The United Arab Emirates Bulks Up on American Weapons
Abu Dhabi’s prince wants more hardware
On April 20, a representative of one of America’s strongest Middle East allies met with Pres. Barack Obama at the White House.
The purpose of the meeting was straightforward. Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan — the crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the deputy supreme leader of the United Arab Emirates’ Union Defense Force — wants more weapons for his military.
The two met for an hour and dealt with a packed agenda. The UDF is currently a member of the American-led coalition launching air strikes in Syria and the Saudi-led effort against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“The leaders discussed the ongoing need for expedited provision of essential military equipment and supplies to the UAE,” a White House spokesperson told Reuters.
The UAE is a key ally for the United States in the Persian Gulf. The two countries share intelligence and cooperate on counter-terrorism and military operations both in the Middle East and beyond.
It’s a complex relationship fueled by oil money, the UAE’s relentless quest to maintain political stability and Washington’s need for Muslim allies to help fight Islamic State and counter Iran.
The UAE is one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Its skyscrapers and luxurious hotels earn the awe of admirers — and the scorn of those who consider the Emiratis decadent.
Wary of militant groups and Iranian influence, Emirati rulers have invested heavily in defense to protect their kingdom.
In 2000, the UAE spent $2.6 billion on its military forces. In 2015, that number is now close to $16 billion.
Countering an aggressive Iran prompted much of the increased defense spending. In 2011 when tensions between the UAE and Tehran flared over the Strait of Hormuz, Emirati leaders announced they would buy $3.48 billion worth of American missile defense systems.
In 2013, the UAE requested a possible $4 billion purchase of 5,000 Small Diameter Bombs — which the country’s fighter jets can lob from long distance. The proposed sale also included 1,200 AGM-154C guided bombs and 300 AGM-84H air-launched cruise missiles.
The U.S. government wants to sell unarmed Predator surveillance drones to the UAE. Congress must clear the sale before it’s authorized.
The most active arm of the UDF is its air force. Emirati pilots fly a mix of formidable Apache helicopters, F-16E/F fighters and French Mirage 2000s. Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri — the UAE’s first female fighter pilot — became a celebrity when the media revealed she led missions into Syria during the summer of 2014.
But the mission in Syria isn’t the first time Emirati pilots have supported U.S.-led operations. They also flew missions during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. More recently, the Emiratis backed NATO’s intervention during the 2011 Libyan civil war. One Emirati F-16E even took damage during a combat mission.
The UAE is unique. It’s the only Gulf State to have directly contributed ground troops alongside U.S. forces since 9/11.
A handful of UDF troops went to Somalia as part of the U.N. peacekeeping force during the ’90s. Later that decade, Emirati soldiers deployed as members of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
In 2003, the UDF sent troops to Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But this was only as a good-will gesture, and the UAE never sent any troops into Iraq.
But UDF troops eventually did deploy to Afghanistan in secret, assisting NATO efforts to rebuild and secure the country from Taliban insurgents.
The Emiratis didn’t take part in offensive operations — no raids, assaults or strikes on high-value targets. Instead, they focused on patrols and interacting with local Afghans. They also provided security for UAE-financed projects such as schools, hospitals and mosques.
Unlike most other coalition troops, the UDF shared a culture with the Afghans. The UDF soldiers discussed the Quran and prayed with locals.
But it wasn’t all handshakes and goodwill. Emirati commandos often worked closely with American special operations forces and helped train Afghans to fight the Taliban and other militants.
Many of the Arab troops deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan’s southern Pashtun heartland. That’s deep in Taliban country. Emirati soldiers took fire from the militants and fired back in kind.
UDF soldiers dealt with bombings, ambushes and snipers — mostly in secret until they invited the BBC to embed with them in 2008. If the world was going to learn what they were doing out there, the UAE’s leaders wanted it to be on their terms.
In recent years, the UAE has sought to reduce its dependence on foreign arms by bolstering its own defense industry. In 2007, the UAE unveiled the Caracal pistol — the first small arm ever produced in the country — at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi.
The Caracal became the UDF’s standard issue sidearm, and Bahrain quickly adopted it, too.
The Emiratis want to build their own weapons plants, but they’re still enthusiastic about foreign arms and expertise. In 2009, France opened a small military base in Port Zayed at the UAE’s invitation.
Paris and Abu Dhabi celebrated the increased security cooperation. But other foreign security activities have been much quieter.
In 2010, controversial Blackwater founder Erik Prince moved to Abu Dhabi. He helped oversee the creation of a secret army of Colombian and South African mercenaries to augment the UAE’s forces. Several private military companies do business in the Emirates, taking advantage of the country’s lax business regulations.
The UAE is a young country. It gained independence from Great Britain in 1971. Seven Emirates — sheikdoms ruled by powerful families headed by Emirs—comprise the country. The most powerful is the Abu Dhabi Emirate.
Oil exports are the base of Abu Dhabi’s wealth, but the UAE’s influence and power stems from far more than just oil. The neighboring Dubai Emirate — famous for its luxurious hotels, skyscrapers, man-made islands and wild nightlife — has no oil whatsoever.
Dubai’s wealth comes from its ports and its financial institutions — it’s an international trading hub.
Much like Qatar and Kuwait, the country has brought in a host of foreign specialists and laborers to build infrastructure and manage its books. Native Emiratis today are vastly outnumbered — only 19 percent of the 9.4 million people living in the UAE are citizens.
This extends to the military to some degree. Foreigners once made up a surprising percent of the UDF’s soldiers. At the time of independence, it was largely Omani and had some British officers.
Efforts to “Emiratize” the military have changed the composition of the armed forces over time. Today, almost all its pilots are Emirati nationals — but many trainers and support personnel are still foreigners.
Maintaining order in the Emirates is a delicate task. Many of its residents came not just for work, but to escape war and oppression.
Laborers, merchants and students from places such as Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other embattled nations are common. There’s even a large number of Iranian residents and businesses.
In 2010, War Is Boring spoke to an Afghan shop attendant in Dubai named Abdul. He said he’d fought against the Taliban alongside American troops as a member of the Afghan army until he got shot in the leg during an operation. Several of his fellow Afghan coworkers worked with the coalition.
Though Abdul appreciated the UAE’s security, he said he disliked the displays of wealth and opulence — and he joked about the Emiratis’ expensive sunglasses and fancy cars.
“Here if they see me dressed like this, they see me as nothing,” he said, referring to his traditional Afghan clothes.
Though relatively progressive among the Gulf States, the UAE is not a free, democratic society. And its leaders don’t plan on changing that.
Though Emirati warplanes backed NATO strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, many Emirati elites watched the Arab Spring and pro-democratic uprisings with suspicion and scorn.
In 2012 UAE security officials questioned hundreds of Syrian nationals after a peaceful anti-Assad rally outside the Syrian consulate in Dubai. According to Human Rights Watch, the government subsequently revoked the residency permits of 50 Syrians.
Despite efforts to improve human rights conditions — the Dubai Police Force was the first Arab law enforcement agency to open a human rights department — there’s still room for improvement. In particular, UAE labor practices face intense international scrutiny.
Though permissive regulations on private enterprise have meant high profits and growth for many businesses, some UAE-based companies face accusations of turning workers into de facto slave laborers.
Job placement agencies take huge fees from migrant workers, putting them into an endless cycle of debt. Some companies seize workers’ passports, making it impossible to leave.
Seizing passports is illegal under Emirati law. But so is forming unions.
Recently, New York University agreed to reimburse laborers shortchanged during the construction of a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. The scandal caused an uproar in both the U.S. and the UAE.
UAE officials barred entry to New York University professor Andrew Ross, a vocal critic of the treatment of migrant laborers in the Gulf nation. Though some Emirati are sympathetic to labor reform, many elites fear that labor activism could lead to revolts — which could threaten the security the Emiratis have worked so hard to maintain.
The UAE is growing and changing quickly, but it’s still very much a land of tradition. Its leaders are protective of their honor … and their interests.
Iranian influence in Yemen and extremists in Syria threaten those interests. And the UAE will find any partners — and spend whatever it needs — to contain those threats.