Defence Environment in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is most certainly one of the status quo powers in the Middle East. In a regional context it remains highly suspicious of Iran, an opinion that is reinforced by the fact that Iran occupies the Tunb Islands and Abu Musa Island in Gulf, territory that the UAE claims.

Issue: 11 / 2019By David SawPhoto(s): By US Air Force
A Lockheed Martin F-16F Desert Falcon of the United Arab Emirates Air Force (UAEAF) finishes tanking from a 100th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker of the US Air Force over the Mediterranean Sea. The UAEAF originaly ordered 80 F-16E/F Block 60 aircraft that were delivered between 2003 and 2006.

The security situation in the Gulf area is extremely unstable at the present time, on the one hand you have the ‘status quo’ powers principally Saudi Arabia and the majority of Arab states that wish to keep things exactly as they are, while on the other hand you have Iran who wishes to demolish the status quo and build a new regional security architecture with it as the dominant player. To further complicate matters you have Qatar which has its own agenda, sometimes siding with the other Arab states and other times sponsoring forces that seek to replace the leaderships of these other Arab states. Additionally Qatar retains significant trade links and cordial relations with Iran.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is most certainly one of the status quo powers in the Middle East. In a regional context it remains highly suspicious of Iran, an opinion that is reinforced by the fact that Iran occupies the Tunb Islands and Abu Musa Island in Gulf, territory that the UAE claims. It has issues with Qatar, especially as regards Doha’s support for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was classified as a terrorist grouping by the UAE. The UAE also participates in the Arab boycott of Qatar which commenced in 2017 and is still ongoing.

Usually acting in concert with Saudi Arabia, the UAE has sought to stabilise the security situation in the Gulf. In 2011 UAE police were deployed to assist Bahrain in putting down an anti-government protests. Then in 2015 the UAE joined with the Saudi-led intervention seeking to confront the Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels in the Yemen (the UAE conducted a partial troop withdrawal from Yemen in July 2017).


The UAE has also looked to expand its strategic interests beyond the Gulf region, this policy covers both strategic and economic rationales. They are involved in supporting local forces in Libya, support which also includes armed UAS missions. The UAE has also established bases at Assab in Eritrea, Berbera in Somaliland and is also operating in Somalia. The UAE can offer funding to support its local proteges and has the ability to make major investments to enhance local economies.

The fact that the UAE has recognised the need to broaden their strategic horizons is significant, they are using military capability where necessary, for example UAS combat missions in Libya or a Special Forces training camp in Somalia, as a foreign policy tool. They also use their financial strength as another foreign policy tool. For example from 2013 onwards the UAE started investing in agriculture and industry in Serbia, the next year saw Serbia and the UAE sign a military cooperation agreement that included the exchange of information and defence technology between the two countries, as well as the training of UAE personnel in Serbia. Additionally the UAE would fund weapon development programmes in Serbia, these included the Advanced Light Attack System (ALAS), a missile programme. The UAE uses the ALAS-C missile as part of its coastal defence system.

The United Arab Emirates has also looked to expand its strategic interests beyond the Gulf region, this policy covers both strategic and economic rationales

The financial power of the UAE is not to be underestimated, the country is sitting on 5.7 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves. However, the UAE is making strenuous efforts to reduce its dependence on oil and the plan is that by 2021, the share of oil and other hydrocarbons in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), all the goods and services produced by the domestic economy, of the UAE is down to only 20 per cent, it is currently running at under 30 per cent. According to the International Monetary Fund their projected nominal GDP for the UAE was $433 billion in 2018 rising to $456 billion for 2019. When you consider that these GDP numbers are generated by a country with a population of 9.071 million, the strength of the UAE economy is obvious.

The other contributor to the economic power of the UAE is their Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF), these were established from profits gained from hydrocarbon sales and are design to invest internationally to generate revenues to further develop the UAE. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority manages funds worth over $696 billion, it is the fifth biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world. The Investment Corporation of Dubai manages funds worth $239 billion, while the Mubadala Investment Company in Abu Dhabi manages funds worth over $228 billion. There are also other smaller SWF in the UAE.


All of this demonstrates that the UAE is a small and very rich country, but the low population of the UAE is a drawback. The UAE has a population of 9.701 million people, but less than 12 per cent of these are actual Emirati citizens. This lack of numbers led the UAE government to introduce a mandatory national service law in 2014. All Emirati men aged between 18-30 who have finished secondary school will serve for a year, those who did not finish secondary school will serve two years, there is also a reserve liability. Emirati women can volunteer for a nine-month national service commitment. National service covers service with the UAE Armed Forces, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Interior, the State Security Service and other officially identified government institutions.

This goes some of the way to solving UAE military personnel problem, but it is not enough and combat operations have led to the UAE employing contractors from Colombia, El Salvador and Panama in combat units. This also helps reduce casualties amongst UAE nationals, something the UAE military is highly sensitive towards.

The Iranian missile/drone attack on crude-processing facility at Abqaiq and the Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia in September demonstrates how tension is escalating in the Gulf region. It also exposes the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to attack, this is obviously a great concern to the UAE. Iran’s surrogates, the Houthi rebels in the Yemen claim to have launched missiles against the Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi, which has four APR-1400 Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR). The Houthi also claim to have targeted Abu Dhabi airport with armed UAS systems.

The potential Iranian missile threat to the UAE has seen major investment in air defences, this has seen the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Raytheon Patriot PAC-3 systems. The UAE will seek to add to these air defence capabilities and will potentially seek to integrate its air defences with those of regional allies.

As regards the UAE Air Force the search for a successor to the Dassault Mirage 2000-9 fleet is still ongoing, as efforts by France to generate a Rafale sale failed to be fruit. There was some consolation for France with the fact that the UAE Navy ordered two Gowind corvettes with two on option from Naval Group. The Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Desert Falcon remains the most numerous combat platform in UAE Air Force service, but with the arrival of more and more advanced combat aircraft in the region, the need to further enhance the F-16 fleet grows ever more pressing. Across the UAE military the emphasis will be on upgrades and capability enhancements, unless it is necessary to make a major defence purchase for political or operational reasons.

The UAE continues to have the funds necessary to support a high level of defence spending and, if required, major acquisition programmes. The point to remember is that the UAE has spent years acquiring advanced defence equipment and that the vast majority of these systems do not need replacement, they only require enhancement. This is a logical approach as in the final analysis, the UAE military does not have the personnel resources to support a large number of new acquisitions.