The UAE: Political Issues and Security Dilemmas
By Sean Foley
At the end of the twentieth century, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) enjoys a favorable strategic position compared to the rest of the southern Gulf states. The federation faces no immediate threat of invasion, overwhelming debt, organized domestic opposition or economic collapse. The emirates’ rivalries have largely abated and there appears to be the beginnings of a federal civil society. In addition, the United States ensures the federation’s security.
Yet the UAE must grapple with the same challenges that have Afflicted the poorer Middle East states: rapid population growth, lack of economic diversification, low oil prices, low water supplies and dependence on foreign labor. At the same time, the UAE’s most charismatic leader and only president — Abu Dhabi Ruler Shaykh Zayid — is in poor health and lacks a strong successor. Some analysts question whether the federation’s will remain unified after Zayid’s death.
Moreover, the UAE’s military forces — either on their own or in combination with those of the GCC — cannot deter the federation’s principal security threat, Iran. The federation claims that Iran illegally occupies Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, but Tehran has refused to relinquish control over these three islands. UAE officials believe that the best way to restrain Iranian expansion in the southern Gulf is to integrate a unified, militarily strong Iraq into the Gulf’s balance of power. The problem with this strategy is that the United States, which currently dominates the Gulf’s military balance, believes that the current regime in Baghdad threatens regional security and opposes any plan that would reintegrate Iraq into an international security structure.
Although the UAE is not currently threatened by an invasion or economic collapse, the federation will have to reform its society and develop collective and integrated security arrangements with its allies to maintain its security in the future. If the federation does not address its domestic and security challenges soon, its problems will become as critical as those of its neighbors
THE UAE’s STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE
Unlike any other Middle Eastern state, the United Arab Emirates is a federation, consisting of seven tribally-based emirates that controls the southeastern portion of the Arabian peninsula south of Bahrain and Qatar. The federation covers 83,600 square kilometers and is bordered on the north by the Persian Gulf and Iran, on the east by Oman, and on the south and west by Saudi Arabia. The UAE also separates Oman from its territory on the Musandam peninsula and extends 90 kilometers along the Gulf of Oman, an area known as the al-Batinah coast. Most of the federation is arid desert and salt flats, but there are mountains in the northeast that rise to 1,200 meters. Rainfall is very low and there are few fertile areas except in the north and among the oases. 1
Nonetheless, the UAE is strategically important because it produces 10% of the world’s oil supply and has the fourth-largest natural gas reserves in the world.2 Over the past 30 years, the UAE has used these resources and strategic location to become one of the wealthiest states in the world. It was a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and has supported Western security policies in the Persian Gulf. The UAE provided $6.572 billion in assistance to the United States during the 1991 Gulf War, and permits that country to use its air bases and ports, which are the only harbors in the Persian Gulf deep enough to berth an aircraft carrier. In the long run, the stability of the UAE is critical to the free flow of shipping though the Strait of Hormuz and the defense of the GCC from Iran and Iraq.
THE UAE’s HISTORY
The UAE, however, was formed in 1971 and only adopted a permanent constitution in 1996. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Britain administered the territories that would become the UAE (the so-called “Trucial Coast” states) as protectorates. When Britain announced that it would withdraw from the Persian Gulf, the Foreign Office assumed that the UAE would include the Trucial Coast as well as Qatar and Bahrain. Those latter two emirates, however, refused to join the UAE and became independent states when Britain left in 1971. Ras al-Khaimah also sought independence, but it lacked the resources and the international support to survive on its own. It joined the federation in 1972. Today the UAE is composed of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwan and Ajman.
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