New Arab military force to reckon with as 'Little Sparta' rises

Taylor Luck
Emirati forces show off their latest Western tanks, helicopters, and high-tech gear in an exercise at the Opening Ceremony of the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) arms show Feb. 18 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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The United Arab Emirates is more known for glitzy skyscrapers than military power. But showcasing its hardware and expertise at a recent military expo in Abu Dhabi, the UAE put the world on notice. The tiny Gulf country that former US Defense Secretary James Mattis affectionately refers to as “Little Sparta” is ready to be a dominant player in the Middle East. To do so has demanded changes at all levels of society, increasing military service and enticing young workers to a burgeoning defense sector.

At the end of the 20th century, the UAE military relied on foreign nationals for officers and pilots, and used increasingly outdated equipment. But with the UAE’s economic interests broadening, and nearby Iran expanding its influence, Abu Dhabi realized in the new century that it needed a strong military to protect and bolster its financial clout.

The UAE’s military expenditures jumped from $7.94 billion in 1998 to $24.4 billion by 2014, making it the third-largest arms buyer in the world. Says one Emirati analyst: “Fundamentally, it is an understanding by the UAE that there are multiple threats in the region, and eventually you have to rely on your own capabilities.”

Why We Wrote This

The Middle East's leadership seems suddenly in flux: The Saudis have been humbled, and the US posture toned down. Can a tiny, wealthy emirate rebrand itself to fill the void and become a regional power?

Four armored vehicles rumble out of a stadium tunnel and into a facsimile of a seemingly deserted dusty town, surrounding the location of a “hostile militia” near an abandoned gas station.

Explosions erupt in the mountaintop above, and smoke engulfs the area as troops jump out of the vehicles and trade fire with the unseen “militants.” American-made F-16s roar overhead, and French-made Leclerc tanks arrive on the scene.

Suddenly, dozens of drones blot out the sky above the outdoor stadium, and the tanks, jets, and soldiers fire in a symphony of explosions, gunfire, and screeching tires – all set to the adrenaline-filled Hans Zimmer score from “The Dark Knight,” blaring from speakers.

Why We Wrote This

The Middle East's leadership seems suddenly in flux: The Saudis have been humbled, and the US posture toned down. Can a tiny, wealthy emirate rebrand itself to fill the void and become a regional power?

There was one clear message at the opening ceremony at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference, or IDEX, the Middle East’s largest military expo, held in February in Abu Dhabi. By land, by air, by sea – you name it, the UAE can do it.

But for a country with a population of 1 million citizens, the UAE is trying to do more than just punch above its weight in the Middle East.

As it showcases its hardware and military expertise, Abu Dhabi is putting the world on notice: The tiny Gulf country that former US Defense Secretary James Mattis affectionately refers to as “Little Sparta” is ready to dominate the ring.

But to do so has demanded more than just military expenditures. It has meant changes at all levels of society.

Image overhaul

At first mention, the UAE is not often associated with military power.

With Dubai’s glitzy skyscrapers and man-made islands, and Abu Dhabi’s Louvre museum and Michelin-starred restaurants, the tiny oil-and-gas-rich Gulf state has been famous as a global financial hub and a haven for expatriate workers.

But underneath the glitz and luxury hotels, the UAE has been working rapidly to build itself up as a regional military powerhouse from a modest foundation.

At the end of the 20th century, the UAE Armed Forces were few in number, largely reliant on foreign nationals for officers and pilots, and using increasingly outdated equipment. The forces saw limited involvement in United Nations peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Kosovo.

But with the UAE’s economic interests expanding across the Middle East and North Africa, and nearby Iran expanding its influence, Abu Dhabi came to the realization in the new century that it needed a strong military to protect and bolster its financial clout.

Under the leadership of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE embarked on the rapid modernization and expansion of its army. It first pursued an “Emiratization” of its armed forces by developing and promoting Emirati officers, strategists, pilots, and technicians – restricting foreign nationals to advisory roles.

Abu Dhabi then boosted its military spending, buying up advanced systems and technologies from around the world, including a fleet of 72 F-16s, French Mirage 2000 jets, Patriot-3 missile systems, and Lockheed Martin’s THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile-defense systems.

The UAE’s military expenditures jumped: from $7.94 billion in 1998 to $15.7 billion in 2009 to $24.4 billion by 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In each of the past five years, they have consistently hovered over the $20 billion mark.

Christopher Pike/Reuters
Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, attends the International Defence Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 17, 2019.

By 2014, the UAE had become the second-largest military spender in the Middle East after ally Saudi Arabia, and the third-largest arms buyer in the entire world.

“There has been a substantial increase in capability in a range of areas that has matched requirements for modernization as well as the evolving threat landscape, such as the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Charles Forrester, a defense industry analyst and writer at IHS Jane’s, says in an email.


It was, Emirati observers say, an attempt to add “hard power” to balance the UAE’s growing financial and diplomatic power.

“Fundamentally, it is an understanding by the UAE that there are multiple threats in the region, and eventually you have to rely on your own capabilities,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science.

Perhaps more crucial than its arms buildup, the UAE Armed Forces gained vital battle experience over the past decade by volunteering in international coalitions, including the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, enforcing the international no-fly zone over Libya, and taking part in coalition bombing runs against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria in 2014 and 2015.

Yet Little Sparta’s arrival as a military power came in the Saudi-led war in Yemen in 2015, with Emirati land, naval, air, and special ops forces taking part in daily missions and holding territories within Yemen over the past four years.

Although the Yemen war has been classified as a poorly planned conflict that has sparked the world's largest humanitarian crisis, military observers lay little blame with the UAE, which has emerged as the senior partner in its coalition and has reportedly prevented the conflict from spiraling further.

Made in the UAE

At IDEX, green- and white-uniformed Egyptian, Omani, and Saudi generals flocked to the Emirati stands, hopping into sand-colored armored Nimr vehicles, tracing the fins of Al Tariq guided missiles with their fingers, and looking down the scopes of Caracal sniper rifles.

Tanks. Guided missiles. Drones. Light aircraft. All made in the UAE.

As part of its military drive, the UAE has carefully developed its own domestic defense industry to provide supplies and ammunition and conduct repairs – all in-house.

The aim, insiders say, is to reduce the reliance of UAE Armed Forces on Western suppliers and to have a ready inventory of munitions, spare parts, vehicles, and vessels should the country be engaged in a sudden and protracted military engagement.

To bolster its military industries, Abu Dhabi has encouraged joint ventures between international defense companies and local firms. The research and development is carried out outside the UAE with Emirati funds, and the technology and know-how is then transferred into the UAE for production on Emirati soil.

There are now more than 170 Emirati defense companies producing firearms, guided missiles, drones, all-terrain vehicles, aircraft, and naval vessels – some of which are already used in battle.  

“The UAE is one of the largest customers in the region and the largest financers of research and development,” says one military industry representative whose firm both sells directly to the UAE and has partnered with Emirati firms. “The UAE is very important – this is an epicenter for defense technology.”

Military service

The UAE’s military drive has also captured the imagination and ingenuity of young Emiratis.

With the UAE entering its first full-scale conflict in Yemen, Abu Dhabi passed a law in 2014 requiring a 12-month compulsory military service for Emirati males between the ages of 18 and 30. Last year, the service period was extended to 18 months.

There is a palpable sense of national pride when Emiratis talk of their armed forces and their achievements in such a short timespan.

With the armed forces now numbering 60,000 personnel, most Emirati families have a close relative who has served or is serving in the military. The idea that the tiny Emirates can go toe-to-toe with the proxies of Iran and take out ISIS targets creates a sense of national unity and fills in their Spartan narrative.

With many Emiratis gaining military experience, the defense sector and military planning have become an attractive destination for Emiratis, 76 percent of whom work directly for the government.

“Growing up or at university, we never thought of entering the military or the defense sector,” Khamis al Kaabi, a 24-year-old Emirati who was offered a job by Emirati security firm Etimad upon graduation three years ago to manage its drones division.

“The defense sector is now an attractive industry for young Emiratis,” Mr. al Kaabi says as he showcases Etimad’s drone fleet at IDEX. “Defense is the future.”

The new Sparta?

So how warlike will these changes make the UAE? Analysts say the emphasis will be more on diplomatic action than military.

Rather than aggressive military ventures, they say, the analytical and strategic approach of Emirati leadership will likely lead Abu Dhabi to use its forces to maintain pressure on regional allies and rivals alike. Special operation forces and limited bombing runs will be left as an option to protect Emirati interests from the Gulf to North Africa.

This is no headfirst “all-guns-blazing” approach, as some diplomats have used to characterized UAE ally Saudi Arabia.

The UAE retains military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland, keeps an active role in Libya, and will likely look to continue to contain Iran’s ballistic missiles and reinforce the stability of pro-Abu Dhabi governments in the Arab world.

There remain some concerns whether, as Abu Dhabi expands its military reach, its advanced weaponry will fall into the hands of less accountable allies and proxies.

Amnesty International reported in February that the same models and makes of military vehicles and weapons sold to the UAE are now in use by pro-government militias in Yemen. Emirati insiders and US defense firms brushed aside the reports as “unconfirmed.”

US ties

But another question remains: How will a stronger UAE affect the US?

A less-tethered and independent UAE pursuing its military, political, and security goals may become a complicating factor for US policymakers as Abu Dhabi throws its military might behind its economic clout in the Arab world.

At the same time, despite the rapid growth of its own defense industry, the UAE’s reliance on the US military and technology is unlikely to waver anytime soon.

The UAE accounts for 7.4 percent of total US arms sales and, after Saudi Arabia, is the second-largest buyer of American defense technologies and weapons.

The IDEX show saw several multimillion-dollar contracts awarded to US firms, such as a $2 billion deal with Raytheon for Patriot system rocket launchers and a $109 million deal for Lockheed Martin radars.

The US Department of Defense also announced a joint US-UAE hospital to be built in the Emirates, modeled off the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany, to serve wounded American and Emirati servicemen and women.

The UAE’s values and interests in the region are closely aligned with America’s, US diplomatic and defense officials say, insisting that a militarized UAE benefits America both economically and on the battlefield as Washington looks to pull back its involvement in the region.

Despite concerns, they insist that a stronger UAE is a force for good in the region.

Let Little Sparta do the heavy lifting, they say.

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