By Joshua Rowlands
The United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom have had close military relations dating back to 1820 when British and local rulers signed a treaty to battle piracy along the Gulf coast. The British Empire would receive unlimited and sole access to the “Trucial Sheikdoms”, a cluster of states that would eventually fuse together to form the UAE, in return for protection from aggressors from land and sea. Naval suppression allowed pearling to operate in comparatively secure circumstances and profits to be made by both parties. By the 1960s oil had been discovered and a vast reconstruction initiative commenced with the building of hospitals, schools, homes and permanent roads. Prime Minister Harold Wilson during the swift conclusion of the economic boom of the 1960s sought the independence of these Trucial Sheikdoms; they were now self sufficient and were substantially overstretching the British Armed Forces. In 1971, now under Edward Health, the British granted independence to the Sheikdoms and the United Arab Emirates was formed. British civilian relations have soared since then with Sheikh Abdullah, the present UAE Foreign Minister, stating “British citizens have helped drive UAE prosperity and have been involved in iconic projects such as the Burj Khalifa and Abu Dhabi Formula One”. However, it is not until David Cameron’s coalition government that military relations have been substantially revived.
In an increasing interdependent and uncertain geopolitical system, particularly in the Gulf region, both the UAE and UK have seized the opportunity to push forward a military based partnership. Numerous visits to the UAE by David Cameron and likewise visits by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, to the UK has sparked a “long term defence partnership”. On the surface this includes the sale of military equipment, most recently David Cameron’s push to sell 60 Typhoon fighter aircraft in a deal worth up to £3 billion. There have been serious talks about taking the outdated Mirage jet out of service and replacing it with the Typhoon. Other reasons for the government’s eagerness to strike are more subtle and understated. Al – Minhad airbase in Abu Dhabi is reported to be in use for British military assets with the potentiality of deployment in Afghanistan. It may also serve as a hub for logistical and striking capabilities should military relations in the region deteriorate in the future. Similarly, it is argued that British military presence in the UAE will allow for the British to exercise more influence in India and Pakistan and even Syria in the future. Thus, increased military relations with the UAE do not just represent the desire for economic transactions but of a strategic, post Suez military presence in the Gulf region.
As the British has re-orientated its defence policy towards the Gulf through its strategic ties with the UAE, it appears that this will sever ties or future alliances with other states. The UAE is the fourth largest defence importer and is sixteenth in the military expenditure ranking table. This up and coming market could be an excellent long-term investment for the British, whose military contracts are slowly fading and in need of invigoration. The UAE has a long – term strategic vision for strong land, sea and air capabilities, not just with the British supply of technology but of defence training and consultation. There are an exuberant amount of former British servicemen in the UAE providing assistance and training to the Emirati armed forces, supplying examinations and assessments, adjudging its strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, there is much more to the UK- UAE military treaties than just the supply of military hardware. Furthermore Air Chief Marshall Sir Dalton seeks to establish a “rapid reaction force” combining the capabilities of the UK and UAE so in the event they are called upon, the response time will be dramatically reduced.
The UAE has also announced a series of economic free zones as relations between the two countries deepen. These are created to incentivise British companies to invest in the country. These specific areas allow foreign companies to operate, allow foreign ownership and allow all profits to be expatriated. There is exemption from domestic taxes and the ability to use cheap resources and labour. Since 2008 the Emirati government has been exploring the idea of using these for military production, something British companies will greatly benefit from. Furthermore, UAE officials seem extremely keen to expand mutual defence programmes providing a haven for warehousing, distribution, manufacturing and assembly of defence related hardware. This could create an industrial zone that British manufacturers can exploit to cheaply manufacture and store much of its military technology. This is logistically superb for creating permanent military capabilities in the Gulf and providing the British defence industry with a much needed economic injection.
One cannot help but envisage a significant British- led military zone in the UAE this century. It will become a launching site for British military strikes and a bargaining chip for foreign policy in the region. Will this provoke a response from neighbouring nations? Only time will tell.