UAE gets the best military money can buy

May 30, 2000

On May 24, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov’s office announced a half billion dollar contract to supply a top-shelf anti-aircraft system to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to Interfax. Combined with the UAE’s recent purchase of 80 F-16s from the United States, this sale will vastly increase the military punch of what was until recently a minor player in the kaleidoscopic politics of the Persian Gulf. This arms deal will have geopolitical implications both in and beyond the gulf. Notably, Iranian and Russian interests will increasingly be at odds.

The UAE’s 65,000-strong military will soon be among the most formidable in the gulf region. The US-built F16C/D fighters are among the world’s most advanced aircraft in service. The Russian-built Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft system is also a top-of-the-line self-propelled system. Mounted on the rear of a Ural eight-by-eight truck – reports on the exact type conflict – the turret holds 12 modified SA-19 missiles, each with a range of 39,000 feet.

The strange bedfellows of Persian Gulf politics are reflected in these arms deals. On one hand, these purchases dramatically increased the emirates’ value to the United States as a protector of the gates of the Persian Gulf. But conversely, Washington may question the reliability of the UAE if the Russian deal goes through. And clearly, Moscow’s offer is the latest in a string of attempts to increase its own influence in the region. Russia is increasing military cooperation with Yemen.

More immediately, the UAE’s new muscle will boost its negotiating position with Iran and even give the emirates some leverage over its powerful neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The UAE lays claim to three islands in the Strait of Hormuz that Iran currently occupies. Saudi Arabia has refused to pin its own gulf diplomacy on resolving the islands dispute – much to the chagrin of the emirates. The emirates and Saudi Arabia also share a disputed border of their own. And despite the UAE’s small population, the much larger countries will think twice before enforcing their desires on the UAE.

But while the UAE will have more leverage in local disputes, it will not be able to menace its larger neighbors – even with the new purchases. It is notable that the UAE is acquiring air defenses while Saudi Arabia negotiates with the United States for more F-15 fighters. But even with more sophisticated weapons, Abu Dhabi would have trouble raising a more robust military or pursuing an aggressive foreign policy; nearly 70 percent of the population is composed of foreign national guest workers.

One of the most important impacts of these arms deals will be felt on the other side of the Persian Gulf, in Iran. Since the UAE and Iran are at odds over the islands, the Russian sale will not sit well in Tehran. Moscow could even be using this arms deal to pressure Tehran, since it is becoming clear that Iran is countering Russia’s expanding influence in the Caucasus.

More than a simple business deal, the sale of these weapons will stir up tension in and beyond the Persian Gulf.

(c) 2000 WNI, Inc.


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