The militaries of the Gulf Cooperation Council states are now among the most advanced in the world. Although Saudi Arabia undoubtedly remains the Council’s bulwark, the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates deserve the most attention, having mushroomed in size and capacity in the past few years.
By Christopher M Davidson for ISN Insights
Since the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait from its Iraqi occupiers in 1991, the armed forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have evolved into some of the most advanced militaries in the developing world. In the near future their technological sophistication will increase even further, given an array of military-related joint ventures with some of the world’s leading manufacturers. Saudi Arabia undoubtedly remains the GCC’s military bulwark, but it is the United Arab Emirates’ armed forces which deserve the most attention, given recent and rapid growth in size and capacity.
With annual spending now amounting to several billion dollars,the UAE is one of very few non-NATO customers both able and eligible to purchase the latest western aircraft, tanks and weapons. Very recently there has also been a special emphasis on missiles and integrated defense systems, due to the UAE Armed Forces’ lack of manpower: Although it claims to have about 60,000 personnel, it is an open secret that several thousand are Arab or other expatriates.
Bridges to the West
Among recent missile acquisitions have been British-manufactured precision guided missiles specially customized for desert conditions, and similarly customized cruise missiles supplied by other multinational manufacturers. In 2008 the UAE purchased the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) manufactured by Lockheed Martin, which is capable of destroying enemy missiles in the stratosphere. Backing up this system is early warning equipment, including a US-manufactured radar facility, Boeing early warning and control aircraft and a German submarine surveillance system.
For the final line of its defense, the UAE Armed Forces have also been promised immediate support from superpower militaries, some of which have committed to dispatching rapid reaction forces in the event of a conflict. Unsurprisingly, given its history of lucrative arms deals with the UAE, France has made the most firm guarantees. For the past decade there has been some form of agreement in place, and in 2009 a French base housing 500 soldiers was established in Abu Dhabi; this despite repeated UAE rejection to host permanent foreign bases on its soil during the previous reign of Sheikh Zayed.
The US has been less forthcoming with promises, but it is widely acknowledged that US military and intelligence personnel have been stationed at Abu Dhabi’s Dhafrah airbase. After the 2005 crash of a US spy drone embarking on a mission over Afghanistan, it was revealed that its take-off base at Dhafrah had been used by the US Army Air Force since 2002. More obviously, Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port and International Airport are very heavily used by the US Navy and other US military contractors, while Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed is the US Navy’s second most used port in the Persian Gulf.
From defense strategy to active diplomacy
On a policy level, The UAE has continuously positioned itself as a wealthy and active ‘neutral’ state. Historically, it has tried to intervene in almost every regional dispute, with the UAE Armed Forces having regularly dispatched gift-bearing peacekeeping forces to troubled neighbors. The ruling families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have also frequently sought to broker peace deals in the region. This strategy has allowed the UAE to build upon its overseas aid programs by strengthening its reputation as a concerned Muslim Arab intermediary, which has undoubtedly helped to deflect public opinion away from the military’s heavy dependence on a Western superpower umbrella.
In 1992 for example, the UAE Armed Forces made its maiden intervention outside the Middle East by sending a peacekeeping force to assist US operations in Somalia. During the mid-1990s more UAE troops arrived in Somalia in addition to Rwanda and Mozambique. In 1995 the UAE Armed Forces became the first Arab military to intervene in a modern European conflict when it began to airlift wounded Muslims out of Bosnia. By 1999 it was again proactive in the Balkans, sending a force to help protect the embattled Muslim Kosovars.
In early 2003 Zayed proposed an emergency summit with the aim of diverting the US from attacking Iraq. A meeting was held in Sharm el-Sheikh and presided over by the Arab League secretary-general. Zayed was reported to have offered Iraq President Saddam Hussein and his family sanctuary in Abu Dhabi if he complied with US demands to leave Iraq. Since Sheikh Khalifa’s succession in 2004, Abu Dhabi’s actively neutral foreign policy has remained unchanged. Further, in early 2007 the UAE’s minister for foreign affairs flew to Iran to meet with that country’s leaders, and later in the year (and within the space of just one week) Khalifa separately hosted both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and US Vice President Dick Cheney, presumably with the intention of defusing the Iran-US nuclear standoff.
Since 2008 Abu Dhabi has, if anything, been an even more energetic peacekeeper and middleman. The BBC, for example, recently revealed that several hundred UAE Armed Forces’ troops and armored cars had been deployed to Afghanistan to maintain supply line security and deliver humanitarian aid. On occasion the contingent had to fend off Taliban attacks, thus making it the only Arab force in Afghanistan that actually engaged the enemy. Khalifa also followed up debt relief for Iraq by sending his minister for foreign affairs to Baghdad in 2008; the first high-ranking GCC ministerial visit since the outbreak of war. He also appointed a UAE ambassador to Iraq for the first time in five years. Combined, these actions earned Khalifa praise during UN Security Council meetings in August 2008.
Nonetheless, despite the sophistication of the UAE’s military build-up, its superpower support, and the skillful diplomacy it has engaged in, the country is still vulnerable to either an outright attack or more likely collateral damage from a proximate conventional war, especially one that would result in the blocking of key oil export arteries such as the Strait of Hormuz, or one that would endangers the waters close to the UAE’s offshore operations or the hinterland of its onshore operations.
Of these threats the greatest is undoubtedly that of Iranian aggression, which will escalate if Iran is subject to targeted attacks and Tehran retaliates by threatening to strike a pro-US Gulf state. This risk is compounded by the ongoing dispute over the three islands occupied by Iran in 1971. An accommodation had been reached shortly after the invasion, however, in the early 1990s Iran reneged on the deal as Revolutionary Guards began to demand that all UAE residents of the islands obtained Iranian entry visas. Since then, Iran has opened an airport and a town hall on the islands and has built a coastguard station and a registration office for ships and sailors. Most worryingly, in addition to conducting naval exercises close to the islands, it has been reported that Iran intends to deploy 200km range anti-ship missiles. These would be capable of closing the Strait of Hormuz indefinitely.
The UAE’s army now stands as one of the most technologically advanced in the world, fielding some of the finest Western military hardware. It does, however, still rely on a large number of expatriates, and as such its ability to defend the UAE in the event of war is questionable. For this reason, the UAE has carefully maintained several security alliances with Western powers, and numerous diplomatic efforts have been made to improve relations with nearby states. The exception is Iran, which continues to occupy UAE territory and is perceived to be the biggest threat to UAE security.
Christopher M Davidson is a fellow of the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Durham University, and a former assistant professor of Politics at Zayed University, Dubai. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)