Thursday, 20th June 2019

UAE: MBZ’s emerging legacy: a nation-state forged from conflict

The creation of a “national military ethos” in the UAE, involving Ras Al-Khaimah (RAK) and other northern emirates, has been increasingly observed since GSN began analysing in 2015 the pattern of military deaths in Yemen and growth of nationalist symbolism around ‘martyrs’ of the Yemen conflict. It is a process that continues to gather momentum. According to a new paper from the Washington, DC-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “In recent years, Abu-Dhabi has led increased efforts to create a national military ethos… as a way to strengthen centre-periphery ties,”
The author, Italian academic Eleonora Ardemagni, noted that concerns about the role of the Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) are a central motivation. “This identity project is part of a wider trend of militarised nationalism among Gulf monarchies,” she wrote. “In RAK, it serves also to forge greater national bonds and networks of loyalty to Abu Dhabi’s leadership, especially among Emirati youth. Central to this model is the duty to defend the nation, as opposed to the social reform message conveyed by Islah, the Emirates’ branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had traditionally been influential in RAK and other northern emirates.”

Ardemagni is right to focus on the importance of countering the Muslim Brotherhood in the policies being pursued by the Abu Dhabi leadership led by Crown Prince and UAE Armed Forces deputy supreme commander Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ). According to a senior GSN contributor, who cannot be identified, “the Brotherhood represents the most potent threat to the Al-Nahyan’s grip on power, state wealth and the paternalistic system of royal family rule in the Gulf; to MBZ, this is a very personal mission, having been exposed to Brotherhood thinking in his youth.” This exposure came via a prominent Brotherhood member, Ezzedine Ibrahim, who the late UAE founding president and Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan appointed as tutor to the young sheikh – an idea that backfired, as MBZ turned against the Ikhwan and imbibed British military officer training at Sandhurst.

MBZ’s influence is such that his anti-Ikhwan (and parallel anti-Iranian) stance has almost certainly had a significant influence on the current United States administration, as reflected in President Donald Trump’s suggestion earlier this year that he could designate the Brotherhood a terrorist group. In the UAE, federal authorities have cracked down on Ikhwan activity since the 1990s, but during much of that period the Brotherhood had a sympathetic hearing in RAK through its Al-Islah affiliate. The group’s Dubai branch was dissolved in 1994, but former RAK emir Sheikh Saqr Bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi allowed the RAK branch to continue operating and it is believed to retain popular sympathy in the emirate. Under Ruler (since 2003) Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al-Qasimi, Ardegmani said “the small emirate has gradually accepted the Al-Nahyan-driven patronage system”. Following the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ protests, the UAE formally banned Islah at a federal level. In the years since, Sheikh Saudr has been increasingly concerned to ‘clean up’ RAK’s image of being pro-Brotherhood and of doing business with Iran – a dangerous combination in a federation dominated by MBZ and his security services.

Despite sporadic calls for better conditions – protests which are easily subdued by the security forces – RAK remains generally in favour of its men’s prominent role in Yemen and has bought into UAE nation-building policies, Ardegmani argued. This might not last for ever, though. “At a certain point, RAK and the northern emirates might begin to consider the ‘funds for soldiers’ trade-off to be unsustainable,” she concluded. “In the meantime, Abu Dhabi is leading the effort to boost nationalist feelings and avert such a breaking point.”

Abu Dhabi’s domination of the UAE and its prominent position in regional and even global politics is unlikely to end soon. As GSN has reported at length, by leveraging its oil wealth the UAE has built an increasingly effective military machine, capable of expeditionary warfare and regional intervention. As the senior GSN contributor puts it, “procuring the necessary equipment has been the easy part – few hesitate before selling to the UAE, despite tight commercial terms.” Other issues are as important, though, including the introduction of conscription to make the most of its limited national manpower – something that gives the northern emirates greater heft.

This being the UAE, local capabilities are only part of the story. The senior GSN contributor again: “The UAE has not been frightened to employ foreigners, both to boost numbers and to counter skills deficiencies, but also using them throughout the chain of command so as to improve operational effectiveness.” Among them, the key military instrument employed in Yemen, the Republican Guard, is commanded by former head of the Australian SAS Regiment Major General Mike Hindmarsh, while the Joint Aviation Command, which deploys Apache helicopters and other critical air support capabilities, is run by former US Army combat aviation officer Major General Steve Toumajan.

The senior GSN contributor added that Emiratis, from RAK and elsewhere, are not being thrown into all arenas. “The UAE Army has developed a method which relies heavily on co-opting and enabling local auxiliaries, both to minimise the risk of UAE nationals becoming casualties, over which there is considerable sensitivity in the poorer emirates, and to leverage and make best use of limited UAE manpower.” The UAE has also tried to develop its intelligence and security capability, although in this it has had rather less success, according to many professional observers.

Much of the military spending has been directed to US suppliers, encouraging the powerful defence industry lobby in Washington, which has been joined by the Department of Defense itself which sees add-on value in the UAE’s military capability. For the moment all seems to be going well, from an Abu Dhabi perspective. The UAE – which sits with Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK in ‘The Quad’, a regular series of ministerial meetings which co-ordinate regional policy – has established itself as an independent regional force, securing useful relationships with all power blocs whatever their character, and with everyone save those who adhere too closely to Iran. The US is thrilled at the emergence of what it sometimes calls ‘Little Sparta’; the notion that Washington should pass on the burden of defence and security responsibilities to regional partners is one of the few key themes running through both the Obama and Trump presidencies.

Even in Yemen, the UAE seems to have avoided – at least until now – the opprobrium being heaped on the Saudis for causing civilian casualties. Neither have reports of abuse inflicted on Emirati-held prisoners or extra-judicial killings in Yemen gained traction. Indeed, Dubai’s active embrace of tolerance (outside the political and security arenas at least), which draws in those seeking opportunity and a more permissive environment from all over the Middle East, probably still trumps Abu Dhabi’s more illiberal tendencies. But MBZ – for long working in co-ordination, not conflict, with that master of ‘soft power’ projection Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum – remains the contemporary UAE’s driving political force. His abiding legacy may turn out to be forging a national identity through conflict in a very ‘hard’ projection of the still relatively new nation’s power.

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