ABU DHABI — A whirlwind trip by Vice President Kamala Harris to the United Arab Emirates to pay respects following the death of its ruler doubled as an opportunity to reset a relationship with an important regional ally.
Tensions have been rising between the countries as the UAE has reportedly rebuffed Washington's oil entreaties amid other disagreements.
“We are going there, then, to express our condolences, but also as an expression of our commitment to the strength of that relationship,” said Harris, the highest-level Biden administration official to greet the country's new president.
In Abu Dhabi, seated at a distance from observers in the cavernous gilded room, Harris and UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan went largely unheard with only official photographers until the final minutes. Seated next to Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken leaned over his armrest as if to better hear.
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While the two countries have a long-standing security partnership, they have been at odds over changing geopolitical concerns. Lately, that has included the UAE’s refusal to side with Western allies against Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
As the country's de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed deepened ties with Russia and China, drawing consternation from Washington. And he has resisted American calls to pump more oil as Europe attempts to wean itself off Russian energy.
Abu Dhabi’s worries have spilled out in recent months, with Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, describing the countries in March as going through a “stress test.”
Some of the officials accompanying Harris had labored for months behind the scenes to ease tensions over concerns that the U.S. was pulling away from the region.
“U.S.-UAE bilateral ties have been through one of the bumpiest periods ever during recent months,” said Brian Katulis, the vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute, pointing to the standoff over oil and Ukraine (and Iran) as the Biden administration works to rejoin the nuclear deal abandoned by the U.S. under former President Donald Trump.
“This represents an effort to get them on a better footing,” said Richard Fontaine, the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security and a former adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Any lingering hint of tension was hard to spot.
“We’ll get on the phone,” former Secretary of State John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, told one Emirati official while cutting a path to the U.S. delegation, exchanging smiles and handshakes with their UAE hosts in front of Harris’s plane.
Over a business dinner with Blinken that evening, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, the UAE's foreign minister, said he reviewed “a number of regional and international issues of interest, including the latest developments in the Ukrainian crisis,” according to a statement.
In a sign of Abu Dhabi’s influence, dozens of dignitaries and world leaders descended on the federation to honor the late Sheikh Khalifa and shore up ties with its new leader. Moving through the narrow strip of Abu Dhabi tarmac, the arrivals paying tribute included bitter adversaries such as Israel and Iran, Russia and the U.S., and Pakistan and India. First among Western leaders to make the trip were French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The visit by the U.S. delegation sent a positive message, said Jason Brodsky, the policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran.
“[It’s] a signal to the Emirati leadership that Washington values their partnership,” he added.
Preparing to board Air Force Two to return to Washington, Harris repeated almost verbatim her remarks from the tarmac one day earlier.
“We were here to discuss the strength of that partnership and that friendship, and our commitment going forward to continue to work at strengthening that relationship,” Harris said. Americans had benefited from the stability, she added.
Leading a U.S. delegation that included the nation’s defense secretary, its spy chief, as well as two secretaries of state, Harris made the comments under a beating sun after sitting down with Sheikh Mohammed at the marbled presidential terminal at Abu Dhabi's airport.
Yet her remarks said little about the problems America is facing with one of its closest regional allies.
Asked what message she planned to bring home to Biden, Harris turned her back to the press and went to say her goodbyes. Harris did not answer a single question from reporters during the 37-hour trip.
Instead, she offered variations of a statement that echoed the administration’s commitment to deepening ties between the countries and advancing the interests of the American and Emirati peoples.
During a refueling stop in Germany, an aide turned off a television tuned to Fox News as Jeanine Pirro lit into the vice president's circular remarks. The cable news clip was a reminder of the vice president's struggles to stay on script. This time, she seemed determined to limit any distractions from the message at hand.
Harris met with silence a question over whether she had discussed oil with the Gulf leader.
The moments were also a reminder of the limits of vice presidential power, and its demands, a feat acknowledged by others who have been elected to the role. “You die, I fly,” then-Vice President George H. W. Bush said of the number of state funerals he had to attend. Said Nelson Rockefeller, “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.”
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A report published as Harris returned to Washington on Tuesday detailed a different frustration. The vice president wants to spend more time away from the White House, it said, touting issues close to her, such as Harris's support for abortion rights and voting rights.
At the time the trip was announced, the whole world seemed to revolve around the desert sheikhdom. But by early Tuesday morning, Harris’s team had moved on. An aide pulled out a binder labeled "Summit of the Americas" and returned to the cabin.