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It’s a country of endless beaches, very pleasant winter weather, tax-free living, and massive hydrocarbon reserves. A typical weekend can involve an all-you-can-drink brunch at a local five star followed by excessive partying and all sorts of stories that should be impossible in a severely conservative society. The United Arab Emirates is a country where worry is comparatively foreign for those outside the labor camps: “No problem,” the locals will say to virtually anything that might seem challenging.
So why in the hell would such a quiet, anxiety-free state go to war?
Because the Middle East is unbelievably scary, and has never been more so
The seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates are in a terrible neighborhood. To the north is mighty, and occasionally angry, Iran, which historically dominated the Persian Gulf and which is still not thrilled about sharing it with the regional power bloc the Gulf Co-Operation Council, or GCC, made up of the Arab states on the Saudi side. To the west is unpredictable Saudi Arabia, which once tried to grab a huge chunk of the emirates back in the 1950s, and which is not above land grabs at the UAE’s expense. (And which is reaching a boiling point where the actions of the royals can’t be second guessed).
Further afield is the chaos you’re very well aware of – the nightmares unleashed by the Islamic State being at forefront.
And it’s that Islamic State which scares the hell out of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, the country’s defense hub.
The idiosyncratic journey of the UAE is one of a very conservative corner of the Earth running headfirst into the arms of a very liberal portion of it
Remember that the UAE itself is unbelievably unattractive except for its hydrocarbons and winter weather. Top that off with its (currently) strategic location. It’s a fine base for the West to pressure the Iranians, keep an eye on the oil, and air strike whoever in the region needs an air striking. So for Westerners, there’s much advantage to the UAE.
But that doesn’t explain the UAE’s own decision to start fighting hot wars.
Rather, the UAE’s success very early on depended entirely on the West. First, Britain helped ward off Saudi Arabia’s raiders during the Buraimi Crisis, which probably saved most of the UAE’s oil reserves from falling into Saudi hands. Then, from 1971 onward, the UAE’s defense needs were met by an increasingly assertive American military, which surged into the region following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Having backed Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion taught every Gulf ruler a lesson: they couldn’t trust their fellow Arabs as much as the distant and post-imperial West.
So the rulers double-downed on the West, and specifically the United States, buying up military kit they didn’t really need to fight wars that weren’t really in the offing. Western technology, culture, and economic systems were imported wholesale; conservatives were bribed or yelled at just enough to keep them silent. There was no need for a brutal security apparatus to keep down the Muslim Brothers. In the 1970s and 80s, the danger to the rulers came from Arab nationalists, who were busy self-destructing following the death of Egypt’s Abdel-Nasser, and communists sponsored by South Yemen and the Soviet Union. A bargain was struck with the country’s religious conservatives: they could dominate society, including the education system, so long as they remained loyal to the sheikhs. Amongst these conservatives were the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even al-Qaeda didn’t spook the Emiratis as much. During the al-Qaeda uprising in Saudi Arabia, the UAE fortified American schools and bases, but life went on much as before. For al-Qaeda, the UAE wasn’t worth hitting; it was such a small prize that they assumed they’d just swallow it up right after conquering Riyadh. The Emiratis acted as if nothing was amiss, while the ruler of Dubai set about to make his city-state into a drunken tourist trap.
Then the Arab Spring came and the rulers got freaked out
The rapid pace of modernization in the emirates had not reached Emirati citizens themselves outside of technological advances. Emiratis remained – and remain – quite conservative, marrying cousins at alarmingly high rates, abstaining from alcohol, and thinking Western culture leaves much to be desired. The rulers were largely Westernized – to the point of wearing rather out-of-place attire for the cameras – but their people were not. Under the pre-Spring rules, that didn’t matter. So long as they gave their people the cradle-to-the-grave welfare system that provided free housing, free education, subsidized utilities and food, and on occasion just grants of cash for no particular reason, nobody said a word.
What the Arab Spring did was politicize a population that had been, up until then, bribed to be apolitical. Seeing fellow Arabs rise up against their dictators didn’t inspire Emiratis to do the same, but it did inspire discussion. Before, Emiratis couldn’t be bothered with politics, since they rightfully could point out it wasn’t very interesting. But after the Spring, serious questions could and were asked as they tried to come to grips with what was happening in the world.
Handfuls of Emirati intellectuals took their whispers to the public and pointed out the political deficiencies of their system. Nobody was advocating revolution, mind you, but reform.
That hardly mattered to the rulers.
Who threw the lot of them into jail and hoped that would shut everyone up
The UAE Five were the first to be publicly arrested and charged with Talking About Bad Things. The president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa, sought to show his generosity by pardoning them. To show their gratitude, they promptly went back to Talking About Bad Things.
The Pandora’s Box of political discussion was open, and attempts to clamp it shut again inspired more, not less, dissent. Emiratis noticed the society their rulers were building was not the society they particularly wanted, beyond, of course, the generous subsidies. The Muslim Brotherhood was well-poised to fan these flames, and the rulers knew it. So they struck first.
In July 2012, the Emirati government launched a nationwide crackdown on over 100 leading dissidents. This was a shockwave throughout Emirati society. Never before had the government acted the thug; now it was openly doing so, picking up bloggers, charity leaders, clerics, and, of course, anyone associated with Al-Islah, the Emirati branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of them got ten years in the rigged trials that followed; the presumption is those sentences can be extended should they fail to change their minds about Islamism and the UAE.
The UAE being the UAE, most ex-pats hardly noticed any of this. The Emirati government continues to keep tight control over the media, and the country’s small size means that in a world where Syria is collapsing and the Arab Spring is burning, international media reports about it are often ignored.
With the Emirati Islamist movement broken up, the turn then came to stop the bleeding elsewhere
The UAE helped lead the charge to stabilize Bahrain following its 2011 uprising, where Emirati police and paramilitaries remain to this day. On top of that, as the Spring roiled, the UAE also took a chance at knocking off some of its regional enemies, participating in the war against Ghaddafi, who had long pissed off the Emiratis, and Bashar Al-Assad. In the chaos of the Spring, the sectarian tensions between the Sunni Gulf, including the UAE, and Shi’a Iran, heightened to new mad (and pointless) extremes. The Emiratis were all for throwing out Assad and bombing Iran’s nuclear program. They assumed the Americans would do both. They were wrong.
Under Obama, the Americans are far less willing to do the heavy work of war
And that’s forced the UAE’s hand. The rise of the Islamic State was a specter worse than the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers of the UAE hadn’t gone so far as to call for violence against the state, but IS’s openly stated goals are the capture of the Gulf. Should Iraq ever fall, an invasion of Saudi Arabia would not be far away.
Southern Iraq is securely Shi’a, though, and an IS takeover there is unlikely. What scares the Emiratis is the knowledge that some of their citizens probably sympathize with the Islamic State. And, worse, may already be working with it.
It would have been ideal to let America take the heat – as it always has – for destroying the Islamic State, letting the UAE’s rulers appear neutral. But America is far less willing to go it alone and a coalition was necessary. More than that, the UAE’s rulers have decided they must go break neck for modernization or risk being caught in a backlash that could wipe them out. Thus they volunteered to bomb far more targets than the Americans asked and, unusual for the country that likes to pretend nothing’s going on, propagandized the use of a female fighter pilot as a commander. The message is clear: the Emirates will be a modern nation-state, come hell or high water, and if you’ve got a problem with it, there are plenty of jail cells in the desert.
Let the UAE’s culture war begin
The rulers of the emirates are betting that they can bribe and jail their society enough to stay in power and turn their citizens from the deeply covered, deeply conservative people they still mostly are into a socially more liberal but politically repressed nation. The rulers don’t want democracy; what they want is a citizenry that can run their many high towers and fancy hotels while serving loyally in their armed forces. With an Emirati population of less than a million and with the kind of cash reserves China would dream of, they may be right – so long as the UAE is left alone by outside forces.
But as the Americans can attest, no war is fought without consequence. The Emiratis have jumped into the fire pit; they will be burned. Whether or not they can survive it will remain hinged on events in nearby Saudi Arabia, always the great decider of what happens in the Gulf.
Meanwhile, Washington’s “Little Sparta” will have much asked of it. This is how modern states are made.