TSG IntelBrief: A Strategic Partnership in the Gulf
July 30, 2012

As of late July 2012, the strategic alliance between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — a federation of seven principalities, or emirates, formed in December 1971 — has continued to deepen in the eighteen years since the two countries signed a formal bilateral defense pact. That agreement, signed in 1994, came in the wake of the U.S.-led coalition’s successful liberation of Kuwait from Iraq’s occupation, an action that spurred the UAE leadership to conclude that no power other than the U.S. could reasonably assure UAE’s security in the volatile region.

Nominally, the pact provides for consultations in the event of a security threat to either nation originating in the region and for U.S. training of UAE military forces. Of much greater strategic importance, the agreement also gives the U.S. access to key UAE military facilities and sets the stage for U.S. arms sales. Among the most important of the UAE facilities to which the U.S. has been granted ongoing access are Al Dhafra air base and the large military/commercial port at Jebel Ali. There are presently close to 4,000 U.S. military personnel at these facilities, forces that are crucial to any U.S. effort to defend the Persian Gulf states and preserve the free flow of oil in the Gulf.  

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A Longstanding and Deepening Alliance

Although the mutual defense pact was originally signed to address the potential threat from Iraq, in recent years the primary threat that the U.S.-UAE alliance seeks to thwart comes from Iran. Nearly ten years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains violent but not a strategic threat to the region. Iran, by contrast, seeks broad influence in the region — influence that is enhanced by its progressive mastery of uranium enrichment technology. Iran also occupies three islands that the UAE claims to own: Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tunb islands. By all outside accounts, the existing defense pact does not commit the U.S. to helping the UAE regain the islands, and the U.S. has backed the UAE position that the dispute should be arbitrated peacefully, most likely at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

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An Improving Record on Iran Sanctions Enforcement       

Even though the UAE perceives Iran as a strategic threat, it has been careful not to provoke the Islamic Republic. Trade between the two countries remains relatively normal and the UAE is filled with Iranian expatriates who operate businesses there, particularly in the emirate of Dubai. In the past, U.S. officials cited the UAE for lax enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Iran, a situation where many U.S. products that had been banned for sale in Iran were said to be widely available because they were being re-exported to Iran from the UAE. While some civilian goods, such as appliances and computers, still apparently make their way to Iran via the UAE, the UAE has improved its export controls in part by enacting new laws. In addition, concerns over the leakage of advanced technology to Iran through the UAE has faded in recent years.

Over the past year, the UAE has all but shut down the Iranian banking system in the emirates, reducing the operations of Iranian banks that operate there to the point where they can conduct transactions only in cash. Further, the UAE government has forbidden some of its banks from transacting business with Iran altogether. However, some UAE gasoline traders are said to be bucking U.S. sanctions by continuing to supply gasoline to the Iranian market.

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The Crux of the U.S. Containment Strategy

The U.S.-UAE alliance has offered an intriguing — and thus far effective — model for how U.S. defense relations with the Persian Gulf states can operate in the cause of containing Iranian power. Not only does the UAE host U.S. forces, but it is also an active consumer of major U.S. combat systems intended to promote inter-operability with U.S. forces. Foremost among these was a purchase of 36 F-16s in 1998, and UAE leaders are reportedly considering buying additional F-16s in 2012. Even though the UAE has bought primarily French tanks, the air, naval, and missile defense missions continue to be at the crux of the U.S. strategy in the Gulf. Realistically, there is little expectation of a ground war involving the UAE, which has a small force of about 50,000 personnel, especially given the lack of an Iranian amphibious capability sufficient to launch such an assault.

Perhaps more crucial has been the UAE’s purchase of the U.S. Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, the successor to the Patriot missile defense system and the most sophisticated equipment currently exported by the United States. The UAE purchase of the THAAD system (slated for delivery in 2013) was meant to send a signal to Tehran that the United States’ allies in the Gulf are working toward an integrated missile defense network designed to neutralize Iran’s major investment in ballistic missile technology. The UAE has also hosted an increasing number of joint exercises and joint training missions, many of which have included a substantial focus on joint missile defense operations.  

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Force Multiplier Throughout the Region

In addition to the longstanding shared focus on Iran, the UAE is also proving to be a significant “force multiplier” for the U.S. in responding to the Arab Spring uprisings that began in early 2011. In pursuing joint action with NATO to support the opposition to Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, for example, the UAE contributed two squadrons of combat aircraft to the combined mission.   

The UAE also joined its fellow states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman) in promoting a diplomatic solution to the 2011 uprising in Yemen. The GCC developed and orchestrated the adoption of a plan under which then President Ali Abdullah Saleh would yield power to his Vice President, which would then be followed by new elections. That plan was ultimately accepted and Saleh departed Yemen in January 2012 — developments that have held the Yemeni state together and provided a cohesive government with which the United States can work against the most active al Qaeda affiliate, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Syria provides another example in which the most active and financially well-endowed GCC states – particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE – have supported U.S. policy. The Obama Administration judged it too risky for the U.S. to fund and supply the Syrian armed opposition, in large part because U.S. intervention could actually have the counterproductive effect of undermining support for the opposition. Instead, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE are supplying funds (and some of these countries are reportedly supplying arms as well) to the opposition Free Syrian Army. This assistance has helped the Free Syrian Army pose a major challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The armed opposition has established a presence in Damascus and Aleppo as of mid-July 2012 and many experts believe al-Assad will likely be toppled within a few months.

As one of the wealthiest of the GCC states, the UAE has also put its ample financial resources to work in serving other U.S.-UAE interests. This was highlighted by the UAE’s donation of funds to drought victims in Somalia and its financing of humanitarian and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Libya, and the Palestinian territories.

While the rotation of American naval forces to the Gulf enables the U.S. to project strategic power in the region, its ongoing alliance with the United Arab Emirates makes it possible to project a matrix of political, economic, military, and even humanitarian power that will ultimately prove far more influential…and adaptable.

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