Since his rise to head of state, Sheikh Khalifa has increased the military capabilities of the United Arab Emirates by acquiring more weapons from western nations and investing heavily in the training of Emirati soldiers, propelling the UAE military to its status as the most powerful in the Arab world. As argued in last week’s article, Sheikh Khalifa started building up the military to bolster national pride after the death of his father, Sheikh Zayed, in 2004. That year, the UAE received its first of 80 F-16E/F Desert Falcon combat aircraft as part of a $6.4 billion contract with the United States. Heavy military spending continued during the following decade, as the UAE acquired Apache helicopters, F-16 fighters, armored vehicles, and a range of missiles and munitions. Yet since the regional rise of Islamist movements—both militant and mainstream—the country’s military procurement strategy is shifting to confront these groups both militarily and ideologically. The military acquisition budget has increased dramatically in order to fund the new expansion, doubling from $1.4 billion in 2009 to $3.13 billion in 2015. There are no signs of a slowdown, as evidenced by current talks regarding Emirati purchases of Predator drones, F-35 fighter jets, and more sophisticated missile defense systems.
Yet increasing the UAE’s military strength is aimed at more than simply protecting the country from traditional opponents. By promoting a form of nationalism based on military prowess, Sheikh Khalifa seeks to weaken competing ideologies, such as Islamism.1 To ensure the success of this strategy, the military must be worthy of public adoration. This means having state-of-the-art equipment along with the knowledge and training necessary to employ it. Here, too, the UAE has spared no expense, turning to foreign firms to provide comprehensive training for troops and expand the capabilities of its armed forces. The royal family hired Knowledge International, a U.S.-based firm, to assess and improve Emirati military capabilities. Knowledge International brought in 125 retired U.S. Army officers to assist in training Emirati forces. Knowledge International’s assessment concluded that the largest weakness in the Emirati military was a lack of human capital. To correct this issue, the UAE, like other small nations, hired a mercenary force. Abu Dhabi’s crown prince paid Reflex Responses, a security company owned by the founder of Blackwater, $529 million in 2011 to build a mercenary force of 800 soldiers. The soldiers, reportedly from Colombia, South Africa, and other countries, were trained by retired America, German, and British special forces. While this step met the government’s immediate needs, the increased ideological threat posed by Islamist groups requires an indigenous response, as foreign mercenaries rarely garner public support.
To strengthen the attachment that Emirati citizens feel toward his military project, Sheikh Khalifa is instituting compulsory military service. In January 2015, the UAE passed a law that mandates nine months of service for men ages 18 to 30 who graduated high school and two years of service for those who did not. Service for women will continue to be voluntary. The UAE expects that increased citizen participation in the armed forces will increase national unity by fostering greater support for the government, helping to secure a country where over 88% of the 8 million residents are foreign nationals, and by developing homegrown expertise in using newly acquired military equipment. This preemptive measure aims to strengthen the appeal of the Emirati nation-state and lessen the draw of Islamist ideology.
The UAE’s investment in human capital sets its military apart from other similarly equipped regional forces. While the UAE is unable to rival the prestige inherent in Saudi guardianship of Islam’s holy sites or overtake Riyadh in oil exports, it can now claim to outdo its rival in military aptitude. While Saudi Arabia spent $67 billion in 2013 on the latest equipment for its defense program, the Saudis do not have trained personnel to effectively operate their equipment. The UAE’s military addressed this problem through its thoroughness in training troops, willingness to send them into battle, and their subsequently demonstrated effectiveness. Despite its small size and population, the UAE’s military prowess gives it significant power within the region, allowing the nation to participate in regional military missions and boosting its importance for global powers engaged in military operations in the Middle East.
Although Western powers may see the UAE as a natural ally in the fight against Islamist militancy, Emirati leadership is ever-conscious of its own regional aims. The UAE military only carries out attacks in alignment with its national interests, as evidenced by the country’s foreign policy decisions in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.2 The UAE’s military actions throughout the region are carried out in accordance with a two-pronged strategy of diminishing the Islamist threat at home by imbuing the Emirati identity with a sense of military might, and by combating it abroad through preventing the spread and success of Islamist groups throughout the Middle East. Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the United States, plainly stated that “we see extremism as an existential threat.”
This threat assessment informs the willingness of Sheikh Khalifa to send his armed forces into battle. The UAE has assumed a leading role in the fight against ISIS by allowing the use of its bases and by joining in U.S.-led airstrikes. The Emiratis have also welcomed French and Australian military personnel at their bases, in addition to the over 3,500 American troops that are currently stationed there. The trust established between UAE and U.S. military commanders has led to intelligence and information sharing, as well as joint strike planning at Dhafra Air Base. Furthermore, the training UAE pilots have received as a result of Sheikh Khalifa’s military reforms allows the Emirati Air Force to fly challenging missions. The UAE and Australia are the only non-NATO forces allowed to fly close air support missions for coalition forces on the ground. The importance of the Emirati role in the coalition is widely reported in the media and has improved their international standing vis-à-vis their neighbors. While serving the government’s first goal of fostering national unity, combat operations against the ISIS are also achieving the second goal of preventing further spread of Islamist groups in the region.
While the UAE temporarily suspended air strikes against the ISIS after the capture of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, his brutal murder by ISIS led to a renewed commitment from the UAE to destroy the jihadi group. In a show of support for its ally, the UAE has taken the lead in renewing airstrikes against the group in close coordination with Jordan. Taking a leading role in this offensive allows the UAE to increases its perceived importance strength in the region. This sense of prestige is important for the regime because it gives citizens a sense of national pride. Simultaneously, diminishing the physical capabilities of ISIS places limits on the group’s ability to prosper and spread. By successfully confronting this supranational entity, the UAE is reinforcing its citizens’ sense of empowerment and relevance, thus promoting an alternate outlet for the pursuit of purpose that often leads individuals to join radical movements.
1. This argument is developed in my first piece of this series.
2. Emirati foreign policy will be addressed in parts three and four of this five-part series.
Alissa Fromkin is a first-year graduate student in the Middle East Studies program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She focuses on topics of religion in the public and political spheres, Gulf relations, and Israeli politics. Alissa received her BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Boston University, where she minored in Arabic and was a goaltender for the Women’s Ice Hockey team.
Photo of UAE F16-E by Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth is in the public domain. Image cropped.