Thursday, 1st November 2018

UAE power projection prompts guarded concern among some allies

The British-Omani military exercises Al-Shomoukh 2 and Saif Al Sarea 3 were still in full swing on land, sea and air as GSN went to press (GSN 1,067/8) – a clear demonstration of international support for a sultanate that has long been seen as a maverick within the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). The exercise is a sign for Muscat that it still has friends in high places – which is particularly important these days given the concerns that are bubbling up among the sultanate’s strategists, as well as analysts in Washington and elsewhere, about the intentions of its neighbour, the United Arab Emirates. Increasingly, the deployment of UAE military forces is seen as going well beyond the requirements of securing the federation’s borders. However, the UAE’s ultimate intentions are hard to decipher; that is giving some people cause to worry at a time when the region is ever more militarised.

Saudi Arabia has long-standing concerns about instability in Yemen and has, over many decades, suffered from skirmishes and smuggling on its border. Even during the first Gulf war in 1991 it maintained a larger military force facing Yemen than it deployed against Iraqi-occupied Kuwait) The rationale for the UAE’s engagement in Yemen and the Red Sea littoral is less clear, however. Despite occasional reports of Houthi attempts to fire missiles at targets in the Emirates, Yemen does not offer any immediate security concerns to the UAE. Much more important for the UAE’s de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), is the desire to offer support to his country’s most critical regional ally, Saudi Arabia. The Yemen campaign thus fits into a wider pattern of political solidarity between the kingdom and the UAE (GSN 1,033/4).

As GSN has recorded, the UAE has been explicit in its desire to develop a more effective independent military capability – a process which started during the tenure of President Barack Obama, when GCC countries realised they could no longer depend on the United States to come unthinkingly to their aid, and with the realisation that US support often came with strings attached.

Unlike the performance of Saudi forces, the UAE’s deployment in Yemen has generally been seen as militarily competent and, at times, impressive – most notably with the sea-borne capture of Aden in July 2015, early on in the war (GSN 999/6). While Saudi efforts have been focused on aerial bombardment rather than putting boots on the ground, the UAE’s troops have borne the brunt of the fighting and in the process developed a range of tactical skills and strategies that are well-suited to the region’s challenging environment, particularly when working with local forces.

The UAE also has a wider, if less well-advertised, agenda. Diverging from Saudi Arabia, it has no desire to give encouragement or support to the Islamist-inclined Al-Islah faction, from which Yemen’s wily Major General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar – seen as a potential successor to ailing Saudi ally President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi – draws his support (GSN 1,013/4). Some have suggested the UAE is behind a programme of targeted assassinations against Al-Islah’s political leadership (GSN 1,054/6).

Even so, there is little chance of an outright military victory for Abu Dhabi, or any other player in the conflict. For some time now, it has looked like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are getting close to the limits of their ability to drive back the Houthis. The end result may well be a fractured Yemen with a revived secessionist movement in the south; that could be viewed favourably in Abu Dhabi as a useful counterbalance to a troublesome, Houthi-influenced northern Yemen.

Abu Dhabi will almost certainly want to retain some enduring influence in Yemen and its hinterland – as reflected in the establishment of footholds in Mukalla, Mahrah and Socotra in Yemen, as well as in nearby Eritrea, Puntland and Somaliland (GSN 1,055/6). Viewed from Abu Dhabi, such projections of its force would reduce the risk of instability spreading north-eastwards and would also help to ensure safe passage of merchant shipping through the critical trade chokepoint of the Bab El Mandeb strait.

However, UAE concerns are not simply focused on Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Another very particular worry is the long-term political stability of Oman. The UAE has for some time harboured concerns about what might happen in the sultanate in the aftermath of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said’s long rule. GSN’s soundings suggest there are even residual worries that political upheaval in Oman could have some impact on the UAE’s integrity.

Confident in their ability to control the situation, and strengthened in recent years by increased preparedness to handle internal security disorder, senior Omanis regard such Emirati concerns as over-blown. Some in Muscat also privately suggest that Abu Dhabi’s anxieties are merely a useful cover for more menacing objectives around UAE expansionism. (Omanis are mindful of previous territorial disputes with the UAE, and even of the resentment which accompanied the sultanate’s decision to stay independent of the UAE at the time of its formation.)

There are plenty of good reasons why the UAE has built up its military capabilities and there are also good reasons for it to want to project that strength in a troubled neighbourhood. But in a GCC divided by the Qatar standoff, and given the apparent lack of support (if not animosity) in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to the efforts by Kuwait and Oman to moderate regional disputes, there are also reasons for neighbours to be wary of the region’s de facto leaders’ love of military solutions to political questions and their growing tendency to shoot first.

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