Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

The United Arab Emirates: A Rising Military Power

By Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero
December 10, 2014

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has traditionally pursued a cautious foreign policy and maintained a generally low profile on the regional and international stage. Yet as chaotic unrest continues to spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the UAE’s leadership has set the Gulf state on a course of rapid militarization in an effort to preserve its security and stability.

Like the other small Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies, the UAE has never been a strong or independent military power. Abu Dhabi has relied instead on foreign alliances—most importantly, with the United States—to safeguard its security. Historically, the UAE’s foreign policy has been shaped by its capacity to leverage its natural resource wealth in order to project influence abroad and maintain its geopolitical status throughout the Middle East.

However, the Emirati leadership’s calculus has changed in response to ongoing regional conflicts that have resulted in several geopolitical outcomes—including growing Sunni extremism in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and an increasingly assertive Iran in each of those countries—that unsettle Emirati officials.

The Arab world‘s traditional military heavyweights—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—are now weaker, immersed in domestic crises, and unable to project military power as they once did. Turkey’s reaction to the Arab Awakening has produced a host of political setbacks, economic burdens, and national security challenges for Ankara. Additionally, the Obama Administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia has contributed to a general sense that the U.S. is gradually backing away from the Middle East, leaving its Gulf allies with lingering questions about how to maintain security in the long-run.

Within this context, the UAE’s leaders have seized an opportunity to assert the country as a forceful military actor in the region. In recent years the UAE has ambitiously sought to project military strength in the Persian Gulf, which has been achieved with relative ease, given that the Emiratis have the financial means to invest heavily in military imports. But some analysts have questioned whether the UAE could ever become a major regional military power, given its small native population (approximately 90 percent of the UAE’s population of 8.2 million are foreigners) and the absence of experience operating a world class military independently. If the UAE’s recent spending on defense and recent military operations in Libya and Syria are any indication, Abu Dhabi is convinced it can be done.

Defense Spending and Partnerships

Within the last 10 years the UAE has doubled its military budget to more than USD 16 billion, making it the world‘s 15th biggest spender on defense. The country is expected to become the world‘s third largest military importer in 2015. The U.S. is the UAE’s primary arms supplier, and the UAE is America‘s third largest arms recipient. Generals in the U.S. military have referred to the UAE as Washington‘s “Little Sparta” ally in the Persian Gulf. In late September, the Pentagon notified American lawmakers of plans for BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin to sell the UAE more than 4,500 mine-resistant and ambush-protected vehicles, and dozens of rocket launchers, as part of a USD 3.5 billion deal.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has remained a major military partner of Washington, playing host to U.S. military bases and doing billions of dollars’ worth of business in arms sales. But the Emirates have also sought to diversify their military alliances. At a time when, to varying degrees, Sunni Arab states are questioning Washington‘s long-term commitment to their defense—with many bemoaning the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran and finding their oil supplies less indispensable to Washington as North American energy production rises—the UAE appears intent on exploring deeper partnerships with other states, even while maintaining a fundamentally strong alliance with Washington.

France has been another top arms provider for the UAE, having sold Abu Dhabi Mirage jet fighters and AMX-30 tanks. In 2008, France signed an agreement with the UAE permitting Paris to open a military base—the so-called “Peace Camp”—in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. The UAE has also signed defense deals with Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom. So while the UAE government very much relies on the U.S. for the bulk of its arms purchases, it is hedging its bets about whether that will remain the case in the long-term.

Anti-Islamist Agenda

The UAE is especially concerned about the growing power of hard-line Sunni Islamist militias—such as Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Shabaab, among others—that flex their muscles across the Levant, Maghreb, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa.

Those concerns are spurring unprecedented military action from Abu Dhabi.

Prior to 2014, the UAE‘s military had never conducted a strike against a foreign country. In August, the UAE—along with Egypt—launched bombing raids against Fajr Libya, a Salafist extremist militia that had violently expelled Libya’s internationally recognized government from Tripoli during that month. By signing numerous pacts and providing financial assistance, the Emiratis have also been cooperating with the Algerian, Egyptian, Pakistani, and Tunisian governments in military operations against Sunni jihadist groups with agendas and worldviews similar to Daesh and Fajr Libya that launch terrorist attacks and insurgencies in their countries.

When the Obama Administration gathered a coalition of Arab states to fight Daesh and other jihadist militias in Syria, the UAE enthusiastically agreed to join, and has played a role in the multilateral military campaign second only to Washington in significance. In contrast to Qatar, which downplayed its role in the bombings against extremist forces in Syria, the government of the UAE proudly released pictures of Major Mariam al-Mansouri, a female Emirati fighter jet pilot who made headlines around the world after her return from striking Daesh targets in Syria.

Not lost in the equation was the symbolism. While the UAE does appeal to the West in part due to its image as a modernized liberal Arab state with a large western expatriate population, the photos of a female fighter sent a clear message to Western diplomats about Abu Dhabi‘s firm commitment to countering Daesh’s ideology. Some figures in western governments have questioned the GCC states’ loyalty in the struggle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, with other officials accusing GCC statesmen of turning a blind eye to the transfer of funds from wealthy Gulf nationals to Daesh. Thus, by publicizing the pictures of Major al-Mansouri, the UAE‘s leaders sought to promote an image of the Gulf state as being on the West‘s side vis-à-vis Daesh and other extremist groups across the region.

The UAE is acting in common with a number of Sunni Arab states—such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—that hold similar perceptions of the threats emanating from the greater Middle East, as well as shared concerns about Washington‘s response to such developments. While these countries have cooperated with the U.S. in military strikes against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, this Sunni coalition of states is, at the same time, reacting to heightened unrest with greater collective autonomy from Washington. This was underscored in August when the UAE and Egypt conducted strikes against Fajr Libya militants in the Tripoli area, reportedly without notifying Washington in advance.

The attacks near the UAE and Egyptian embassies in Tripoli on November 13 were carried out by Fajr Libya in response to Abu Dhabi and Cairo‘s military strikes against them in August. While both embassies were closed at the time due to the heightened threat posed by Libya‘s plethora of armed Islamist factions, and while the bomb set near the UAE embassy did not explode, such a development underscores the threat of blowback in light of the Emiratis’ bold anti-Islamist foreign policy. Concern about additional attacks on UAE interests appears justified, requiring the enhancement of protection at UAE embassies around the world, as well as heightened domestic security.

In recent years the UAE authorities have arrested dozens of Islamist members of the local Muslim Brotherhood branch, Al-Islah (AI). On November 15 the government designated AI, along with certain civil non-profit, humanitarian, and relief groups based in the West and Arab world, as ―terrorist organizations‖.xxiii While the ruling monarchy is silencing non-violent and democratic opposition groups under the pretext of combating terrorism, there is also a genuine concern in the UAE about the threats of Islamists targeting the seven emirates in response to its military operations against Daesh and Fajr Libya.

Iran

While the UAE and Iran are major economic partners, and while the Emirati leadership has pursued a relatively independent policy vis-à-vis Tehran (in contrast to Bahrain, for example, which has aligned itself with Saudi Arabia), the UAE is concerned about Iran‘s long-term regional agenda.

Moreover, the UAE and Iran are currently engaged in a sovereign dispute over three Persian Gulf Islands—Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs—in which the UAE accuses Iran of occupying Emirati territory. Tehran‘s alleged support for Shi’ite militants in Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen further contributes to the UAE’s perception of the Islamic Republic as a geostrategic threat.

As the P5+1 and Iran‘s negotiations are planned to continue in 2015, the UAE views both geopolitical risks and opportunities associated with either a successful or failed outcome. In the event that the talks fail to bring about a final agreement, all governments in the region understand the risks of a military confrontation between the U.S. and/or Israel, and Iran. Indeed, if Emirati airspace or land were to be utilized in a military strike against Iran‘s nuclear facilities, the UAE would likely face retaliation from Tehran and/or its allies in the region. Closure of the Strait of Hormuz in the aftermath of any attack on Iran would have a devastating impact on the UAE’s economy and capacity to export crude oil.

However, since 1979 the UAE has benefited from the poor state of U.S.-Iran relations in numerous ways. In recent years the economic sanctions have increased the UAE’s value to Iran as an international trade hub while providing Washington additional incentive to retain strong political and military ties with Abu Dhabi. Not lost in the equation is widespread concern within the GCC about Iranian oil returning to the international market. Thus, while the Emirati leadership officially welcomed the interim nuclear deal reached in November 2013, Abu Dhabi is concerned about the potential geopolitical implications of an ongoing thaw or eventual rapprochement in Washington and Tehran.

While the smaller GCC states have relied on Saudi Arabia—the GCC’s dominant military power—for security vis-à-vis Iran, the UAE appears determined to counter threats emanating from Iran more independently in the future. At the same time, the UAE’s rapid militarization takes place when the GCC is seeking to establish a credible and unified military command structure for all six members, in order to coordinate air, land, and marine forces, which are believed to total 100,000. While it remains to be seen how such plans will pan out in practice, such an action highlights the Council‘s interest in establishing a NATO-like military alliance capable of fending off external threats to the GCC. The UAE is wholly supportive of such collective security measures, yet the Emiratis are building up their national military so as not to have to rely on any ally in order to safeguard their country.

In 2011, when the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in sending Jezira (Peninsula) Shield forces into Bahrain to help Manama crush a Shi’ite uprising against the Sunni monarchy, a message was clearly sent to Iran that the GCC will act collectively to counter any uprising that could result in a Shi’ite victory inside the Council.

International Piracy

Since weak states such as Somalia and Yemen lack the resources to address the growing influence of pirate gangs in the western Indian Ocean and Sea of Aden, the ability of small groups of armed pirates to disrupt international shipping lanes has posed an increasing threat to many governments‘ interests.

The UAE is dependent on these waters for crude oil exports and is increasingly alarmed by rising incidents of piracy on its own vessels. As such, it has assumed a higher profile in asserting itself in fighting international pirates. Abu Dhabi has hosted several conferences and contributed financially to international anti-piracy efforts. It has also undertaken enhanced military and logistical cooperation with larger powers, such as India, that share concerns about piracy in the region.

A New Foreign Policy

The Emirati leadership has decided that despite the risks, the benefits of striking directly against international jihadist groups in Libya and Syria outweigh the risks of non-state actors lashing out in violent retaliation against the UAE or its interests abroad. The UAE is seeking to position itself at the forefront of a new dynamic in the region, in which Sunni Arab states are taking direct action against Sunni Islamist groups operating in failed or failing states.

The UAE has used its wealth to position itself as the number-two player, behind Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East‘s arms race. Having also passed legislation in July to enforce compulsory military service for Emirati males, the UAE is clearly determined to portray itself as a major regional military power. The UAE’s leadership views the threat of militant Islamist factions, and Iran‘s growing regional clout, as justification for conducting unprecedented military operations and projecting a more muscular image.

As militant reactionary groups such as AQAP, Daesh, and Fajr Libya reshape the MENA region‘s geopolitical order, and as the possibility of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement lingers, the UAE is increasingly concerned about the implications of such developments for its own stability and economic prosperity. As conflicts ensue throughout the region, the UAE is poised to remain a top arms purchaser, continue its efforts to project military power, and assert itself boldly in an unprecedented manner.

The UAE’s military is casting aside its traditional role of defending the nation‘s borders and stepping into the fire of bloody civil wars in the Maghreb and Levant. While the Emiratis will likely learn many lessons about the costs and benefits of conducting such assertive military actions abroad, other GCC states have already taken a page from the Emirati playbook, as Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have also invested heavily in their militaries in an effort to preserve their stability and security.

The UAE will continue to face the challenge of striking a balance between advancing its national interests and promoting the GCC’s collective security, while projecting military power outside of the Gulf on a selective basis. As geopolitical instability endures in the MENA region, the UAE’s approach to maintaining its security may ultimately serve as a paradigm for other Gulf states.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the book “Managing Country Risk”. Giorgio Cafiero is Co-Founder of Gulf State Analytics.