by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
The Union Defence Force (UDF), which is charged with defending the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is becoming increasingly expeditionary. Historically, the UAE has actively participated in numerous multilateral operations. During the original Gulf War, several hundred Emirati soldiers aided in seizing Kuwait City from Iraqi forces in 1991. Further afield, Emirati combat aircraft took part in Operation Unified Protector, the NATO-led enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace in 2011. However, these were generally limited-term deployments, intended to respond to specific threats.Since the start of 2016, the UDF has significantly extended its reach. Satellite imagery indicates that the UDF has established an airbase at Al Khadim Airport, approximately 100 kilometres from Benghazi, Libya. From this base, the UAE will be able to step up its airstrikes in support of the Libyan National Army. In September 2016, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and other rebel groups reported coming under attack from armed UAE Air Tractor 802s. Meanwhile, it seems the UAE has also established a military presence in Eritrea, as further satellite imagery from October 2016 shows nine UAE Dassault Mirage-2000’s stationed at Assab Airport. This follows rumours that the UAE could also be building a naval base in Eritrea very close to Assab Airport, the first permanent Emirati military base in a foreign country.
Although the prospect of the UAE establishing a foothold in East Africa may excite those who study the power plays of those countries carving out a presence there, it is important to note that the Emirates’ main strategic consideration is the ongoing war in Yemen. The extended reach of the UAE is not an expression of broader geopolitical ambition but has everything to do with rivalries on the Arabian Peninsula. Following the Iranian-backed coup in Yemen, the UAE participated in Saudi Arabia’s Operation Decisive Storm, deploying 30 combat aircraft to strike Houthi rebel positions.
Although Emirati officials claimed that the UAE’s military involvement in Yemen ended in June 2016, it is increasingly apparent that this is not the case. The UAE continues to participate in the Saudi-led naval blockade of Yemen, and a UAE-operated HSV-2 Swift logistics catamaran was destroyed by Houthi rebels in October 2016 while transiting the Bab al-Mandab strait. The airbase and naval base in Eritrea demonstrates that the UAE has no intention of reducing its involvement in the Yemeni conflict; rather, it is committed to stepping up its participation.Ultimately, the UAE itself is under virtually no threat from the Houthi rebels and has no territory adjacent to Yemen. But UAE officials most certainly see their homeland as under threat from Iran, which has afforded considerable support to the insurgency the UAE is fighting in Yemen. For example, in a speech delivered by the UAE Ambassador to the United States at a January 2016 event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba called Iranian influence in the Middle East “…even more destabilizing than ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham]”.
The UAE has also long held a resentment against Iran, which pre-dates the Islamic Republic, for its perceived violation of the Emirates’ territorial integrity. In 1971, following the UAE’s independence from the British Empire, Iranian forces moved quickly to seize the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. This collection of islands in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf has changed in hands several times, but has since remained under Iranian occupation. Iran has consistently refused to comply with UAE requests to refer the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), only serving to deepen the atmosphere of mutual suspicion between the two countries.
It is this anxiety as to Iran’s long-term strategic ambitions that motivate the UAE to ramp up its expeditionary capabilities with deployments to Libya and Eritrea. After all, from the Emirati perspective, what is there to prevent Iran from taking more than just Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs? After all, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been accused of employing hybrid warfare to deepen the internal strife in nearby Bahrain. Unless sufficient pressure can be placed on the Houthis in Yemen, so the Emirati narrative goes, Iran may be emboldened to foment revolution in Bahrain or the UAE itself. Whether Iran or any IRGC elements aspire toward this is another matter entirely, but this fear on the part of Emirati officials explains the activities at Abbas and Al Khadim, and it should afford insight into deeper engagement by the UAE with American-led security institutions in the near future.