The United Arab Emirates, a small and ambitious country in the Persian Gulf, faces various security threats. Its geographical location places it at the center of instability, sectarianism and regional rivalries in the Middle East, which has led the country to pay particular attention to its security.
In recent years, Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, particularly the United Arab Emirates, have recognized that confident foreign governments, such as the United States, cannot offer them the best possible protection. The United States has been present in the Persian Gulf since the 1990s and the Arab countries of the Gulf rely on it to ensure their security. However, the events of recent years have shown that the Gulf Arab states cannot rely solely on Washington.
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These developments include the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as part of the US withdrawal; the American pivot to Asia; the withdrawal by the United States of the most advanced missile defense systems and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia; and the lack of US military response to threats, missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil bases by the Houthis in Yemen.
This has encouraged Arab countries in the Persian Gulf to pursue self-reliance in security matters. The United Arab Emirates, in particular, has sought to transform its strategy of dependence on the United States and Saudi Arabia into a combination of self-reliance and multilateral cooperation.
Autonomous Security Policy
Although the United Arab Emirates is an important ally of America in the Persian Gulf, in recent years the United States has sought to push the Emiratis towards security autonomy. The socio-political events in the Middle East over the past decade following the Arab Spring of 2010-2011 have made it clear to the UAE that the primary objective of ensuring national security, in addition to benefiting from international cooperation, should be the use of national facilities and resources.
The ousting of Hosni Mubarak from Egypt during the Arab Spring protests and the reluctance of the United States to defend him as an ally – which led to the rise of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood – further demonstrated in Abu Dhabi that it should not depend exclusively on the United States for security assistance. Thus, the United Arab Emirates began to develop a professional army.
The UAE’s autonomy strategy is divided into different branches, but above all, its military security efforts have been given the highest priority. The UAE’s determination to create an independent and professional military is evident from its years of investment in the defense industry.
Indeed, security is a top priority for the UAE, and defense spending continues to make up a large portion of the national budget. UAE defense spending typically accounts for 11.1% to 14% of the total budget. In 2019, UAE defense spending was $16.4 billion. This was 18% more than the 2018 budget of $13.9 billion.
The UAE has invested heavily in the military and defense industry in recent years. In November 2019, the United Arab Emirates formed the EDGE Group from a merger of 25 companies. The company has 12,000 employees and total revenue of $5 billion. It is also among the top 25 advocacy groups in the world, ahead of companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton in the US and Rolls-Royce in the UK.
EDGE is structured around five clusters: Platforms and Systems, Missiles and Weapons, Cyber Defense, Electronic Warfare and Intelligence, and Mission Support. It includes several major UAE defense companies, such as ADSB (shipbuilding), Al Jasoor, NIMR (vehicles), SIGN4L (electronic warfare services) and ADASI (autonomous systems). The main objective of EDGE is to develop weapons to combat “hybrid warfare” and to strengthen the defense of the United Arab Emirates against unconventional threats, focusing on electronic attacks and drones.
The UAE has also drawn up detailed plans to improve the quality of its military personnel, spending large sums of money each year to train its military recruits at American colleges and war academies. He also founded the National Defense College; most of its students are citizens of the United Arab Emirates, due to its independence in military training. Additionally, in 2014, the United Arab Emirates introduced general conscription for males between the ages of 18 and 30 to increase numbers and strengthen national identity in its military. As a result, it gathered around 50,000 people in the first three years.
Contrary to traditional practice, the growing military might of the UAE has made them keen to use force and hard force to protect their interests. The UAE is prepared to use military force anywhere in the region to contain Iran’s growing influence and weaken Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Participating in the Yemen war was a test of this strategy.
The UAE’s military presence in Yemen began in March 2015. They sent a brigade of 3,000 soldiers to Yemen in August 2015, alongside Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab countries. Over the past five years, the UAE has pursued an ambitious strategic agenda in the Red Sea, building military installations and securing control of Yemen’s southern coasts along the Arabian Sea in the Bab al-Mandab Strait. and the island of Socotra. Despite shrinking its military footprint in Yemen in 2019, the UAE has consolidated itself in the southern regions. It continued to fund and train thousands of Yemeni fighters from various groups such as the Security Belt Forces, the elite Shabwani and Hadrami Forces, the Abu al-Abbas Brigade, and the West Coast Forces.
The UAE’s objective in adopting a self-reliance strategy is to increase strategic depth in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Thus, alongside the direct military presence or armed support of groups engaged in proxy wars, it affects the internal affairs of various countries in the region, such as Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Libya. Thanks to its influence, the UAE can turn the tide in its favor in certain areas.
Security Strategy of Multilateralism
The UAE faces various security challenges in the Middle East, and solving them requires cooperation with other countries. Currently, the most significant security threats in the UAE are: countering Iranian threats and power in the Middle East, particularly in Arab countries under Iranian influence, such as Yemen, Syria and Lebanon; eliminating threats from terrorist groups and political Islam in the region, the most important of which – according to the UAE – is the Muslim Brotherhood; and economic threats and efforts to prepare for the post-oil world.
In its multilateral strategy, the UAE seeks to counter these threats with the help of other countries in the region or beyond. He used soft power by investing or providing humanitarian aid, suggesting that economic cooperation is more important than political competition and intervention. In this regard, the UAE has cooperated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Britain and France, as well as normalized relations with Israel.
On August 13, 2020, the United Arab Emirates became the first Gulf state to normalize relations with Israel. The UAE’s goal in normalizing relations with Israel is to counter threats from Iran and the region. The Abraham Accords not only have a security aspect, but also an economic one. Following the signing of the agreements, on October 20, 2020, the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of the Abraham Fund, a $3 billion pooled fund “in directed investment and development initiatives by the private sector”, aiming to “promote economic cooperation and prosperity. In addition, he presented a banking and finance memorandum between Israel’s and Dubai’s largest banks, and a joint bid between Dubai’s port operator DP World and an Israeli shipping company to manage Israel’s Haifa port.
Through the Abraham Accords, the UAE seeks to invest and transfer Israeli technologies to the UAE through mutual agreements. The UAE has discovered that Israel is one of the bridges to the American economy and high technology. If the UAE intends to have an oil-free economy in the future, Israel might be the best option to achieve this by pursuing a strategy of multilateralization.
The UAE’s relations with Turkey also have a multilateral dimension to achieve common security goals. The two countries enjoyed good relations until the Arab Spring protests jeopardized their relationship. Abu Dhabi and Ankara began defusing tensions after an August 2021 phone call between UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The nations mainly have differences over the issues of Libya, Syria and Egypt. The UAE is trying to resolve its differences with Turkey by investing in the country.
Turkey is the biggest funder of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. The Turks claim that the UAE participated in the July 2016 failed coup against the Turkish government. Nevertheless, the UAE wants to end friction with Turkey and has attracted Ankara by investing and strengthening trade ties. The Turkish lira has depreciated in recent years and Erdogan’s popularity has plummeted due to mismanagement in Turkey. Erdogan will not miss this economic opportunity with the UAE and welcomes Emirati investments. In this way, the UAE will probably easily resolve its differences with Turkey.
The current trend to use force is contrary to traditional Abu Dhabi policy, but increasing the UAE’s strategic depth is one of Abu Dhabi’s most achievable goals in its autonomy strategy. . This plan is the exact opposite of multilateralism. Unlike the use of force and hard power, Abu Dhabi seeks to achieve its goals using soft power, investment and humanitarian aid. In this situation, the tactical exploitation of economic cooperation takes precedence over political competition and military intervention in the region.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.