United Arab Emirates

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents


The numerous treaties that Britain concluded with the several gulf amirates in the nineteenth century provided, inter alia, that the British were responsible for foreign relations and protection from attack by sea. Until the early 1950s, the principal military presence in the Trucial Coast states (sometimes referred to as Trucial Oman) consisted of British-led Arab security forces and the personal bodyguard units of the ruling shaykhs. In 1951 the British formed the Trucial Oman Levies (later called the Trucial Oman Scouts) under a British commander who reported to the British political agent of the gulf. By the time the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became independent on December 2, 1971, the scouts had become a mobile force of about 1,600 men, trained and led by about thirty British officers assisted by Jordanian noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Arabs from the Trucial Coast made up only about 40 percent of the strength; Omanis, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Indians made up the remainder. Organized as light armored cavalry, the scouts used British weapons, trucks, and armored cars in carrying out police functions and in keeping peace among the tribes of the various amirates. During its approximately two decades of existence, the unit was respected for its impartial role in maintaining public order on the coast.

At the time of independence and federation, the Trucial Oman Scouts became the nucleus of the Union Defense Force (UDF), responsible to the federal minister of defense, the Supreme Council of the Union, and--ultimately--to the president of the federation, Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, who continued to fill this office in 1993. Separate amirate forces are also authorized by the provisional constitution, and the separate entities of the union--especially Abu Dhabi--have made clear that they intend to maintain their own forces. Drawing on tremendous oil wealth accumulated in the early 1960s, the amir of Abu Dhabi gave high priority to the development of the Abu Dhabi Defense Force (ADDF) when the British withdrawal from the gulf was announced. The ADDF--with 15,000 men and primarily British and Jordanian officers-- consisted of three army battalions, an artillery battery, twelve Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers, and a sea defense wing of four fast patrol boats. Dubayy had a much smaller force of 2,000, Ras al Khaymah had 900, and Sharjah had even fewer.

Personnel for the UDF and separate amirate forces were recruited from several countries of the region, but soon after independence enlistments from Dhofar region in Oman and from the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, also seen as South Yemen) were curtailed out of fear that personnel from these areas might spread dangerous revolutionary doctrines. As the largest in territory, the most populous, and by far the richest of the amirates, Abu Dhabi has borne the brunt of funding the federation's military establishment. A major step toward unification of forces occurred in 1976 when Abu Dhabi, Dubayy, and Ras al Khaymah announced the merger of their separate armed forces with the UDF. Sharjah had previously merged its police and small military units into the UDF.

Despite the promises and pledges of 1976, true integration and unification of the UAE armed forces has not occurred. The UDF is seen by some, particularly the amir of Dubayy, as merely an extension of Abu Dhabi power. Individual amirs view their forces as symbols of sovereignty no matter the size or combat readiness of the units. The separate forces therefore continue as they had earlier, but they are called regional commands, only nominally part of the UDF. Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan's attempt to install his eighteen-year-old son as commander in chief in 1978 shook the fragile unity of the UDF. Although the appointment was rescinded, Dubayy's resolve strengthened to maintain the autonomy of the Central Military Command, its own regional military command.

As of 1992, the commander in chief of the UDF was Zayid ibn Sultan. The crown prince, Lieutenant General Khalifa ibn Zayid Al Nuhayyan, held immediate command as deputy commander in chief. The chief of staff with operational responsibilities was Major General Muhammad Said al Badi, a UAE national who replaced a Jordanian general in the post in the early 1980s. His headquarters is in Abu Dhabi. The minister of defense is Shaykh Muhammad ibn Rashid Al Maktum, son of the ruler of Dubayy. The ministry, located in Dubayy, concerns itself primarily with administrative, personnel, and logistic matters and apparently has little influence on operational aspects of the UDF.

In data published by the Department of State in mid-1991, the total strength of the UDF with responsibility for defense of six of the seven amirates was estimated at 60,000. Dubayy forces of the Central Military Command with responsibility for the defense of Dubayy were given as 12,000. The Department of State estimated that there were 1,800 in the UDF air force and 1,000 in the navy. Estimates of ground forces given in The Military Balance, 1992-1993 were significantly lower.

The Military Balance stated that perhaps 30 percent of the armed services consist of foreigners, although other sources claim that the forces had a much higher proportion of non-UAE nationals. Omanis predominate in the enlisted ranks, but there are also many Pakistanis among the more than twenty nationalities represented. Well into the 1980s, many mid-level officers were Britons under contract, as well as Pakistanis and Omanis. By 1991 the officer corps was composed almost exclusively of amirate nationals, according to the Department of State. The UAE lacks a conscription system and is unlikely to adopt one. It was announced in 1990 that all university students would undergo military training as a requirement for graduation. Although adopted as a reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the UAE authorities reportedly are considering continuation of the requirement as a possible prelude to reservist training.

Organization and Equipment

The principal units of the UDF in 1993 were one mechanized infantry brigade, one armored brigade, two infantry brigades, one artillery brigade, and the Royal Guard, organized along brigade lines. The Central Military Command of Dubayy supplies one infantry brigade. Major weapons include French AMX-30 main battle tanks, of which an additional twenty-five tanks are on order. The Central Military Command separately purchased Italian OF-40 Mk 2 Lion tanks. French armor predominates throughout the army; it includes reconnaissance vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, APCs, and 155mm self-propelled howitzers. Negotiations were reportedly under way in 1992 for the purchase of 337 M1A1 tanks from the United States. The UAE also has a variety of older British armored vehicles, many of them in storage, as well as Brazilian APCs. The army's antitank guided wire missiles include twenty-five TOWs from the United States, some of them mounted on Urutu chassis, as well as French Milan and HOT and the older British Vigilant systems. Because of difficulties of coordination between air- and ground-based defenses, the operation of air defense missiles was shifted to the air force in 1988. The army's tactical air defense is limited to 20mm and 30mm guns.

The most powerful units of the UDF navy are two Lürssen corvettes delivered by Germany in 1991, similar to those of the Bahraini navy. The corvettes are supplemented by fast-attack craft and large patrol boats.

The air force is organized into two fighter-ground attack squadrons, one air defense squadron, and one counterinsurgency squadron. The fighter-ground attack squadrons are equipped with Mirage IIIs and British Hawks, the latter with a combined attack and training role. The fighter squadron is composed of Mirage 5s and Mirage 2000s. The counterinsurgency squadron is equipped with the Italian Aermacchi. In addition, the air force has four early warning aircraft. A number of French helicopters are armed with Exocet, HOT, and other air-to-ground missiles. In 1991 the United States agreed to the sale of twenty Apache attack helicopters after the administration overcame objections in Congress by pointing out that the helicopters were needed to defend the UAE's oil platforms in the gulf and to enable the UAE to contribute more effectively to the deterrence of aggression by Iraq.

The existing air defense system is based on one air defense brigade organized into thirteen batteries armed with Rapier, Crotale, and RBS-70 SAMs. Five batteries of improved Hawk missiles were being formed in 1992, with training provided by the United States.

The Role of the United Arab Emirates in the Iran-Iraq War and the Persian Gulf War

The attitude of the UAE during attacks on international shipping in the Iran-Iraq War was ambivalent. The amirates were profiting from a brisk reexport trade with Iran; furthermore, they felt vulnerable because their offshore oil facilities were exposed to the danger of Iranian attack. Dubayy and Ras al Khaymah in particular, with a substantial number of Iranians and native Shia, leaned toward Iran and were reluctant to abandon their neutrality. Abu Dhabi, however, as the richest oil state, adopted a pro-Arab stance in the war favoring Iraq. An offshore oil platform belonging to Abu Dhabi was hit by Iranian missiles in 1987; although denying responsibility, Iran paid an indemnity. The Department of State credited the UAE with supporting the United States Navy during its convoy operations despite Iranian threats of retaliation.

Reversing its earlier policy of avoiding collaboration with foreign military powers, the UAE, according to the Department of State, was the first gulf state to propose combined military action to deter Iraq when it threatened war against Kuwait. An air refueling exercise between United States and UAE aircraft one week before the invasion of Kuwait was intended as a warning signal to Iraq. During the Persian Gulf War, UAE troops, reportedly numbering several hundred, participated in the conflict as part of the GCC Peninsula Shield force that advanced into the city of Kuwait. United States aircraft bombed Iraqi positions from the UAE, and United States ships, including aircraft carriers, operated out of UAE ports. The UAE air force also carried out strikes against Iraqi forces. A total of six UAE combat deaths were reported as a result of the fighting.

The UAE defense budget remained fairly stable at about US$1.6 billion between 1988 and 1991. However, an additional US$3.3 billion represented UAE contributions and pledges in 1991 to other countries in connection with the war. Total UAE support to other countries participating in the Persian Gulf War was reported to have reached US$6 billion by mid-1991; payments of nearly US$3.8 billion had been made to the United States, US$500 million to Britain, and US$1.4 billion to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and seven other nations, combined, to offset their economic losses from the war. Oil prices and UAE oil production rose significantly after the outbreak of the gulf crisis; exports rose from US$15.5 billion in 1989 to US$21.0 billion in 1990. However, the balance of payments was negative for the first time as a result of UAE contributions to other countries affected by the crisis and large capital transfers out of the country during the period.

Internal Security Problems

In the past, internal dynastic rivalries within individual amirates were often sources of tension and even bloodshed. In part, this resulted from the absence of clearly established rules of succession. More recently, however, heirs apparent have usually been designated, most often the eldest son of the amir. Intra-UAE rivalries no longer take a violent form, but the continued existence of independent military forces and competition in acquiring arms bring with them a costly proliferation of weapons that complicates training and logistics.

The threat of subversion from resident Iranians and native Shia seems to be less acute in the UAE than in other gulf states in spite of the large Shia population in Dubayy. Dubayy and Sharjah have traditionally maintained good relations with Iran and enjoyed profits from maritime trade, particularly the transshipment of items officially banned in Iran to conserve foreign exchange. The UAE is not a target of Iranian terrorist attacks.

The provisional constitution authorizes federal police and security guard forces, which are subordinate to the Ministry of Interior. The strength of the police force has not been reported but is estimated as relatively large and vigilant in exercising control over political activities. Individual shaykhs had their own police forces before independence and maintained those forces after unification. Both the federal government and the amirate of Dubayy retain independent internal security organizations. The police forces of the other amirates are also involved in antinarcotic and antiterrorist activities.

Criminal cases are tried either by sharia courts administered by each amirate or by civil courts of the federal system that exist in several amirates. Rights of due process are accorded under both systems. Defendants are entitled to legal counsel. No formal public defender system exists, but the judge has responsibility for looking after the interests of persons not represented by counsel. Under the Criminal Procedures Code adopted in 1992, the accused has the right to defense counsel, provided by the government, if necessary, in cases involving possible sentence of death or life imprisonment. There are no jury trials, but trials are open except in cases involving national security or morals offenses. No separate security courts exist, and military courts try only military personnel in a system based on Western military judicial principles. According to Department of State human rights reports, the criminal court system is generally regarded as fair. Despite the lack of a formal bail system, there are instances of release on deposit of money or passport.

Detentions must be reported to the attorney general within forty-eight hours; the attorney general must decide within twenty-four hours whether to charge, release, or allow further limited detention. Most persons receive expeditious trials, although Iraqis and Palestinians had been held incommunicado in detention for one or two months in 1991. Others were being held in jail because they were unwilling or unable to return to their countries of origin.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress