (DP World) has strong ties with the Emirati ruling families.
While DP World maintains that it is a private enterprise and operates independently of the UAE government’s foreign policy, 80% of the company’s equity is owned by Dubai World, the majority stakeholder of which is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the country.
Furthermore, the CEO of DP World, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, is the former chairman of the Dubai government’s premier port Jebel Ali and son of a former key adviser to the royal Al Maktoum family. Mirroring the convergence of state and capital, DP World’s activities go beyond furthering the financial interests of its shareholders, with the company actively contributing to the UAE’s increasingly assertive foreign policy vision and regional security interests.
"DP World proactively acquires rival businesses and invests in underdeveloped and seemingly less-strategic ports to crowd out rival strategic interests along the Red Sea."
The UAE has been using port acquisition and largescale infrastructure projects carried out via DP World as a soft-power tool to establish itself as an essential partner in supply chains and maritime trade passing through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and a key actor on the West Indian Ocean trade route. Towards this end, DP World proactively acquires rival businesses and invests in underdeveloped and seemingly less-strategic ports to crowd out rival strategic interests along the Red Sea.
In addition, by maintaining maritime-mercantile leverage over alternative shipping lanes and by reducing the country’s dependence on the Strait of Hormuz, a major chokepoint that has been at the heart of regional tensions with Iran, it caters to the Emirati aspirations to wield political influence in its neighbourhood and to position itself as a pivotal regional diplomatic player. DP World further secures UAE interests by building and operating dual-use facilities capable of accommodating an Emirati naval and/or air force presence alongside its strategic foreign port concessions. In doing so, the company serves as the enabler of the UAE’s strategic ambitions to reposition itself as both a capable regional security actor and an indispensable partner in logistics, ports and trade development.
"The UAE seeks to ‘overcome smallness' among major regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the United States."
In effect, the UAE seeks to ‘overcome smallness’ (Miller and Verhoeven, 2019) among major regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the United States. Cooped up in a geography delineated by power struggles and regional rivalries, the UAE seeks to avoid Qatar’s fate of turning into a besieged small neighbour overnight, after clashing with the Saudis, from being an influential force and a key regional partner.
As argued by Miller and Verhoeven (2019)1, the UAE aspires to achieve ‘strategic parity’ with Saudi Arabia and reposition itself an equal partner rather than bandwagoning with it and remaining in the Saudi shadow. While consolidating itself as an indispensable strategic ally to Saudi Arabia and the United States, the UAE strives to become self-reliant for its own security by reinforcing its military prowess and defence capabilities.
Since the 1992 US-led intervention in Somalia, UAE troops have been deployed in the various US and NATO-led missions, and the DP World-operated Jebel Ali port has continued to be a major port of call for the US Navy outside the United States, serving as a key logistical hub for US military operations. More recently, in September 2019, along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE joined a US-led maritime coalition to protect international shipping in and near the Strait of Hormuz in the face of increasing tension with Iran.
These strategic alliances and increasingly active participation by the UAE in military interventions in its neighbourhood demonstrate the Emirati willingness and ability to use its military force and has allowed the country to harness robust operational experience.
"DP World remains the only global port operator certified as a partner in the United States Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism initiative."
As a major component of Emirati strategic security and commercial ambitions, DP World has also assumed a primary role in international counter-piracy and counterterrorism efforts in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa by policing maritime routes along the Red Sea, ensuring supply chain security and organising high-level international counter-piracy conferences. DP World remains the only global port operator certified as a partner in the United States Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism initiative. It is also the first port operator to obtain and implement the ISO 28000:2007 supply chain security management system certification, which establishes a set of mechanisms and processes identifying security vulnerabilities and laying down preventive action plans.
"The Horn of Africa remains a strategic pillar of the UAE security architecture and mercantilism."
For the UAE, adopting an increasingly proactive foreign policy and investing beyond its core commercial interests go hand in hand with its ambitions to become self-reliant for its security, to expand its role as a security actor influential beyond the Gulf and to diversify its military presence. While DP World has a network of 78 marine and inland terminals in 40 countries across six continents, its activities nest heavily around the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. As well as being a potential market for Emirati commercial expansion, the Horn of Africa remains a strategic pillar of the UAE security architecture and mercantilism due to its proximity to regional conflicts and its location along international trade routes. Increased rivalry for influence and the race for bases and ports in the Horn further DP World’s integral role in spearheading Emirati aspirations. With the addition of six new ports in South Asia to its massive global footprint, DP World continues to be not only a significant logistical partner but also the flagship of the UAE economic, political and military expansionism that is geared towards becoming a major geo-economic force in the West Indian Ocean.
- 1. Miller, R.M. and Verhoeven, H. (2019). Overcoming smallness: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and strategic realignment in the Gulf. International Politics, 1-20.