Vice-President Kamala Harris heads high-level US team to meet new UAE leader

US Vice-President Kamala Harris is heading the strongest delegation to visit UAE since President Joe Biden took office. PHOTO: AFP

ABU DHABI (AFP) - United States Vice-President Kamala Harris was Monday (May 16) leading 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.

Ms Harris, whose team includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Central Intelligence Agency chief William Burns, is heading the strongest delegation to visit UAE since President Joe Biden took office last year.

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

"The United States takes quite seriously the strength of our relationship and partnership with UAE," Ms Harris said before her departure to the capital Abu Dhabi.

"We are going there to express our condolences, but also as an expression of our commitment to the strength of that relationship and continuing to strengthen that relationship."

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.

The high-level US visit appears intended to repair a relationship that has deteriorated since Mr Biden replaced Mr 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.

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

Mr Blinken, who arrived in Abu Dhabi early on Monday morning ahead of the delegation, offered his "warm congratulations" to Mr 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," Mr Blinken tweeted on Sunday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arriving in the United Arab Emirates on May 16, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate, and Mr Brett McGurk, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, are 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 Mr Trump, Mr Biden shifted to a tougher stance on human rights and arms deals.

Relations were further strained when the UAE abstained from voting on a United Nations 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 organisation" - a label imposed by Mr 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 recognised 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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