By Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero for Gulf State Analytics
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has traditionally pursued a cautious foreign policy and maintained a generally low profile on the regional and international stage. Yet as chaotic unrest continues to spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the UAE’s leadership has set the Gulf state on a course of rapid militarization in an effort to preserve its security and stability.
Like the other small Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies, the UAE has never been a strong or independent military power. Abu Dhabi has relied instead on foreign alliances—most importantly, with the United States—to safeguard its security. Historically, the UAE’s foreign policy has been shaped by its capacity to leverage its natural resource wealth in order to project influence abroad and maintain its geopolitical status throughout the Middle East. However, the Emirati leadership’s calculus has changed in response to ongoing regional conflicts that have resulted in several geopolitical outcomes—including growing Sunni extremism in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and an increasingly assertive Iran in each of those countries—that unsettle Emirati officials.
The Arab world’s traditional military heavyweights—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—are now weaker, immersed in domestic crises, and unable to project military power as they once did. Turkey’s reaction to the Arab Awakening has produced a host of political setbacks, economic burdens, and national security challenges for Ankara. Additionally, the Obama Administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia has contributed to a general sense that the U.S. is gradually backing away from the Middle East, leaving its Gulf allies with lingering questions about how to maintain security in the long-run.
Within this context, the UAE’s leaders have seized an opportunity to assert the country as a forceful military actor in the region. In recent years the UAE has ambitiously sought to project military strength in the Persian Gulf, which has been achieved with relative ease, given that the Emiratis have the financial means to invest heavily in military imports. But some analysts have questioned whether the UAE could ever become a major regional military power, given its small native population (approximately 90 percent of the UAE’s population of 8.2 million are foreigners) and the absence of experience operating a world class military independently. If the UAE’s recent spending on defense and recent military operations in Libya and Syria are any indication, Abu Dhabi is convinced it can be done.
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