The UAE’s Arms Buildup

I’m not quite sure what to make of this, because it’s one of the more curious patterns I’ve spotted recently in my generally random, undirected news scanning. But the UAE is now the world’s third-largest arms purchaser, behind China and India. That’s a jump from 15th place between 1999-2003.

The Al Jazeera article explains it in the context of the rising threat fom Iran. But from what I’d understood, the UAE was more of a hedger on Iran than other Sunni Arab states. In her WPR Briefing on the U.S.-UAE civilian nuclear deal last March, Elizabeth Zolotukhina pointed out that the UAE’s history as a transshipment point for technology transfers to Iran was a possible sticking point to congressional approval of the deal. And while the two countries have a territorial dispute over Persian Gulf islands, they are also major trading partners.

The first item that caught my eye on this front came back in February, when the Defense Industry Daily reported that the UAE had ordered four C-17s from Boeing and 12 C-130s from Lockheed Martin. The only sense I could make of it at the time was that they planned to lease the aircraft out, in light of a global shortage in tactical and strategic airlift. But Patriot missile systems and air defense systems do seem to point more to a defensive posture towards Iran.

I suppose that’s consistent with hedging after all. But between a French naval base in Adu Dhabi and the strategic airlift purchase — where’s the UAE need to airlift supplies to? — this all has a certain proxy feel to it.

Update: A knowledgeable source writes in with the following:

UAE is a rather significant contributor of troops and funds to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan over the past five years (see here, for example). Considering the way contingency planning works, there is every chance they could be anticipating more deployments in the future as part of expeditionary or peacekeeping missions.

The suggestion here, and it’s one that I like, is that peacekeeping missions are such a major prestige booster for rich but militarily inconsequential countries that they’re willing to pour money into expeditionary capacity to participate. That’s actually good news, given the shortfall in peacekeeping troops, exacerbated by the global economic downturn.