UAE arms purchases were once thought of as the acquisition of shiny, new toys by a wealthy, tiny country. In the seventies and eighties, the Emirates focused more on developing high-rise buildings than developing a powerful military. While Lebanon was plunged into 15 years of civil war, Dubai successfully replaced Beirut as a hub for international commerce, banking, and information. The nation repeatedly stressed its interest in economics and commerce over its interest in politics and military engagements.
Yet, over the past two decades, the state has advanced an ambitious and aggressive posture in the MENA region. The UAE has intervened in regional conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. This active foreign policy has created converging interests with other regional powers, epitomized in the August 13 announcement of the normalization of UAE-Israel relations. The UAE-Israel relationship is not a sudden development, but instead in fact has been emerging slowly, surely, and covertly. Notably, the UAE – Israel normalization agreement is representative of a larger trend in the Middle East. To fully conceptualize the potential regional implications, the diplomatic agreement must be viewed against the thematic backdrop of power struggle.
The UAE’s Vision of the Region
Since the nation’s formation in 1971, the Emirates has operated under the dual shadows of Saudi Arabia and the United States, depending on its allies for support and protection. However, the past decade has witnessed declining U.S. interest and influence in the region alongside a heightened perception of threats from Iran and political uprisings. Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ), the de-facto leader of the UAE and deputy crown prince, advances the aforementioned narrative. With support from Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia, MBZ’s leadership is distinguished by a desire for the UAE to become a force powerful enough to fill the void left by the Americans and resilient enough to face the risks of an increasingly turbulent region. Though he maintains an ongoing alliance with Saudi Arabia and the U.S., MBZ is determined to follow an independent path dictated by his own country’s interests, and his quest for power is to be seen in this context.
Reflecting the country’s desire for independence and influence, the UAE’s defense budget has tripled in the last ten years. Currently at over $22.76 Billion, the UAE ranks tenth in the world in defense spending. Yet, the nation is not satisfied. For fiscal year 2021 the defense budget is intended to grow by a striking 10 Billion. Despite being one of the smallest countries in the world, with a native population of under 1.5 million, the UAE is clearly shooting for an outsized role in the region.
The UAE’s Role Expands Militarily
In the past two decades, the Emirates has increased its regional military presence. At the start of the 20th century, the UAE had sent a small group of forces to join NATO in Afghanistan and dispatched an armed police unit into Bahrain, protecting the Bahraini monarchy against domestic revolt. After 2011,Emirati interventions expanded via direct military missions, financial support, arms transfers, and the sponsoring of militias in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea and Egypt. The motivations undergirding these interventions have largely been the countering perceived Iranian influence, Muslim Brotherhood presence, or the desire to play kingmaker in local conflicts.
UAE’s role in Yemen has perhaps been the most complicated, given the ambitious goal reshaping the Yemeni political landscape with allies who hold divergent visions for the country’s future. In Eritrea, the Emirates built an airbase in Assab, through which it ran Yemen operations. The acquisition of bases inside Yemen allowed Emirati troops to run training programs as well as transfer equipment and hardware to foreign and Yemeni militias. This presence, both direct and indirect, enabled the UAE to partner with U.S. forces in military operations against al-Qa’eda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP).
he Emirati role in Libya has been challenging, given the complex military situation on the ground and competing Turkish influence. As Turkey boasts one of the top regional military forces, the UAE has been intent on acquiring the most sophisticated fighter-jet in recent times, the F-35. Despite possessing an already impressive arsenal of F-15 and F-16 fighters, some of which are pre-positioned in Cyprus and Greece to be within striking distance of Libya, the UAE wants to further counter Turkish influence in Libya. Therefore, acquisition of the F-35 fighters are both a bargaining chip for an emerging partnership with Israel and foundational to the UAE’s Mediterranean strategy.
Another sign of ambitious military goals is the UAE’s defense industry, quickly developing and focused on arms exports. The emphasis on arms production indicates both defensive and offensive objectives. On the one hand, the Emiratis don’t have to depend on foreign powers for the arms they need in a conflict. Conversely, they can export arms for profit and influence without authorization from abroad. The nation experienced the limiting nature of American acquiescence firsthand, through the Obama administration’s refusal to transfer U.S. made anti-tank missiles to Syria.
Emirati technical skills have vastly improved over the past few years, a testimony to U.S. training, the quality of equipment acquired in arms purchases, and the direct engagement of Emirati pilots and ground forces in Yemen. Mid-air refueling is one example of the sophisticated skills acquired. Notably, Israel acquired this capacity in the past decade and now has 10 of tankers for this purpose. Today, the UAE has 3 tankers and has used them in the Yemen war. Thus far, no other country in the region has demonstrably used mid-air refueling.
Israeli-Emirati Mutual Interests
Israel and the UAE have similar interests, fears, and objectives in the region., Worries about Iran, political Islam, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya dominate the nations’ foreign policy agendas. An alliance between the two countries, given the compatible interests and skills, would lead to collaboration against Iran’s influence in the region, and would provide Israel with access to bases closer to Iran in the UAE and in the Horn of Africa .
The normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE stresses defense collaboration and open trade. Despite the common commercial, economic, and security interests, and given the recent history of Emirati interventions, the potential joint military/security ventures will likely lead to increased tensions and make conflict more likely. Despite a perfunctory discussion in these normalization talks of freezing the annexation of Palestinian territory, the agreement is not about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Palestinians have been criticized for not “adjusting” to ongoing agreements between Israel and Gulf countries. Yet in reality, these diplomatic agreements are of little relevance to the Palestinian people. In fact, Arab public opinion is often assumed to have moved beyond the Palestine issue, hence allowing for leaders to bypass it in these “peace talks.” However, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Unelected leaders in the Arab world should be aware of the potential for building resentment in response to normalization initiatives enacted with total disregard for Palestinian needs and the plight of others in the region who may bear repercussions. Ultimately, the challenge will rest on the agreement’s signatories to show if Palestinians, and the region at large, stand to reap any tangible benefits.
Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.