Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The UAE Military: Larger than the Sum of its Parts

UAE- UAE military
Emirati armed forces show their skills during a military show at the opening of the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi on February 19, 2017. Photo AFP

Although small, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) forces are arguably the best trained and most capable among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. They have gained valuable frontline experience in Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen in recent years, and the country’s special forces impressed many observers with their amphibious assault to capture the Yemeni port city of Aden in July 2015.

In 2019, the UAE ranked 62 out of 137 countries included in the annual GFP review. That year, the number of people who reached military age was estimated at 78,790 personnel, while military expenditure was estimated at $14.4 billion. In 2014, military expenditure accounted for 5.6 per cent of GDP, compared with 6 per cent in 2013, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. More recent numbers are unavailable.

Authorities in Abu Dhabi often reference the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) constitution, which states that the army, and parallel units, are employed for security and defence purposes. For instance, they argue that the military is essential to protect aid workers in Afghanistan.

IndexNumberRank out of 137
Total military personnel64,000-
Active personnel64,000-
Reserve personnel0-
Total aircraft strength54122
Fighter aircraft9824
Attack aircraft12822
Transport aircraft3824
Total helicopter strength 22520
Flight trainers14621
Combat tanks51037
Armoured fighting vehicles5,93612
Rocket projectors7239
Total naval assets75-

The UAE’s military strength in 2019. Source: GFP review.

Yet that argument is conspicuously missing in discussions about the war in Yemen, which is characterized by widespread famine, a cholera outbreak and mounting civilian death toll. The suffering, observers and rights groups say, is a direct result of indiscriminate bombardment and a crippling blockade, for which the Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is an active member, is responsible.

The unprecedented suffering of Yemeni civilians does not appear to alarm Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces. His counter-insurgency operation against the Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda has even resulted in the torture and disappearance of hundreds of Yemenis, according to an Associated Press investigation last year.

Nevertheless, MBZ appears committed to deploying his military at whatever cost – civilian or financial. In 2013, the emirates boasted the 15th-highest military spending in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. More telling, the UAE increased its arms imports by 63 per cent between 2012 and 2016. That trend will continue for as long as the emirates chases arms contracts and military alliances across the globe.

Air Force

The UAE is building one of the strongest armies in the region despite its small population of just 1.5 million people. Its armed forces are listed at nearly 64,000 men, yet its air force is administered by just 4,500 active and trained personnel. Vital to its arsenal are 70 F-16 combat aircraft, which are very agile in the air. Though old, F-16s remain popular for their ability to fly and locate their target in any weather conditions.

Sidewinder and Maverick tactical missiles are also part of the UAE’s arsenal. The former is a short-range air-to-air missile that the Americans first manufactured in the 1950s; the latter is designed to launch ground attacks from the sky.

All the UAE’s 138 fighter jets were purchased from the United States (US) or France. But that’s not all it has: 60 Apache attack helicopters further strengthen its defence and security system. The advantage of Apache helicopters is that they include a self-sealing fuel system, protecting them from loss of fuel. Some models can locate more than 100 targets in a minute, making them an imperative weapon in any war.

However, the UAE’s air force would not be nearly as lethal without American support. The US is jointly administering the UAE’s Dharfa airbase, where advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets are stationed. It is worth noting that F-35s are not located on any other US base in the Arab world.

The UAE has lobbied to obtain F-35s, but the US has promised Israel not to sell them to its Arab neighbours. Whether President Donald Trump will honour that promise is uncertain.

But it may not matter since the UAE has already established closer business and military ties with Russia. The two brokered a deal in February 2017, giving the UAE a consignment of Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighters. These combat planes are Russia’s most sophisticated and lethal, although still inferior to the F-35.

UAE military
Source: @Fanack
UAE Defense Spending
Source: SIPRI. Click to enlarge. @Fanack ©Fanack CC BY 4.0

Looking to upgrade, MBZ has held direct talks with Rosonboronexport – owned by the Russian state holding company Rostec – in hopes of cooperating on the design of light fighter jets. The manufacture of such combat planes would bolster both Moscow’s and Abu Dhabi’s military.

“One of the most important results for us from the past few days is the signing of an agreement with the emirates in the field of military and industrial cooperation,” Sergey Chemezov, chief executive of Rostec, told reporters.

Russia is also helping the UAE strengthen its ground forces, supplying Abu Dhabi with 5,000 anti-armour missiles as well as training and logistical support. That equipment will accompany the UAE’s current arsenal of more than six dozen artillery rockets and over five dozen anti-aircraft missiles.

Armed Forces

The UAE armed forces comprise one Royal Guard battalion, two armoured brigades, three mechanized infantry brigades, two infantry brigades and one artillery battalion (of three regiments). Dubai also boasts two mechanized infantry brigades, which operate separately from the UAE’s joint forces.

Parallel to the armed forces is the Presidential Guard Command (PG), which often conducts sophisticated and secretive missions. The PG is considered the best-trained fighting unit, thanks to training and assistance from US marines.

The Special Operations Command (SOC) – a unit in the PG – is a small but lethal counter-terrorism force. Well financed and trained, the SOC has deployed men to Afghanistan, where they have undertaken counter-insurgency operations in the warn-torn country. Aiding its ground forces is the aviation unit, composed mainly of 18 Black Hawk helicopters from the Sas al-Nakhl base.

The top officer in the PG, Mike Hindmarsh, is not even a citizen of the UAE but Australian. This is not surprising since the UAE’s army depends heavily on foreign fighters. Members of the Sudanese Janjaweed, which was a state-sponsored militia that spearheaded a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, are among the UAE’s ranks. So are men from Colombia who fought the Farc, a Colombian guerrilla movement born in 1964, for decades. Both former Janjaweed and Colombian fighters have been deployed to Yemen.

MBZ also seems increasingly interested in testing out new weapons in Yemen. Zoe Stanley Lockman, a data research assistant at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, wrote that the UAE has tried out its Nimr II Ajban 440A and 4×4 chassis Enigma 8×8 – two infantry fighting vehicles that the emirates developed itself. It has also employed the Nimr N35 personnel carrier. The former are ground vehicles that can accommodate up to 11 soldiers; the latter is a ballistic- and blast-protected vehicle.


The UAE’s navy is modest in size but technologically sound and well trained. Boasting about 2,500 personnel, it is primarily responsible for protecting the coast with patrol and missile boats. The arsenal also includes warships and diesel electric and nuclear-powered submarines.

Despite its lack of manpower, the UAE has been trying for almost ten years to build a ‘blue-water navy’, capable of carrying out sustained operations across deep waters in the open ocean.

It seems to be inching closer to achieving that aim. While its naval capacity comes nowhere near that of Iran or Saudi Arabia, the UAE has ambition, establishing a naval base in the breakaway state of Somaliland in November 2017, after recognizing it as a country. The base is in the port town of Berbera, which is managed by the Dubai-based port operator DP World.

The stated purpose for the naval expansion is to offset Iranian influence in the Gulf of Aden. That is also why the country first established a naval and air base in Eritrea, which has allowed it to launch numerous attacks in Yemen, located 60 km to the east.

The Economist wonders what the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed al-Nahayan, would have thought about the emirates’ new military clout. “Be obedient to Allah and use your intelligence instead of resorting to arms,” he often remarked to fellow Arabs who went to war.

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