Zayid's foreign policy has been motivated chiefly by his support for Arab unity. He was one of the leading figures in the establishment of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council in1981. The UAE has given considerable aid to various Arab causes and is particularly active with regard to the Palestinian issue.
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the UAE cooperated with the military coalition arrayed against Iraq and allowed deployment of foreign forces on its soil, as well as contributing a large sum toward the cost of the war. Having purchased weapons from the United States since 1987, the UAE signed a military cooperation pact with the United States in 1994.
In 1999, the UAE was one of only three states to have diplomatic relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Following the imposition of United Nations (UN) sanctions against the Taliban in 2000 (a response to their failure to hand over suspected terrorist leaders for international trial), these relations began to strain considerably. Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks (in which the Taliban was implicated as a supporter) on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the World Trade Center in New York, the UAE broke diplomatic relations with the Taliban completely. The UAE supported the U.S.-led War on Terror and the initial military strikes against Afghanistan, which came as a response to the terrorist attacks. However, the UAE also offered immediate and substantial financial assistance for the rebuilding of Afghanistan and support for civilian victims and refugees.
In the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zayid continued to support efforts toward a Palestinian homeland, with Jerusalem as its capital, and has issued statements urging the United States to act against the "state terrorism" of the Israeli forces.
Several of the emirates of the federation have poorly demarcated borders, which have led in the past to tensions between UAE and its neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran. Abu Dhabi resolved its dispute over the Buraimi oasis with Saudi Arabia in 1974, and Sharjah reached an agreement with Iran in 1971 over the island of Abu Musa. However, the dispute over the two Tunbs islands between Rais al Khaimah and Iran and a similar dispute over the nearby island of Abu Musa reignited territorial tensions between the UAE and Iran in 1992 and led the UAE to seek international mediation. In March 2002 the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) affirmed its support of UAE's claims to Abu Musa and the Tunbs islands, rejecting all claims by Iran to sovereignty over the territories.
Zayid has taken a strong interest in the fate of the Muslim population in war-torn Bosnia, criticizing the international community for not intervening in the conflict sooner and raising money for the Bosnian Muslim community.
During the 2002–03 international diplomatic crisis leading up to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which began on 19 March 2003, sharp divisions within the Arab world emerged as to how to react to the looming war. At an Arab League summit held on 1 March 2003, President Zayid called upon Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to relinquish power and leave Iraq in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Zayid's plan was to have Iraq placed under the tutelage of the United Nations (UN) and the Arab League until a new government could be formed. Kuwait and Bahrain supported the UAE position, but other Arab states rejected it. In any case, all of the Arab leaders at the summit issued a declaration expressing "complete rejection of any aggression on Iraq." Nevertheless, the UAE allowed the stationing of U.S. military personnel and aircraft on its territory in the prelude to war. In addition, the UAE sent some 3,000 troops backed by Apache helicopters, tanks, amphibious armored vehicles, and support ships to Kuwait ahead of the war, part of a Kuwaiti-UAE security arrangement. The Gulf Cooperation Council (of which the UAE is a member) also sent approximately 20,000 troops to protect Kuwait during the war, as part of the "Peninsula Shield" force. They began to leave Kuwait in May 2003.