Neutrality, trade links may make best defense

The United Arab Emirates is in no position to make enemies.

Situated at the southern end of the Gulf near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, with a small indigenous population, a small army, and an economy dependent on oil flowing through vulnerable production facilities, this wealthy federation of desert sheikhdoms cannot risk charting an independent course in this volatile region.

That is part of the logic behind joining the Gulf Cooperation Council, formed largely in response to the continuing Gulf war between Iran and Iraq, which broke out in September 1980. It was an effort to assemble a more credible deterrent against potential attacks from foreign forces.

The primary concern was - and still is - that Iran might launch an air attack against Gulf oil facilities.

Despite all this, the U.A.E. has tried to maintain a dialogue with Iran and has at times attempted to mediate an end to the conflict.

Part of the reason relations with Iran have not deteriorated - despite the U.A.E.'s estimated $1.5 billion in wartime aid to Iraq - has been the uninterrupted trade Dubai and Sharjah have carried on with Iran ever since the hostage crisis and US trade sanctions against Iran.

The fact that this trade continued after the start of the Gulf war has led to strained relations between the U.A.E. and Iraq. The U.A.E. President, Sheikh Zayid ibn Sultan al-Nuhayan, has maintained that no weapons have been sent to either side. He has tried to remain as neutral as possible during the conflict and has repeatedly called on both sides to end the fighting.

Some analysts suggest that today Zayid's open lines of communication to Tehran may be more valuable to Iraq than any military contributions the U.A.E. might have made. So far, despite announced Iraqi intentions to stop fighting, the Iranians have refused to end the war, despite various mediation efforts.

Some analysts say that because of their diplomatic and trade contacts, the Emirates are less of a target for Iran than other Arab states that have clearly sided with Iraq.

But the threat of an attack on the U.A.E's oil fields still exists, all the more dangerous because of the continued upheavals in revolutionary Iran.

''In an atmosphere of revolution, any nut who thinks he can make a name for himself may try it (bombing the oil fields) - and there's a good chance of his getting away with it.''

The Emirates is building its defensive capabilities. The country has the financial resources to purchase the most advanced weapons on the market, including US-madeF-18, F-16, and F-15 fighters. The U.A.E. Air Force has about 26 French Mirage fighters and nine Italian fighters. In 1981 it brought 30 British Hawk fighters.

Officials say the U.A.E. is interested in only Western military hardware, from the United States, France, or Britain. U.A.E. officials stress that before formally requesting any weapons from the US they will seek a guarantee that they will not encounter the same type of political reaction in the US that greeted the Saudi requests to buy F-15 fighters and the AWACS planes.

The US has already agreed to supply the U.A.E. with Hawk antiaircraft missiles, said to be the most advanced such missiles built. The Saudis are currently using the Hawk missile system.

In addition, the Emirates are talking with the US, France, and Britain about buying advanced jet fighters. ''The position of the Emirates is that we want advanced technology and therefore we will not accept second-rate or out-of-date equipment,'' a senior official said.

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