Is the United Arab Emirates America’s Best Friend in Middle East?
As with all relationships, it’s complicated
by KEVIN KNODELL
On Jan. 29, 2017, U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens died during an ill-fated raid in Yemen. This mission also resulted in the the deaths of more than a dozen suspected terrorists and a number of civilians, including an eight-year-old American citizen.
It was a sobering reminder for many that special operations can be unpredictable and dangerous. Hunting terrorists in challenging work even for the most elite U.S. troops.
But the Americans weren’t alone. It was joint operation with commandos from the United Arab Emirates, one of America’s closest Arab allies — and one of its most important friends in the Muslim world.
With its reliable military and relatively secular attitude, Washington sees the small country as an increasingly attractive partner in an increasingly complicated region.
Pres. Donald Trump appears to already have a high opinion of the small country. Emirati officials were among those that defended Trump’s executive order banning travel for people from seven Muslim majority countries, arguing it didn’t technically target any particular religion.
Of course, Trump’s action didn’t impact Emiratis, who were exempt from its restrictions and free to travel to and from the United States. Authorities in Abu Dhabi never considered retaliatory rules targeted at the thousands of Americans who live and work in the UAE.
But the U.S.-UAE relationship has already been growing for some time. Both the Bush and Obama administrations maintained close relations with the Emirates.
In no small part to help counter Iran’s growing power in the region, since 2011, the United States has sold the UAE more than $7 billion worth of advanced military hardware. In addition, the U.S. Air Force and Army operate out of the country’s Al Dhafra and Al Minhad air bases, while the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps routinely make use of various ports.
A country with only approximately 9.4 million residents in total, every male citizen of the UAE has to serve at least a years in its small military. If you go to secondary school your term of service is only 12 months.
Women can volunteer for a nine-month stint in the military. As of 2016, there were only approximately 63,000 people in country’s entire active military.
However, the UAE’s forces are “arguably the best trained and most capable” among the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council political and economy bloc — aka the GCC — which also includes Saudi Arabia, according to the 2016 edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ The Military Balance.
With this small, but effective and professional force, many American military officials have dubbed the UAE “little Sparta.” As a result, of the Arab Gulf states, it has also been the most willing to send military forces abroad, including to participate in U.S.-led operations.
The UAE was the only GCC state to provide direct military assistance to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan after it toppled the Taliban in 2001. Other Arab nations elsewhere in the Middle East, including Jordan and Egypt, also sent troops.
For officials Abu Dhabi, this was in many ways a delicate and politically sensitive deployment. Two of the 9/11 hijackers were Emirati nationals.
On top of that, the UAE was one of the only countries in the world to diplomatically recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government — the other two were Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Being allied with the Saudis, who had played an important role in the militant group’s rise, was just another layer of complication.
During the Cold War, the Saudis aggressively pushed their brand of fundamentalist Sunni Islam to fight both communism and Iranian influence. This included supporting elements of the Afghan Mujehedeen battling against the Soviet military occupation of their country.
Saudi-funded madrassas — which preached these extreme views — were one of the few sources of education for many Afghan refugees living in squalid refugee camps in Pakistan. Many of these students would go on to make up the base of the Taliban’s fighters, who in turn benefited handsomely from connections with Gulf financiers.
While many Afghan were indeed deeply religious, not all embraced the rigid Islamist views the Arabs espoused and were often suspicious of the madrassas. During the Afghan Civil War, many Afghan Mujehedeen became members of the Northern Alliance, fighting against Taliban forces
Many Gulf leaders outside of Saudi Arabia were themselves growing concerned the ideology had spread out of control. On 9/11, those fears came to bloody fruition.
So, despite prior recognition of the Taliban, the UAE took a firm stance against Islamist groups internationally after the terrorist attacks, firmly siding with the United States. While Emirati troops initially deployed to Afghanistan in secret, they ultimately revealed themselves by giving the BBC an exclusive report.
Then, in 2011, the Emiratis joined the U.S. led-intervention to support Libyan rebels in their war to overthrow dictator Muamar Ghaddafi. Many Libyans had hoped for democracy, but the initial optimism gave way to more war and instability.
The UAE stayed heavily involved. Rivalry between the UAE and fellow Gulf power Qatar — which had also sent warplanes to back Ghaddafi’s overthrow — played a huge role in the unraveling of Libya.
After the Libya Dawn coalition lost power in parliamentary elections in 2014, Qatar backed the Islamist faction as it tried to retake control of the capital, Tripoli. UAE-backed forces fought back.
Since then, the UAE — with the apparent help of American mercenaries — has been backing Gen. Khalifa Haftar, one those vying for power, and his regime in Tobruk. In February 2017, the Emiratis were reportedly considering sending additional fighter jets to finally turn the tide in Haftar’s favor.
In Yemen, in 2016, the United States and the UAE teamed up yet again. The country, which lies at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, had been spent much of its modern history lurching from one violent crisis to another.
U.S. commandos and spies had been incredibly active in Yemen for years, possibly already in partnership with Emirati forces. Throughout Obama’s presidency, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency launched dozens of controversial drone and manned airstrikes in the country against members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In 2011, one of these aerial attacks infamously killed the group’s senior spokesman and American citizen Anwar Al Awlaki. It was his young daughter who died in the January 2017 mission.
In September 2014, Yemen descended into a new civil war after Houthi rebels, a Shia group from the Northern Yemen, stormed the capital Sana’a and seized government ministries. This drove internationally recognized Pres. Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi into hiding and ultimately to Saudi Arabia.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia, fearing the Houthis might lead to a rise of Iranian influence in the region, assembled a coalition — which included the UAE — to beat the group back. While the United States provided logistical and intelligence support, American forces tried to stay on the periphery.
The war quickly became bloody and confusing, with numerous allegations of atrocities by Saudi-led forces, including attacks on hospitals. Unable to gather support from traditional allies such as Egypt and Pakistan, authorities in Riyadh turned to less conventional partners. One of those was the Sudanese military, which the United Nations has accused of possible genocide in their home country.
The brutal fighting disrupted American operation in Yemen against Al Qaeda. Then, in April 2016, details emerged about a UAE plan to make a major push against Al Qaeda with U.S. troops returning to assist.
The next month, the Pentagon confirmed a small number of American special operators were working with Emirati commandos. In June 2016, the UAE announced it would be disengaging from the fight against the Houthis completely.
The Saudis have mostly focused their public statements about the war around combating Iranian influence and restoring the internationally recognized government, but talked relatively little about Sunni militant groups. Only the UAE has talked much about battling Sunni Islamists and was among the few coalition members to actively hunt Al Qaeda and Islamic State cells in the country.
Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s junior minister for foreign affairs, declared the “war is over for our troops.” But officials stressed troops would stay in the country for “counter-terrorism” operations — such as the raid against Al Qaeda’s regional branch.
The decision once again highlighted the growing U.S.-UAE partnership. While officials in Washington initially described the mission as a short term endeavor, the Pentagon was calling it an “indefinite” military engagement by the end of 2016.
The situation is complex, but in many ways that’s why the UAE is a good fit in Washington’s eyes. Emiratis cooperate with a variety of Yemeni paramilitary groups in the southern regions — though the American operators cooperate exclusively with UAE forces.
Among the many players are separatists who see the UAE as potential allies. According to Vice News, the UAE has quietly developed a plan for Southern independence — something the Saudis won’t necessarily support.
If the Saudi coalition were to successfully quash the Houthi uprising, it could be trading one civil war for another — one that pits the Saudi-backed government against Emirati-backed separatists.
But it’s not just military cooperation that makes America’s relations with the Emiratis important. The UAE is an important trading partner and diplomatic resource in a region — and throughout the ever more connected world — where the United States needs Muslim allies.
Gulf neighbors such as the Saudis and Qatar face increasing criticism — and have suffered bloody consequences — for their financial and material support for Islamist groups around the world, their poor human rights records and societal repression of women. Meanwhile the UAE has cultivated a reputation as a moderate Muslim country that stands up to Islamists.
This was already on display in Afghanistan, where Emirati troops didn’t conduct offensive operations or raids. Instead, they patrolled and did outreach to locals in support of the American-led coalition.
Troops from the UAE were able to forge relationships with local religious leaders in ways most western troops simply couldn’t, praying and reading the Koran with them. They also helped facilitate the construction humanitarian projects, as well as economic development, much of which were financed by their government.
Emirati commandos worked closely with coalition special operations troops, providing this cultural support. They were on the front line of the ideological struggle trying to address the roots of radicalism — and offering an alternative to historic Arab partners.
Even after foreign-led combat operations slowed down, the UAE continued to be deeply involved in Afghanistan’s economic development, providing vital investment and aid. In January 2017, five Emirati diplomats died in a bloody attack, for which the Taliban has tried — unconvincingly — to deny it was responsible.
This level of global consciousness continued when the UAE joined the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State. When the country first began bombing the terrorist group in Syria, news emerged that Maj. Mariam Al Mansuri — the UAE’s first female fighter pilot — was leading several of the strikes.
She became an unlikely feminist icon. That allowed the Emirates to further distinguish themselves from other conservative Gulf States, which had a reputation for funding terrorism as much as fighting it.
Of course, none of this makes the UAE’s relationship with its fellow Gulf States, regional neighbors or the United States less complex. The same goes for its role fighting terrorism.
While the UAE is an economic powerhouse in the Gulf, its wealth is based on a mix of oil money and international trade through its bustling ports and financial institutions. And it’s an incredibly young country.
It gained independence from Great Britain in 1971. Seven Emirates ruled by powerful families make up the country.
The UAE — particularly the Dubai emirate — is known throughout the world for its skyscrapers and luxurious hotels and is a popular destination for westerners for both work and leisure. Many American companies and entrepreneurs take advantage of the country’s business friendly policies.
Foreigners are welcome, even Christians and their churches.
All this rapid development led the Emiratis to bring in millions of laborers and specialists from other countries. Less than 20 percent of the 9.4 million people living in the UAE are actually citizens.
They come from all corners of the world, including rough parts of the world where UAE forces have fought. Work sites and marketplaces bustle with Pakistanis, Afghans, Yemenis, Libyans and Somalis — many of them fleeing war as much as looking for work.
Despite the UAE’s hostility to Iran, Iranian businessmen, laborers and tourists are also common in the country. Today there’s an international wave of fear and uncertainty surrounding refugees and the notion of mixing cultures.
But in the UAE, a veritable cocktail of different cultures and nearly constant movement of people, violence is incredibly rare — there has never been a terrorist attack and street crime is a rarity.
According to Emirati officials, about 123,000 Syrians have relocated to the UAE since the conflict began. They joined the 115,000 Syrians already living and working in the country.
The UAE is rarely listed among countries accepting refugees since it didn’t officially admit these Syrians as refugees, but rather as any other foreigner who’ve come to work. However, it’s not all smiles.
In 2012, Emirati officials questioned hundreds of Syrians after a peaceful rally outside the Syrian consulate in Dubai protesting the regime of Bashar Al Assad. According to Human Rights Watch, the government subsequently revoked the residency permits of 50 Syrians.
The UAE, while relatively progressive, is not democratic. Despite some initiatives to improve human rights conditions — for instance, Dubai’s police force was the first Arab law enforcement agency to open a human rights department — it’s a place that can still be incredibly harsh for those who step out of line.
In particular, the UAE’s labor practices face intense international scrutiny. During the 2016 U.S. election, Trump was briefly ensnared in this debate.
The Trump Organization is no stranger to business in the Arab Gulf, lending the president’s name to two golf clubs in the country. Billionaire Hussain Sajwani, one of Trump’s longtime business partners, is developing the properties.
Both men were accused of subjecting workers to horrendous conditions while building the clubs. However, in a statement responding to the allegations, the Trump Organization argued the man himself had only licensed his name to the project and that he was firmly against labor abuse.
The story of Trump’s Golf Clubs is hardly unique. Many western businesses and organizations have faced criticism for working with shady contractors.
Though lax regulations on the private sector have meant high profits and growth for many businesses, some companies face accusations of turning workers into de facto slave laborers. Many migrant workers live in squalid company owned housing or camps in the desert.
Fees from job placement agencies and low pay keep some of them in a cycle of debt that makes it nearly impossible to go home. Some observers have seen these conditions as laying a foundation for possible radicalization.
Some Emiratis — particularly younger ones — are open to the notion of labor reform and improving work conditions. But many of the country’s elites fear labor activism could lead to revolts — revolts that could spread and lead to a wider political crisis.
So, as they promoted a vision of moderate, secular stability, Emirati officials hired American private military contractor Erik Prince — who advised the Trump transition team on intelligence — to put together a force of hired guns to augment the country’s local security forces.
Along with Islamist terrorism, squashing labor camps uprisings was a possible scenario for Prince’s men to deal with. Though he denied it, local sources told War Is Boring the long-time mercenary and former Navy SEAL was also connected to the UAE’s contract airstrikes in Libya.
The concern with labor activism and radicalism was on the mind of Emirati leaders well before the 2011 Arab Spring, which introduced a new set of controversies. Inspired by Arab activists around the region, some in the UAE became more outspoken about democratic reform.
In 2011, authorities jailed five Emirati nationals, who became known as the “UAE Five,” on charges of insulting President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The office of President Khalifa quickly pardoned the group, but refused to explained its reasoning to reporters.
The UAE Five were Nasser bin Ghaith, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Paris-Sorbonne University, engineer Ahmed Mansoor — who signed a pro-democracy petition — and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq.
Bin Ghaith told reporters that while he was glad to be free the trial was “a sad moment for our homeland, a beginning of a police state that has tarnished the image of the UAE forever.” Mansoor has continued to speak out about government surveillance since his release.
In a similar crackdown in 2014, the UAE shackled and deported Arab Spring activist Iyad El Baghdadi, a Palestinian born in the country. He now lives in exile in Norway where he continues to advocate for democratic reform in the region.
However, despite these abuses, they’re still far cry from the widespread slaughter and torture activists have faced in many other countries — including both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
What the future will hold for the UAE, its various military campaigns around the world and its cooperation with its American counterparts isn’t entirely clear. For the United States, the fallout over the raid in Yemen has already been deeply controversial.
In February 2017, reports emerged that the Yemeni government, upset over the deaths of civilians during the operation, had withdrawn its permission for U.S. forces to operate in the country. The Pentagon denied its small contingent of elite troops had left the country.
However, what does seem clear is that the United States intends to work closely with the UAE as both countries try to assert their influence in the Middle East and beyond. But when it comes to terrorism, fighting ideologies is complicated and it doesn’t happen overnight.
The Emiratis and their friends in Washington need only look to the Saudi experience of using Islamism to fight communism to see that ideological battles can easily produce new, unintended consequences.