2020 is being an important year for the United Arab Emirates, this small Gulf country but at the same time super rich and mega ambitious.
You have sent a mission to Mars; reached a historic peace agreement with Israel; and managed to get far enough ahead of the Covid-19 curve for this former British protectorate to have been able to redirect its factories and send Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to the UK by plane.
It has also been embroiled in a costly strategic fight with Turkey for influence, as it extends its tentacles as far away as Libya, Yemen and Somalia.
With the 50th anniversary of its independence next year, what exactly is the game on the UAE’s global board and who’s driving it?
It is May 1999 and the war in Kosovo has raged for more than a year. I am standing by a sink inside a makeshift hut in a well-defended camp on the Albanian-Kosovo border, a place full of Kosovar refugees.
The camp has been established by the Emirates Red Crescent Society and the Emiratis have arrived with a full circle of cooks, halal butchers, telecommunications engineers, an imam and a contingent of troops patrolling the perimeter in camouflage Humvees mounted with heavy machine guns.
The day before we had flown from Tirana in Puma helicopters driven by UAE Air Force pilots, through the winding and steep ravines of northeastern Albania.
The man brushing his teeth in the sink next to me is tall, bearded, and glasses. I recognize it as Mohammed bin Zayed, a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and the driving force behind the UAE’s growing military role.
Could we do an interview for television, I wonder? He is not very interested, but in the end he accepts.
The UAE, he explains, has entered into a strategic partnership with France. As part of a deal to buy 400 French Leclerc tanks, the French are taking a brigade of Emirati troops under their wing, training them in France to deploy alongside them in Kosovo.
For a country that had obtained its independence less than 30 years before, it was a bold move. There, in that remote corner of the Balkans, we were more than 3,200 km from Abu Dhabi, but the UAE clearly had ambitions far beyond the shores of the Gulf.
Had become the first modern arab state in deploying its armed forces in Europe, in support of NATO.
Then came Afghanistan. Unbeknownst to the majority of the UAE population, Emirati forces began quietly operating alongside NATO there, shortly after the fall of the Taliban, in a move approved by the now Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Zayed.
In 2008, I visited a contingent of their special forces at Bagram Air Base and saw how they operated.
Traveling in Brazilian and South African armored vehicles, they would drive to a remote and impoverished Afghan village, distribute Quran books and boxes of free sweets, and then sit with the elderly.
“What do you need?” they asked. “A mosque, a school, drilling wells to get drinking water?” The UAE provided the money and the contracts were out for local tender.
The footprint of the Emiratis was small, but wherever they went they used money and religion to try to reduce generalized local suspicions towards NATO forces, which frequently used a heavy hand.
In Helmand province they also fought alongside British forces.
Former United States Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis dubbed the United Arab Emirates as “Little Sparta“, being a relatively little known country, with a population of less than 10 million, but that was fighting in a higher category.
Yemen: a damaged reputation
Then came Yemen and a military campaign that has been fraught with difficulties.
When the prince Mohammed bin Salman, from Saudi Arabia, introduced its country to Yemen’s disastrous civil war, in 2015 the UAE joined forces and sent its F-16 fighters to conduct air strikes against the Houthi rebels, and also sent its troops south.
In the summer of 2018 they transported troops to the strategic Yemeni island of Socotra and assembled an assault force at a base in Assab, Eritrea, backing down at the last minute from plans to send them across the Red Sea to recapture the port of Hudaydah. , in the hands of the Houthis.
The war in Yemen has raged for nearly six years, there are no clear winners and the Houthis remain firmly entrenched in the capital, Sanaa, and in much of the country.
UAE forces have suffered casualties, including more than 50 in a single missile strike that prompted the declaration of three days of national mourning.
The reputation of the UAE has also been damaged by its association with some notorious local militias linked to al-Qaeda, and reports by human rights activists that UAE partners locked dozens of prisoners inside a shipping container, where they died of suffocation in the heat.
Israel: a new alliance
Since then, the UAE has reduced its involvement in Yemen’s destructive conflict, but continues to extend its military tentacles in a controversial attempt to roll back the Turkey’s growing influence in the region.
While Turkey has a substantial presence in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, the United Arab Emirates is supporting the breakaway Somaliland territory and has built a base in Berbera, in the Gulf of Aden.
In Libya they have joined with Russia and Egypt in supporting Khalifa Haftar’s forces in the east, against those in the West which are supported by Turkey, Qatar and others.
This September, the United Arab Emirates they sent ships and fighter planes to the island of Crete for joint exercises with Greece, as that country prepared for a possible confrontation with Turkey over drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
And now, following the sudden announcement from the White House, there is a far-reaching alliance between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, which puts an official seal on years of covert cooperation. (Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has been quietly acquiring intrusive surveillance software made in Israel to keep an eye on its citizens.)
While the alliance spans a broad spectrum of health, biotech, cultural and commercial initiatives, it also has the potential to create a formidable strategic military and security relationship, leveraging the cutting edge technology from Israel and big pockets and the global aspirations of the UAE.
The two countries’ common enemy, Iran, has condemned the agreement, as have Turkey and the Palestinians, accusing the United Arab Emirates of betraying Palestinian aspirations for an independent state.
With an eye on the stars
Abu Dhabi’s ambitions don’t end there. With the help of the United States, it has become the first Arab nation to send a mission to Mars.
In a program with a budget of 200 million dollars called “Hope”, its probe is already traveling through space at 126,000 km / hour after taking off from a remote Japanese island.
It is scheduled to reach its destination, 495 million kilometers, in February. Once there, it will map the atmospheric gases that surround the Red Planet, sending the data back to Earth.
“We want to be a global player“Says UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash.” We want to break down barriers and we need to take some strategic risks to break down these barriers.
However, there are concerns that by moving so fast and at such great distances, the UAE runs the risk of be going too far.
“There is no doubt that the UAE is the most effective military power in the region [árabe]”says Gulf analyst Michael Stephens.
“They are capable of deploying forces abroad in ways that other Arab states simply cannot. But they are also limited by size and capacity, and taking on so many problems at once is risky and, in the long run, could end up becoming their against”.
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