Little Sparta’s Big Ambitions: The Emirati Military Comes of Age
The United Arab Emirates provides a 21st century case-study in how to build a national defense capability. Boasting a population of just under 10 million, the Emirates fields an air force, navy, and army composed of over 60,000 uniformed members with a higher per-capita service rate than the United States. Its leaders study at prestigious academies around the world and foreign advisors provide advice, counseling, and technical knowledge. Dubbed “Little Sparta” by former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, its growing military presence in the Middle East and Africa are the result of years of dedicated investment and demonstrate ambitions surpassing the federation’s short history.
The United Arab Emirates, along with other Gulf states such as Qatar and Bahrain, maintained close ties with the United Kingdom and the Royal Navy for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The small city-states remained largely independent and relied on London to settle both internal and external disputes. The origins of the Emirates’ military date back only 70 years to the establishment of the Trucial Oman Scouts in 1951. Modeled after Jordan’s Arab Legion, the scouts were a joint organization between the U.K. and Abu Dhabi and became the Abu Dhabi Defence Force in 1965. Three years later, London announced its impending re-location of military forces from the Arabian Gulf, and in 1972 seven different Sheikhdoms became the United Arab Emirates.
The modern Emirati services were formed in May 1976. That year the constitution of theUnited Arab Emirates changed to award the federal government the singular right to levy forces and purchase weapons, and the Sheikdoms’ various individual militias merged to form one federal military. Despite legal and organizational change, some rulers took great pride in their armed forces as symbols of state sovereignty and viewed the federalization as Abu Dhabi flexing its strength. The individual forces retained their autonomy as regional commands and the national force existed in name only. Two decades later, Dubai disbanded its military and the disparate regional commands merged to form the General Headquarters in Abu Dhabi. The national service now faces no internal competitive rivals from any individual city-state, but some sheikhdoms still maintain small units for individual purposes.
Foundations of the Modern Emirati Armed Forces
In 1991, the Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed initiated an arms buildup after Iraq invaded Kuwait. In recent decades, Emirati arms deals with the U.S. have soared alongside Zayed’s influence in Washington. Billions of dollars in acquisitions from Washington include F-16s, Apache helicopters, radar equipment, and mobile-rocket systems. Total Emirati defense spending reached $13.9 billion in 2018 and will reach $16.4 billion in 2019. Emirati total arms spending only trails Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.
Shared regional concerns such as terror groups, Iran, and the Islamic State provide ample opportunities for the U.S. and the Emirates to work together. The robust presence of American forces in the sheikdom—about 5,000 U.S. personnel and advanced aircraft like the F-22 operate from the United Arab Emirates—bolsters the relationship. The Emirati air force has been instrumental supporting the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, where Emirati sorties were second only to the U.S. These missions, in addition to years of cooperation in Afghanistan, provide the foundation for what former U.S. Central Command leader Anthony Zinni calls, “the strongest relationship that the United States has in the Arab world today.”
The United Arab Emirates is bolstering its domestic industrial and manpower capabilities to support these operations. The 2019 International Defence Exhibition arms show in Abu Dhabi showcased domestically constructed armored vehicles and light attack aircraft, as well as to the announcement of $5.4 billion worth of government purchases. Government defense development funds, awards and investments in local firms, and prizes for academic advancements related to the military are all part of the plan to boost defense-industrial capacity.
The United Arab Emirates initiated universal male conscription 2014 to build national cohesion and boost available manpower. Some commentators argue that military conscription is a tool to build nationalism and reduce the influence of Islamist groups amongst citizens from the northern emirates which are more populated than Abu Dhabi, yet financially dependent on the capital.
In this sense, conscription is very much used as both a nation-building and manpower-boosting tool. Such a measure fits with ongoing government-led initiatives emphasizing national oneness. The program makes sense for a natural resource-rich Gulf State lacking a large population into which the military can place its most advanced equipment. Though outsourcing attracts advisors such as the former head of Australia’s special forces and an uncertain number of contracted soldiers and specialists, the quintessential ‘citizen-soldier’ is a prerequisite for leadership of the institution.
Robust Operational Experience
Emirati troops have deployed in support of U.S.-led missions since Somalia in 1992. Recent Emirati operations include over a decade of support to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, the 2011 intervention in Bahrain alongside Saudi Arabia, airstrikes and counter-insurgency operations in north Africa, and four years of fighting and stability operations in Yemen. The Emirati force has come of age in Yemen, demonstrating advanced offensive and special warfare capabilities. In 2015, the United Arab Emirates captured the port city of Aden with support from both Saudi and Egyptian troops. 1,500 Saudi- and Emirati-trained Yemeni troops supported the attack and captured nearby airfields and bases. The next year, 12,000 Yemeni troops trained and supported by the Emirates forced Al Qaeda out of Mukalla along Yemen’s southern coast. In 2018, the United Arab Emirates helped capture Hodeidah as part of an Arab Coalition alongside Yemeni troops they trained in Africa.
The United Arab Emirates demonstrated a keen ability for establishing local partners and operating through proxy forces in Yemen while learning difficult lessons in stability and counterterrorism operations. Their operational successes have been far from flawless. U.S. officials and the Associated Press allege Emirati victories in southern Yemen occurred due to bribery of and payment to Al Qaeda leaders. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have detailed the use of secret prisons run by Emirati and local forces to maintain order and punish dissenters. Offshore from Yemen, Emirati forces occupied Socotra Island in the Red Sea, a strategic location in the Gulf of Aden. An expansion on the island could have given Abu Dhabi significant control over a tightly contested sea-route. In 2018, however, Saudi Arabia brokered a deal for the United Arab Emirates to remove the majority of its combat forces from the island which appears to have been honored.
The United Arab Emirates demonstrates a multipronged approach to foreign policy in the region by combining military, financial, and diplomatic pressure to gain physical access. Somalia, for example, has been a battleground between the Emirati and its Saudi allies against Qatar and Turkey as part of the ongoing Gulf crisis. Qatar and Turkey back the government in Mogadishu while the Emiratis support the independent governments of the semi-autonomous states. Principally, Qatar and Turkey tend to support the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist leaders while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view these forces as destabilizing and sources of terrorism. In Somaliland, viewed as “a gateway to the 100 [million] people of one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, Ethiopia,” the Emirates signed 25-year leases for air and naval bases. In Puntland, the southern region, the Emirates backs the Maritime Police Forces and some reports indicate the presence of an Emirati military base.
After relations worsened between the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti in 2015, government leaders signed an agreement to use Eritrea’s Assab port to support its Yemen operations. Assab has been a staging location for aviation, maritime patrol, surveillance, and combat operations. This “web of bases” is an important force projection tool around the Gulf region. Emirati forces also employ the bases for training African or Yemeni troops for operations locally and abroad.
Emirati military action does not stop around the Arabian Peninsula. The United Arab Emirates, in concert with Egypt, are robust supporters of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, the opposition leader fighting against the country’s internationally recognized government. Abu Dhabi previously offered to provide anti-aircraft missiles and artillery to Haftar. In July, American anti-tank missiles were found at an arms cache in Libya, but the Emirates denies it was the source of the weapons. Additionally, Emirati troops are likely gaining experience with armed unmanned aerial vehicles through the use of Chinese-made drones. Further north in the Mediterranean, the Emirati air force conducts joint exercises with Israel despite official non-recognition between the two governments.
The United Arab Emirates played a large role in the ousting of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. It helped establish a transitional government in the small nation and trained 14,000 Sudanese troops which later joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Both Qatar and the Emirates previously sent billions of dollars to Sudan as financial aid to gain favor with the government. When protests were on the verge of ousting Bashir, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi offered $3 billion to the military transitional council. It appears, at least for the time being, United Arab Emirates’ influence has won the day with limited need for military action.
Recent announcements of large scale redeployments from Yemen indicate a range of possibilities with regards to the Emirates’ actual motivation. Many observers believe the redeployments will help the Emirates position its forces better in the Gulf to counteract Iran’s aggression. If true, this motive could indicate a cohesive strategy between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to balance activities between Iran and Yemen. Abu Dhabi’s decision could also indicate a division between Saudi and Emirati policies, an impressive display of Emirati restraint, and leave Saudi Arabia isolated in Yemen. After four years of fighting, military leaders may believe their strategic goals of port-security and the defeat of Al Qaeda in Yemen are accomplished. This view of limited-objective warfare would fit comfortably with the United Arab Emirates’ contemporary history of training local forces, acting through intermediaries, and coastal control of select locations.
Emirati officials argue they have trained 90,000 local soldiers to support the UN-backed cease-fire as they withdraw. Alternatively, the Emirati withdrawal may be “a belated recognition that a grinding war that has killed thousands of civilians and turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster is no longer winnable.” The move could also be intended to bolster the image of the United Arab Emirates in the U.S. and distance itself from Saudi Arabia amid the increasing scrutiny which lawmakers are placing on weapons deals with Riyadh. Exact remain-behind numbers are unknown, but the Emirates will maintain at least its Mukalla facilities to continue conducting counterterrorism operations.
The previous decade demonstrates the willingness and ability of the United Arab Emirates to use military force to combat threats—actual or perceived—away from national shores. With willing partners and local militaries, the Emirates likely sees its operations as stabilizing for the Gulf region closer to home and a demonstration of national strength abroad. The national government views military expeditions and regional activities as positive measures at home. Conscription and military service aim to build national cohesion, while port expansion along the Red Sea and African coast can boost military and economic growth while counteracting rival construction at locations such as Duqm.
The Emirates’ actions are not without criticism, and their involvement in wars such as Yemen face much of the same criticism as does Saudi Arabia and the United States. However, the United Arab Emirates has aptly demonstrated its ability to use diplomacy, financial aid, and military force to further its interests in the region. More remarkably, it has demonstrated this ability as a relatively young state with a young military. Its domestic defense capabilities show promise for self-reliance and sustainability. Its proximity to and disputes with Iran, along with recent maritime incidents, only reinforces the need for capable military forces available and ready to operate. The disappearance of a Emirates-based oil tanker, multiple attacks on vessels near the Strait of Hormuz, and growing tensions with Iran recalls decades of territorial disputes between the state and Iran. Little Sparta’s neighborhood is just as compressed and tense as was ancient Greece, and Abu Dhabi is positioning itself for more conflict and greater security responsibilities.
Christian Heller is an officer in the United States Marine Corps. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
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