The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The UAE's global ambitions post-Libya

This post was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.

It is a dot on a map dwarfed by its neighbors, but it is also an influential and stable country in a rough neighborhood. The United Arab Emirates is an increasingly sought-after ally, one with an ambitious foreign policy that it can finance with its rich resources. 

Do not underestimate the power of a small state, said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. The UAE (and Qatar) is saying we “are determined, ready to play an unusual leading role in events…We are daring enough. We have the capacity, the ability and the desire to play a bigger role,” he said. 

The UAE sent a dozen aircrafts to support the no-fly zone over Libya and the country was arguably (along with Qatar) one of the biggest contributors on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts. Now as the NATO campaign is winding down, the Emirates’ contributions to Libya will “continue and become much more prominent in the post-Gaddafi era,” Abdullah said.

But Libya is just one of the many arenas in which the UAE is currently operating. For the past eight years, the UAE Armed Forces have been in Afghanistan — the only military force from an Arab country. (Previously, the Emirates assisted with peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Kosovo.)

“The US, UK, France, see in the UAE an Arab state that thinks strategically, and one with which they can cooperate,” said John Chipman, director general and chief executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The contribution of UAE Special Forces to the operation in Afghanistan and of air assets to the coalition effort in Libya demonstrated that the UAE had no strategic aversion to direct cooperation with Western militaries when strategic perspectives and aims were aligned,” he added. “This case by case, but unemotional, strategic cooperation is likely to continue.”

In 2011, the UAE  attempted, with the help of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council, to mediate an exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. More controversially, it sent 500 police officers to Bahrain, where a Shiite uprising was brutally repressed by the government. Bahrain and Oman were also given $20 billion by the GCC to help stabilize themselves and the UAE offered a $3 billion aid package to Egypt’s new government.  The Emirates is engaging further with Jordan and Morocco, welcoming the monarchies’ requests to join the GCC. It’s been a busy year.

And a UAE (GCC) decision on Syria also awaits. “The Gulf would have loved to see an evolution, not revolution in most of these countries because they understand with whom they are dealing currently. It is the unknown that makes them concerned,” said Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman of the Gulf Research Center.  Syria is a “wait-and-see-policy…The UAE has decided in Syria not to take a strong position.” NATO involvement in the country is not seen as an option for the Gulf states. “Our best bet is to bank on a military division in Syria… It is the only answer in Syria,” Sager added. 

The Emirates is also focused on building fighting forces. According to the New York Times, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan hired Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Worldwide (now Xe), to create an 800-member mercenary special operations battalion to protect its interests. Prince has allegedly worked with the Emirati government before, including training Somalis to fight pirates with the help of a hired South African force, the NYT reported:

Mr. Prince, who resettled here last year after his security business faced mounting legal problems in the United States, was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the U.A.E., according to former employees on the project, American officials and corporate documents obtained by The New York Times


Mr. Prince’s exploits, both real and rumored, are the subject of fevered discussions in the private security world. He has worked with the Emirati government on various ventures in the past year, including an operation using South African mercenaries to train Somalis to fight pirates. There was talk, too, that he was hatching a scheme last year to cap the Icelandic volcano then spewing ash across Northern Europe.

The UAE said it uses international contractors including Spectre, Horizon, and R2 (alleged to be Prince’s new company) for planning, training, development and operational support. There are more than 40,000 Emirati personnel, in what the Emirates describes as “robust military capability…at a high state of readiness” — although it appears to be hedging its bets, which the NYT suggests explains the need for Erik Prince’s services outside the normal armed forces:

The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labor camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year.

The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, like his late father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan,”has been a very keen observer of the security situation worldwide,” said retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, who served as US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs from 2008 to 2009. “He has developed one of the most capable militaries in the regions. Small but capable.” There are significant challenges in the Emirates’ backyard, primarily Iran, and the UAE has gone “out of its way to buy significant capability for (its) own internal defense and internal protection,” Kimmitt said.

Arms imported to the UAE, whose biggest supplier is the US, have increased significantly in the last decade, according to [Stockholm International Peace Research Institute]( ). UAE military expenditure accounted for more than 7 percent of GDP in 2009, compared to 4.7 percent in the US and 4.3 percent in Russia. For a state with less than one million nationals, the UAE has — by any standard — a lot of defense equipment (which no doubt endears it to defense contractors and their lobbyists).

The threat of Iran has not disappeared. “Sometimes by having advanced equipment and having an advanced military system you try to send…a message…that I have strong alliances with other countries that will be willing to step in should I need them to…a deterrent,” Sager said. The UAE “is saying that we are not that weak although we are a small nation.” Iran is using very strong and hostile language and the UAE is quite concerned about their neighborhood, Sager added. The UAE's concern with Iran was highlighted in a Wikileaks-released State Department cable last year, quoting Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) as backing "action" against Iran:

In a March 27 meeting with CENTCOM Commander General Abizaid, MbZ spoke about the Iranian threat with a greater sense of urgency. He was strongly in favor of taking action against Iran and its president sooner rather than later. "I believe this guy is going to take us to war. ... It's a matter of time," MbZ warned, adding that action against Iran and President Ahmedinejad should be taken this year or next year. MbZ said he was unwilling to wait much longer. "Personally, I cannot risk it with a guy like Ahmedinejad. He is young and aggressive."

“Strategically, Iran is a rival, and as a practical matter, an occupier (of three islands), from Abu Dhabi’s perspective,” Chipman said. “In the increasingly sectarian prism by which regional politics are understood, the UAE goal is to constrain Iran, whether in Iraq, or potentially in Bahrain, from exerting a malign influence,” he said. “A challenge for the future is whether the UAE, having not had to convince the West about Iran, will be able to shape the attitudes of Asian powers engaging in the Gulf, and move them closer to its understanding of the Iranian challenge.”

Due to the regional Arab unrest, a great deal of attention is on the UAE and its western allies, but the Emirates is also strengthening ties with Asia and the developing world — including India, Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa.  The stability of the Gulf region has always been paramount, but the UAE is moving into a post-Zayed era, Abdullah said. “The post-Zayed foreign policy, the post-Zayed domestic policy… we are having such diversified and huge interest all over.” These interests include international trade, energy diversification and humanitarian aid. 

India and China are the UAE’s top commercial partners, accounting for the bulk of the UAE’s non-oil trade. The UAE is also going nuclear, awarding South Korea a nuclear power deal to build and operate reactors for the Emirates. The deal is worth $20 billion and South Korea beat US-Japan and French bids.  “The deal with Korea on nuclear power plants essentially imports Korea into the Gulf as a strategic actor,” Chipman said. Links with Australia and Japan are important, and the Emirates’ relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations states and China will grow in prominence, he added.

Humanitarian donations have also increased. In the last 35 years the country has given more than $70 billion to development projects in nearly 100 countries, according to the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among the most recent recipients is Afghanistan, which was offered a grant of $250 million for reconstruction projects. Victims of drought and violence in Somalia were given 600 tons of relief and medical supplies. Tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinian refugees were fed throughout Ramadan, thanks to the UAE. An end benefit of these humanitarian missions is soft power. 

The UAE, fully aware that alliances in the mideast can be short lived, is rapidly diversifying its strategic partners and international interests. By doing so, the Emirates’ presence on the international stage is effectively competing on all fronts with much larger and older states — as it endeavors to make the leap from a regional to global power.