Early View Article - Small state adaptation and relational autonomy: The case of the United Arab Emirates and South America

Small state adaptation and relational autonomy: The case of the United Arab Emirates and South America

From the Summit of South American–Arab Countries (ASPA) created in 2005, UAE–South American relations have continued to develop based on a combination of pragmatism, threat perception, political support and expanding economic interests. We argue that the strength of UAE engagement in this region is consistent with its attempts to build, deploy and benefit from soft power globally through economic statecraft in a mutually reinforcing series of bilateral and multilateral relationships. These include forums such as the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and the expanding BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The article draws on primary and secondary data in English, Portuguese and Spanish, focusing mainly on UAE relations with Brazil and Venezuela. We find that through a myriad of growing investment relations and first-mover advantage on arms and industrial cooperation, the UAE is well positioned vis-à-vis other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to benefit from the economic, diplomatic and security ties that could boost its relational autonomy in a competitive and uncertain regional and international environment.

Policy implications

  • UAE foreign policy and economic statecraft have varied over time, from fighting experience in NATO to the use of mercenaries, leadership of Interpol, and more recently joint ventures and technology transfer to rapidly advance its military–industrial complex. These all address the root causes of its insecurity and the constraints of geography, whilst being adept at forging new lines of autonomy.
  • Rapid small state adaptation in the economic sphere can translate into first mover advantage in strategic industries and exports which give hub states such as the United Arab Emirates significant benefits as it transitions towards a late/post-rentier economy.
  • This case further supports ‘relational autonomy’ through the development of bilateral, mini-lateral and multilateral ties involving GCC states and their South American counterparts, closer association of the UAE with rising powers in the Global South more generally, and positioning to advance the UAE's role in global infrastructure and sustainability.
  • The UAE–Brazil relationship underscores the role that regional or rising powers can play in facilitating comprehensive UAE economic partnership agreements (CEPAs), a role that some MERCOSUR members such as Brazil and other States should assess on a cost–benefit basis in comparison with free trade agreements offered by other states or blocs such as the Gulf Cooperation Council or the EU.
  • States working at different speeds in both Latin America and the Gulf are set to extend the interregional integrative process. Other risks to enhanced cooperation include stalled economic growth, leadership changes that elevate ideological or narrow political concerns or incompatibilities, and intra-regional tensions that undermine relational autonomy and preclude more cohesive and broader interaction.


Photo by Pat Whelen