The UAE’s regional military efforts initially seemed to be focused on peacebuilding, but since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the events that followed the popular uprisings, Abu Dhabi has taken a more proactive and more belligerent military stance. It has engaged in multilateral military initiatives such as enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya during the NATO intervention against Muammar Gaddafi, as well as in Syria as a member of a Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State.
More recently, the UAE has been openly taking sides in the region’s civil wars. In Libya, it has aggressively backed ex-General Khalifa Haftar against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli; while in Yemen, it has played an essential role as a member of the Saudi-led coalition that wreaked havoc on the country and led it to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. In less visible efforts, it has worked to set up air and naval bases in Eritrea (Assab in Eritrea is a well-known springboard for its operations in Yemen) and Somaliland, explained Frank Slijper – Program Leader of the Arms Trade at PAX, based in the Netherlands – to Inside Arabia.
David B. Roberts, an assistant professor at London-based King’s College, told Inside Arabia that the UAE is guided by a set of principles based on the deep divisions it sees in the MENA region. It seeks to support groups who take a nationalist or otherwise anti-religious point of view. This explains most of the UAE’s support to or isolation of other (state and non-state) actors in the region, particularly since 2014, according to Emma Soubrier, a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
In other words, any state or party that fits that Islamophobic profile is a potential ally in the region, said Slijper, adding that there is also a pragmatic side to the UAE’s approach, as the recent “peace agreement” with Israel illustrates. Normalizing ties with Israel has opened up a potentially lucrative business relation with a wealthy high-tech state, while at the same time granting the UAE headway in its quest to acquire the most advanced US weaponry, including the F-35 fighter jet and Reaper drones. All this, of course, against the background of a common enemy: Iran.
The UAE has built marked military credibility in Western countries; it only intervened in support of coalitions sanctioned by international law.
In Soubrier’s view, the UAE’s projection of hard power, and its cultivation of a hard-power-related soft power (via its defense demonstrations) was mainly intended for a global rather than a regional audience. Through its participation in international peacekeeping missions from the 1990s on, Soubrier continued, the UAE has built marked military credibility in Western countries; it only intervened in support of coalitions sanctioned by international law, following collective objectives.
After being recognized as a credible actor and partner by outside powers, it has started to project its hard power in alignment with its own specific objectives and interests (in Libya from July 2014 and in Yemen from March 2015), aiming to expand its influence and to establish itself as a new regional power.
Although the UAE has been closely aligned with Saudi Arabia, the country demonstrated that it is no longer Riyadh’s junior partner but more than capable of competing with other regional powers such as Egypt, Turkey, or Iran.
According to Slijper, the UAE isn’t afraid to use force where conflict threatens its perceived interests. Yet, concurrently, it uses softer means – financial sources and infrastructural investments specifically – to establish and reinforce military relations in Egypt and the Horn of Africa for example.
He also observes that with its rapidly expanding domestic military industry, the Emirates has sought to establish international military links by supplying a range of weapons and military vehicles to a dozen countries in Africa, suggesting that arms transfers are another important foreign policy instrument. In some cases, these transfers are in clear disregard of UN arms embargos, as in the case of Libya, where UN investigators have reported numerous violations.
Abu Dhabi has been increasingly active in developing a military training cooperation segment, set to become a trademark of UAE foreign policy.
In addition to investing heavily in its armed forces and taking part in multiple missions abroad, Abu Dhabi has been increasingly active in developing a military training cooperation segment, set to become a trademark of UAE foreign policy and an important tool for expanding its geopolitical leverage. In the last decade, the Emirati federation has provided military training and education to numerous entities in the Middle East, Africa, and Western Asia, usually to countries or regions where it previously operated as a peacekeeper.
In Yemen, for example, it supports the secessionist Southern Transitional Council through training, supplying, and financing its Security Belt Forces, which were later institutionalized under the Ministry of Interior and the Army. It also provided training to the Afghan Elite Forces. In recent years, the Emirati federation also focused on G5 Sahel countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Mauritania, where it established a Mohammed bin Zayed Defense College in 2016 and began training senior officers of the G5 Sahel Force earlier this year.
However, projecting hard power through military intervention and cooperation is only one of the pillars of the UAE’s foreign policy, as it is also accompanied by vast economic diplomacy and state branding through soft power. The UAE’s soft power tactics played a crucial role in developing the logistic giant Dubai Ports World (DP). The company’s strategy and activities greatly exceed traditional corporate behavior that usually follows market-orientated logic, as the company is closely attached to the UAE’s foreign policy goals. The DP World run ports are capable of accommodating naval and other military forces, making the company an indispensable partner of UAE military and foreign policy ambitions. This is not surprising considering the major stakeholder of DP World is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the country.
In its push to become a regional power, the military component in UAE foreign policy has become increasingly significant in recent years. Militarism coupled with patriotism and islamophobia is perceived as a key ingredient of national cohesion. In the ongoing process of nation-building, the military dimension was insignificant for a long time, and was supplemented by oil revenues while security largely relied on the presence of foreign powers. But this has radically changed. The role of the military has drastically increased, as one of the key tools for promoting national identity while overcoming religious, tribal, and territorial divides.
As argued by Eleonora Ardemagni (2019) in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment, “militarization means centralization to enhance the strategic primacy of Abu Dhabi over the other six emirates within the loose federation (especially Dubai) and to support the Emiratis’ ambitious plans to project geopolitical power.” Soubrier thinks that “through force projection, the UAE are cementing a national brand that had been in the making for a long time, simply taking it to the next level as the UAE establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the new Middle East.” Such belligerent militarism has left a trail of deaths and atrocities behind in countries already plagued by lawlessness and poverty.
Conversely, the rise of nationalist sentiments – prompted by increased domestic militarism and military driven foreign policy – largely contributes to regional polarization while further complicating the already fragile relations among Gulf states.