Military cooperation has become a key element of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) foreign policy in the aftermath of the 2011 protests. After the uprisings, the UAE joined Saudi-led counter-revolution efforts across the region, but Abu Dhabi did not limit its foreign policy to reactive and traditional foreign aid. Rather, it has pursued an ambitious, proactive, military-driven stance in the region.

Through this proactive foreign policy, Abu Dhabi has taken sides in some civil conflicts while committing to multilateral peace operations in other theatres. A domestic push to develop Emirati defense capabilities facilitated this active approach. The UAE succeeded in building a reputation as “Little Sparta” through traditional demonstrations of hard power such as arms procurement, national defense capacity-building, and a risk-prone military posture. However, the Emirati focus on military cooperation is much broader. The UAE also sought to integrate elements of soft military power, which involves knowledge transfer and capacity-building. As the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, states “[the Emirati] military doctrine is basically reliant on equipping our personnel with knowledge.” Ultimately, knowledge-sharing supports the UAE’s ambition to be recognized as a globally influential power.

Military training cooperation—the current core of the UAE foreign policy’s added value—allows the Emirates to create new or boost existing bilateral relations. For the past 10 years, the Emirati federation has provided military training and education to several entities in the Middle East, Africa, and Western Asia. This support expands the UAE’s network of state and local alliances abroad, which increases its geopolitical leverage. These policies also promote the image of a capable and stabilization-oriented UAE.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Emirati military cooperation focused on peacebuilding. The UAE sent troops to support Western-led Peace Support Operations (PSOs) in locations such as Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. However, a policy shift occurred in the aftermath of the 2011 protests when the UAE engaged in multilateral military initiatives. In 2011, Emirati fighter jets enforced the no-fly zone in Libya during the NATO-led operation against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Similarly, the UAE performed flying sorties in Syria as part of the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State between 2014 and 2015.

More recently, the UAE escalated its military assertiveness by directly engaging and choosing sides, albeit to varying degrees of involvement, in the Libyan and Yemeni civil wars. Emirati forces have conducted airstrikes against Tripoli-based forces in Libya and provided ground military support to the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen.

The UAE’s cooperation on military training and education currently drives its foreign policy. Emirati forces typically provide military training to countries or regions where it previously operated as a peacekeeper. For example, in Somalia, UAE soldiers contributed to the U.S.-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) peacekeeping mission deployed in 1992 and has been providing training and equipment for the Puntland Maritime Police Force since 2011 and for Somaliland’s police and military forces since 2018. In Afghanistan, about 200 Emirati Special Forces have participated in the NATO-led ISAF mission since 2003. More recently, the UAE provided training to recruits enlisted by the Afghan Elite Forces for counterinsurgency since 2018 and the UAE joined NATO "Resolute Support" as a partner country that same year.

The UAE has also engaged more in West Africa to increase its influence. The UAE has particularly focused on G5 Sahel countries such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger in addition to its economic and infrastructural investments in Mali and Mauritania. The UAE helped establish a military academy in Mauritania–the Mohammed bin Zayed Defense College–in 2016 to train senior officers of the G5 Sahel Force. Combining training and equipment, the UAE provided 30 Typhoon armoured vehicles and 15 made-in-UAE Cougar light armoured vehicles to Mali, as well as trained Malian forces at the Emirati-funded G5 Sahel military academy in 2020.  

The UAE provides military training and education to both regular forces and to hybrid local forces, revealing strategic pragmatism and flexibility. For instance, the UAE worked to rebuild diplomatic ties with Syria by quietly appeasing Bashar Al Assad though military training for the regular army. In Yemen, the UAE has played a remarkable role in organizing, training, and equipping militias in the southern and west coastal regions since the start of the Saudi-led military operation against the Houthis in 2015. Some of these militias, such as the Security Belt Forces and the Hadhrami Elite Forces, were only later institutionalized under the Ministry of Interior and the Army, respectively, turning them into hybrid forces. The UAE’s focus on counterinsurgency and stabilization further pushed the Emiratis to work “by, with, and through” (BWT) the hybrid local forces they trained, as in the case of the Emirati-led operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in southern Yemen. In Yemen, the UAE’s train-and-equip strategy also resulted in the deployment of its home-made NIMR Ajban 440A fighting armoured vehicle.  

These military training and education efforts build on the UAE’s goal to turn Abu Dhabi into a cross-regional defense training and education hub. For example, the UAE hosted a German-run training program for the Iraqi police in collaboration with police instructors from the federation between 2003 and 2011. Furthermore, in 2018, Abu Dhabi added a female contingent by training Arab female peacekeepers at Khawla bint Al Azwar Military Academy for Women. At the interplay between capacity-building and international image, the ongoing initiative is part of the UAE’s Ministry of Defense agreement with UN Women to increase the number of female peacekeepers. The first class comprised 134 women from the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, and Sudan, and graduated in April 2019. The second cohort started training in January 2020, also with African and Asian participants.

The UAE seeks to promote its image as a nation with the capacity to support less stable partners through its focus on military training. Rather than promoting wide-scale institution-building alongside its partners, the UAE’s military training cooperation aims to enhance its geopolitical position by shaping stabilization through incremental and adaptable steps. This will ultimately allow the UAE to become an influential actor and to gain leverage beyond its immediate areas of influence while also maintaining commitment to the stabilization framework it claims to support.[1] For Emirati leadership, military training cooperation is also about international image and nation-branding.  

Building on its internal military goals—crafting a cohesive national identity based on community responsibility, pride, sense of duty, and patriotism—the UAE military training and education cooperation allows them to make an ambitious step further. As militarism is perceived as a national brand, the UAE is translating it into a foreign policy driver.

Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan.

 

[1] See Victor Gervais and Saskia van Genugten (eds.), Stabilising the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa. Regional Actors and New Approaches, Springer Palgrave MacMillan, 2020.