Bigger than Blackwater: Arming the UAE

The International Defense Exhibition, otherwise known as IDEX, has been held bi-annually in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 1993. It is the largest defense expo in the Middle East and North Africa and one of the biggest in the world. But far from being a one-off, it highlights the UAE’s growing stature as a global arms buyer.

This year’s IDEX took place in the glistening Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center. Its high ceilings and massive rooms displayed a diverse array of high-tech weaponry against the backdrop of heavily illuminated signboards like the ones you see in the showrooms of luxury car dealerships. All the big Western defense corporations were there — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Dyncorp, Northrup Grumman, European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. — as well as Chinese companies, including China North. There were also a host of local companies including Arabian Aerospace, Abu Dhabi Ship Building Company, and the state-owned Mubadala. Like all of these events, it was a heavily male enterprise. The exhibitors wore suits. The visitors wore either the military uniform of the UAE or traditional Arab dress.

Outside, the expo began with a parade and air show, and representatives from BAE Systems gave passersby a tour of the latest features of their all-terrain tank. Just inside the entry hall, visitors could check out a parked yellow Hummer on their way to the exhibits. At the U.S. pavilion, a representative from Boeing demonstrated the features of its integrated defense simulator, and General Dynamics showed off its latest MK- 47 machine gun. At the Lockheed Martin exhibit, you could get within inches of anti-aircraft missiles  propped on plastic risers like pieces of modernist art — so shiny you could see your reflection in them.

This lavish exhibition occurred a full three months before The New York Times broke the story that former Blackwater/Xe founder Erik Prince had struck a secret deal worth $529 million with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to form a mercenary army for the UAE. According to reports cited in the story, the force will be used to protect oil pipelines and skyscrapers against terrorist attacks and suppress internal uprisings of the large population of migrant workers living in the country — as well as potentially engaging Iran, long the UAE’s biggest regional foe.

Coverage so far has centered on Prince and his notorious company. But the full story of the UAE’s employment of foreign companies to build up its military and defense goes well beyond Blackwater/Xe and includes a virtual who’s who of Western defense companies.

A Brief History of the UAE Military

The UAE we know today is a relatively new entity. For most of the last two centuries Britain provided security in the region in exchange for lucrative trading deals and control of the sheikhs’ relations with other foreign powers. Security was handed over to the UAE in 1971, when the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and four other emirates agreed to form a federal union.

Although the UAE’s military, known as the Union Defense Force (UDF), is technologically advanced, it is relatively small in numbers. In many armies, the vast underclass typically fills the rank and file. But in the UAE, this social group is made up almost entirely of non-citizens — migrant workers who build the roads, skyscrapers, and golf courses where the oil titans and Branjelinas of the world like to play. There are currently about 65,000 members serving in the UDF. Though most of the officers are UAE nationals, most of the foot soldiers are mercenaries from other Arab states and Pakistan.

In recent years the UAE has made massive military and defense investments in an effort to rebuff Iran, become a dominant military player in the region, and diversify its oil-dependent economy. Recruiting ever more foreign soldiers — like the Colombian paramilitaries who will be part of Prince’s mercenary outfit — is a key part of this endeavor. Purchasing ever larger amounts of the best high-tech weaponry is perhaps an even more important part. In 2009, the UAE was the biggest foreign purchaser of U.S. arms. In October 2010, it invited 50 U.S.-based defense companies to visit and see the opportunities for growth first-hand.

Who’s Profiting from the UAE Arms Proliferation?

The UAE’s long-term plan is to build its own defense industry into a major international player. In accordance with this plan, 75 percent of the contracts at IDEX went to local firms, including Emirate Systems, which got a $550 million deal to coordinate military intelligence and communicate military operations down the chain of command. Another major deal involved the Abu Dhabi-based Bayanat Company, which obtained a contract to provide aerial surveillance within the UAE.

As with most aspects of the UAE economy, Western businesses have an integral and profitable role to play in this endeavor. They work as “partners” with the local companies. Typically, this means they provide the expertise, training, and equipment, while the UAE government provides the money. The state-owned Mubadala Development Company, which has seen growing profits in recent years, does business with all the biggest Western contractors.

All parties involved are careful about how they publicly frame these partnerships. The UAE works hard to brand such endeavors with the proper Arabian stamp. To this end, an official video of the UAE armed forces posted on YouTube shows shirtless Arab sailors with turbans rowing apace with a massive battleship, men in long white robes and head scarves riding vigorously atop Arabian horses alongside tanks in the desert, and real-live falcons flying next to F-16 Fighting Falcon planes. Okay, we get it. Modern killing technology meets the elegant tradition of the Arabian warrior. This is the best of both worlds, a potent (pun intended) mixture of Western and Arabian warrior traditions.

The Western defense industries are equally careful to stem potential accusations that they have sold out to foreign Muslims who might one day turn their backs on us and join the global jihad. In the United States, industry reps couch their connections with the UAE in the all-American lingo of good business ethics. The spokesperson for the National Defense Industries Association (NDIA), the industry’s most influential lobbying arm, explained that the UAE firms “profess similar values as U.S. industry. They all emphasize integrity, service, commitment and excellence.”

They also share the value of making money. A brief sampling of recent contracts gives an idea of just how much money is at stake in the growth of the UAE’s military apparatus:

Who Loses Out?

The rapid expansion of the UAE military has the tacit support, if not outright blessing, of the U.S. government. In response to the news that Blackwater had struck a deal with the UAE, an Obama administration official was quoted as saying, “The gulf countries, and the UAE in particular, don’t have a lot of military experience. It would make sense if they looked outside their borders for help…They might want to show that they are not to be messed with.” The Defense Department recently announced reforms that will make it easier for domestic defense companies to export their products to foreign buyers.

There are at least two reasons for the administration’s position. First and foremost, it regards the UAE as one of its most important allies in the region. The Emirates supported both Iraq Wars, and it currently is involved in cracking down on the protest movement in Bahrain — it sent 500 police officers to suppress the revolt in the tiny Gulf kingdom. In the midst of the crackdown, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed was welcomed by the White House with open arms.

Support for exporting U.S. arms to the UAE is also part of a larger move to accommodate the defense industry, which has repeatedly voiced concern about the threat of a shrinking defense budget, although the supposed 78 billion dollars in cuts represent little more than a cap on future growth and a reshuffling of the current budget.

In this broader context of both the U.S. willingness to provide arms for Gulf allies and the ongoing budget wars in the United States, direct contracts between the defense industry and the UAE appear to be a win-win situation for everyone — everyone, that is, except the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and critics of the UAE regime who will be among the targets of the military’s beefed-up surveillance systems and the mercenary’s guns.

It is telling that the UAE government would rather hire mercenaries to suppress potential rebellions than improve the conditions of these workers, who are systemically abused by their bosses and forced to live in cramped slums with little or no access to basic infrastructure and services. In recent months, the UAE has arrested and jailed at least five democracy activists as well as disbanded the board of directors for the National Jurists Association and the Teacher’s Association, two of the country’s most eminent civil society organizations and supporters of democratic reform. The UAE’s enhanced military apparatus will likely suppress any potential protest movement that might develop as part of the Arab Spring.

The enhanced ties between the United States and the UAE raise important questions about who is actually responsible for the actions of the Emirati military. Currently, neither the U.S. government nor the defense industry has spoken out against the government’s crackdown. It would be delusional not to acknowledge the U.S.  role in the UAE’s human rights abuses. If and when an atrocity is committed against the migrant workers and democracy activists by the UAE military, Erik Prince and the UAE government won’t be the only ones to blame.