Recently, the Trump administration notified Congress that it plans to sell roughly $23 billion worth of U.S arms to the United Arab Emirates, which includes advanced F-35 combat aircraft, armed MQ-9 drones, and $10 billion worth of bombs and missiles.
One can discuss this deal from different perspectives, such as why the US is willing to sell such sophisticated weapons to a government that has been killing civilians in Yemen, funding mercenaries in Libya, and imprisoning more than 100 of its own citizens for calling for reform?
According to Human Rights Watch: “UAE residents who have spoken about human rights issues are at serious risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture. Many are serving long prison terms or have left the country under pressure…” Or why does the U.S ignore the call from 29 arms control and human rights organizations that have signed a letter opposing this deal?
Instead, my focus will be on a UAE perspective, specifically, I want to answer three questions. First, is the decision to buy these weapons made by institutions that represent the collective will of UAE citizens? Second, does this decision enhance the UAE’s security and promote its development? Third, if the decision does not serve the interest of UAE citizens then what is the rationale for making it?
In answering the first question I want to remind the reader that in Gulf Monarchies (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman) strategic decisions like military spending and other major expenditures are not made by transparent institutions that are representative of the whole society but rather by the ruler and a handful of his entourage behind closed doors and, in most cases, the purpose of the deals is to serve their interests and to consolidate their grip on power. In the UAE, most major decisions since the death of the founder of the UAE Sheikh Zayed in 2004 have been made by the crown Prince of Abu-Dhabi, Mohamed Bin Zayed (MBZ), overruling more senior individuals in the Union simply because he controls the purse.
As to the second question, I would argue that the decision to squander billions of dollars on arms neither provides security nor prosperity for the UAE or the region at large. Indeed, the history of military spending in the region since the oil boom in the early seventies attests to this fact. This is because real and lasting security begins by putting trust in the people of the region and treating them as partners rather than followers by establishing genuine parliaments that make each of these states stronger internally.
Once each government has won the trust of its people, it can then proceed to strengthen its relations with other states through the implementation of the Unified Economic Agreement signed in 1981 and the activation of the Peninsula Shield Force which was established in 1984.
These political, economic, and security steps and others if done carefully and with good intentions will be confidence-building among governments and people alike and will enable these countries to reduce their current and ineffective military spending and divert the savings toward development projects in the Gulf Region, including in Yemen. These steps can also, if complemented by other alliances at the regional and international level, be a strong deterrence to any Iranian threat to these countries and could in the long-run lead to a regional security understanding that will create peace in the region.
This brings us to the third question: if military spending at this scale does not provide security for the region nor progress, then why go ahead with it? In my view, there at least five reasons why MBZ is going it alone and spending astronomical figures on arms purchases. First, the stakes for him and his family of real reforms in the region are high because of the size of the wealth they control in Abu-Dhabi, the same wealth which makes MBZ able and willing to resort to all forms of oppression internally and externally.
Second, MBZ and his full brothers monopolize the procurement of weapons and therefore they are the main beneficiaries of arms deals, which according to some studies pay commissions that exceed 15% of the value of each transaction, and these commissions are usually laundered through different channels into private accounts outside the country.
Third, claiming to be a leader of “little Sparta” in the region that is fighting terrorism helps MBZ to silence any domestic opposition to his oppressive regime and also absorbs any calls for reform from the rest of the world.
Fourth, the deal is an inducement by Trump’s administration for MBZ to give unconditional support to the colonial and racist policies of Israel with no regard to the rights of the Palestinian people in their occupied land or to international laws, a policy that will only increase instability in the region, because the Palestinian issue will not go away simply because of a hasty and unjust decision made by the U.S Administration or a decision made by MBZ.
Finally, MBZ and his team have invested huge resources on lobbying in the US, and the purchase of weapons is part of this lobbying campaign. MBZ understands that when it comes to democracy promotion in the Middle East, U.S administrations have always talked the talk but they do not walk the walk, so why not buy the support of Washington.
In the words of a Washington-based analyst of the region: “The UAE and other countries know how to conquer and infiltrate our inter-agency process. We let them run roughshod over our interests while advancing theirs.” In a nutshell, MBZ is a loose cannon, and he has laid his hands on an oil treasure in the absence of any accountability. He sees any change in the status quo as an existential threat to his illegitimate authority and unearned wealth.
As such, he considers any disagreement with his opponents within the UAE or outside as a zero-sum game that must be won at any cost even by killing the innocent, oppressing the free, and destroying cities and villages. MBZ is to put bluntly a psychopath.
Image: A picture taken from a UAE military vehicle on August 8, 2018, during a trip in Yemen organized by the UAE’s National Media Council (NMC) shows Yemeni soldiers loyal to the Saudi and UAE-backed government riding armed pickups through a mountain road north of the southeastern city of Mukalla, the capital Hadramawt province. (Photo by KARIM SAHIB / AFP) (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)