UAE’s Military Role in the Region Built with U.S. Weapons

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Whether dispatching covert air assaults over Libya or supporting parts of Western-backed Syrian opposition, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appears to be increasingly playing a more independent military role in the Middle East and North Africa. Although UAE has been a strong U.S. military ally, participating in every major global U.S. military coalition effort except for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, UAE’s recent actions, particularly in Libya, have frustrated U.S. officials and raised questions about the potential misuse of U.S.-supplied arms to UAE. As the UAE appears to move more independently, here’s a look at the nature and extent of the U.S.-UAE security relationship since 1994.

The signing of the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) in 1994 between the United States and the UAE initiated the security partnership. While text of the DCA remains classified, the agreement has enabled the pre-positioning of U.S. equipment and warship visits at Jebel Ali port in UAE, and the upgrading of Emirati airfields used by U.S. combat support flights for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The agreement has also benefited the UAE, particularly through significant U.S. arms sales and military training. By selling equipment and training, the United States has not only sought to develop “partner capacity,” but also to strengthen a relationship that has been key to regional legitimacy for attacks against Muslim countries in the past and the Islamic State currently. 

From FY 2009-FY 2013, the UAE bought $5.7 billion worth of military equipment and training from the United States. U.S. government-to-government arms sale deliveries to the UAE grew over that period from $111 million in FY 2009 to $771 million in FY 2013, peaking at $1.45 billion in FY 2012. The arms sales included missiles, radar and other spare parts and equipment, in addition to nearly $80 million in training from FY 2009-FY 2011 alone. In addition, U.S. commercial arms sale deliveries to the UAE totaled $2.2 billion over the same time span, including missile systems, aircraft and aircraft equipment.

The largest single purchase ever made by the UAE was in 2000, when it purchased 80 U.S. F-16 fighter aircraft, which included advanced missile capabilities for over $8 billion. And just this past year, the State Department notified Congress of potential sales worth nearly $4 billion in military equipment and training requested by the UAE. This included, $900 million for high-tech, mobile rocket systems, $2.5 billion for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, $270 million for an F-16 and associated parts and $150 million in trainings for the Presidential Guard Command, the premier unit in the UAE armed forces.

As part of the United Arab Emirates’ significant investment in U.S. military training, the UAE has focused on training that provides skills on the use, operation and maintenance of the U.S.-supplied military equipment. Training courses have included numerous operational enhancement courses like the “AH-64D aviation qualification” course, the “Pilot Instructor T-38C” course and the “C-17 Aircraft Commander Airdrop” course. According to the State Department, this training supports the UAE as a “key regional partner in the Gulf region” and “enhances strategic interoperability” with U.S. forces.

While the Emirati ambassador to the United States has suggested that his nation remains America’s “best friend in this part of the world,” there are continuing questions about whether UAE will conduct more military actions independently, potentially complicating U.S. efforts. In addition, there are ongoing human rights concerns, including the failure to enforce migrant workers’ rights, targeting of Islamist and opposition groups and growing restrictions on freedom of expression and association. As UAE military actions develop, it will be important to follow these movements.