Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to visit the United Arab Emirates May 13, 2007 on the first visit by an Iranian head of state to this Persian Gulf littoral state since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ahmadinejad is due in Abu Dhabi for his two-day trip just days after a visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney that highlighted the UAE’s close relations with Iran’s arch enemy the United States.
Abu Dhabi’s ties with Washington have not prevented generally robust relations with Tehran although a shadow is cast by a territorial dispute over the tiny but strategically important islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa that bestride the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz from the Persian Gulf.
Despite the row, the two countries have wide-ranging commercial links, and the UAE is, by far, Iran’s largest trading partner. The emirate of Dubai in particular serves as an outlet for Tehran’s business with the outside world.
In a sign of the importance Tehran attaches to relations, last year it appointed one of its highest profile diplomats, the former foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, as its ambassador to Abu Dhabi.
The UAE is Iran’s biggest trading partner and Iranian non-oil imports from the UAE amounted to $7.67 billion in the Iranian year to May 2006, some 20 percent of its total.
At least 400,000 of the UAE’s 4.1 million residents are Iranian, according to the Iranian consulate in Dubai.
In a goodwill gesture to Iran, the UAE said Wednesday it was releasing 12 Iranian divers arrested off Abu Musa earlier this month.
Ahmadinejad, who is expected to visit Oman Saturday before traveling on to the UAE, paid a landmark visit to Saudi Arabia two months ago in a bid to bolster relations with the Persian Gulf Arab economic powerhouse.
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahayan said in March that the UAE would never allow its territory to be used for “hostile activities” against Iran.
At the same time, the Persian Gulf littoral states have expressed concern about the potential environmental consequences of any mishap at the nuclear power plant under construction in Iran’s Persian Gulf port of Bushehr, although they have also set out plans for a joint nuclear program of their own.