The United Arab Emirates Is Rapidly Militarizing
Major energy reserves, real estate, finance, air travel, Western support, and the country's ability to maintain internal calm in an unstable part of the world have turned the UAE into one of the Middle East's emerging powers. Now the country, which has a population of slightly over 1 million citizens spread over seven semi-autonomous city states, is attempting to rapidly upgrade its military capabilities.
And not just through the draft. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UAE was the world's ninth-largest arms importer for the period between 2008 and 2012, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In 2013 alone, the UAE imported 14 Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S., 72 Nyala armored personnel carriers from South Africa, 6 corvettes from France, and 1,000 surface-to-air missiles from Russia.
A country with barely a million citizens is building a world-class arsenal and now wants the personnel to operate it. This reveals the UAE's ambitions - as well as its leadership's mounting doubts about the future of the country and the region in general.
The Persian Gulf monarchies haven't been immune from regional turmoil. Protests have gripped Kuwait and Saudi Arabia since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in late 2010, while it took a multinational military intervention from the other Gulf kingdoms to quash a popular uprising in Bahrain. Iraq and Syria are in turmoil, and a terror group too radical for Al Qaeda now controls more territory than the government of Lebanon. Iran looms just across the Persian Gulf. It's natural for the government of a rising power like the UAE to think about its future vulnerability.
But there's another likely reason for this buildup. Emirati citizens are only 19% of the UAE's overall population of 5.6 million and are greatly outnumbered in their own country. Over the past year, there have been two mass trials of Emiratis accused of having Muslim Brotherhood ties. The Emirati monarchs are anxious about potential triggers for internal collapse, and view rapid militarization as one way out of a host of current and future dilemmas.
That sort of thinking has a mixed record in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a major arms importer and still faces internal instability, as well as a succession controversy that raises the possibility of crippling political drift. In Egypt, the government of Hosni Mubarak was the world's second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid. Today, the country is arguably less stable than it's been in its entire modern history.
The UAE is trying to arm its way out of its future problems. But it might take a few decades before it's clear whether the strategy pays off for the country's ruling families.