May 4, 2010 12:19PM

First Impressions from Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates—I arrived in Abu Dhabi late last night, and have spent the day in a series of meetings (with one more scheduled for this evening). The 9‑day trip, organized and led by Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, will also take us to Dubai and Riyadh. If the accommodations are even half as nice as our current digs (on a 5‑star scale, I’d rate the hotel an “8”) then we’re in for a real treat. (Sorry Doug and Malou).

My first impressions of Abu Dhabi generally conform to what I expected based on my very limited knowledge of the place. I last visited here onboard USS Ticonderoga in 1992, but frankly remember very little. A few buildings looked vaguely familiar, but that is about it. I have had to rely on a packet of materials that Jon assembled for our group in order to get up to speed.

This is a wealthy country; oil wealth, to be sure, which can be as much a curse as a blessing. But there are signs of diversification. Cranes abound, and unlike in Dubai, where the financial crisis has put a chill on a once‐​booming real estate market, Abu Dhabi continues to do well. Indeed, much of the traffic flowing into the city, I was told, is made up of cars from Dubai. I’m anxious to see the contrast when we visit there later this week.

This is a nervous country. Emiratis (at least the ones we met today) are nervous about Iran, a traditional adversary, and a rising power in the region made more powerful by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They worry about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They worry about how Iran’s behavior might change if they were to acquire nuclear weapons. But they also worry about the ramifications of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, given that the retaliation is likely to be directed at numerous targets in the region. They don’t hold out much hope that sanctions will be particularly effective in convincing the Iranians to reverse course, but they support the effort nonetheless.

Looking past Iran, Emiratis are nervous about a future that depends far too much on proceeds from the sale of oil, and on the contributions of expatriates who make up more than 80 percent of the UAE’s total population of nearly 5 million. These expats operate the hotels and the restaurants. They can be seen building the roads and skyscrapers. They are instrumental in Abu Dhabi’s nascent homeland security unit, the Critical National Infrastructure Authority. They help manage the UAE’s nuclear power program. And they serve as advisers at the highest levels of the national security apparatus.

This is a country that values its good relations with the United States, but that understands that this relationship will always have its limits. In our last meeting of the day, a senior government official reminded us of how far the UAE had come in a relatively short time. Fifty years ago, according to this official, 1 in 4 women died during childbirth, and infant mortality was nearly 50 percent. Now the UAE is among the healthier countries in the world.

They do not take their good fortune for granted, however. They are striving to develop the skills necessary to operate their critical infrastructure, and to be able to better defend their country without having to rely so heavily on foreign assistance.

I’m off to another meeting, but I’ll write more later.