Gone are the days when an innocent little cluster of Emirates lay on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula with a flourishing economy, an open-for-business attitude and the only thing tainting its name being the abuse and exploitation of its South Asian labourers. One thing that it was never associated with was the concept of military expansion or gaining influence through hard power. However, now this small but prosperous group of nations has attained such ambitious aspirations and turned into the Gulf's Little Sparta.
Over the past decade, the United Arab Emirates has been busy expanding its influence throughout the region both by economic means and military force. In its vigorous attempt at regional expansion, it has been gaining control of ports along the coast of the Horn of Africa and the Yemen, with companies based in Dubai such as DP World having bought and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the ports of Assab in Eritrea and Berbera in Somaliland. Military bases have also been established within those ports.
When the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) took over the port of Aden at the end of January, there was a realisation of how prominent a player the UAE is turning out to be. This secessionist militant organisation, which calls for the division of Yemen into two states, North and South, snatched the port in just two days from the internationally-recognised government that had held it for over two years. The fact that the UAE was behind the STC proved not only that the Gulf State was willing to divert from the narrative of the Saudi-led coalition, but also that it is outdoing its coalition allies on the ground.
The sea is your limit
The ambitions of the UAE, stemming from the energetic Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, are in many ways similar to that of the Saudi giant next door; to counter the influence of Iran in the region and to push back against the Houthis' advance in Yemen.
Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has used its base in Assab to secure the strategic waterway for use to its advantage in Yemen, and it will employ the same strategy with the newly acquired port of Berbera. "Berbera," the British explorer Richard Burton foresaw in 1855, "is the true key of the Red Sea, the centre of east African traffic, and the only safe place for shipping upon the western Erythraean [Eritrean] shore… Occupation [by the British] has been advised for many reasons."
Whoever holds the ports of East Africa and Yemen, holds the Red Sea. With these two prominent ports in its control, the UAE will have a significant influence on the trade and naval power that passes through the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait.
Another, more subtle, cause that unites the Gulf allies is to check the growing influence of Turkey within the Horn of Africa. In an interview that he gave in Cairo to Egyptian news editors last week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman claimed that Turkey is part of a "triangle of evil" along with Iran.
Turkey's influence in the region has been undeniably huge in recent years, particularly in Somalia, where it has embarked on countless projects, such as the construction of roads and hospitals, the provision of scholarships to thousands of Somali students, and even the collection of household rubbish. Nearly 80 per cent of the Somali government's revenue is generated through the port and airport in the capital Mogadishu, both of which are managed by Turkish companies. Such projects have secured the Turks' place in the region, and have done nothing to quell the popularly-held belief that Erdogan's Turkey is the saviour of the underdogs in the Muslim world.
Who holds the Emirates?
The militaries of the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, have long been known to be "paper tigers", possessing some of the best military hardware produced by NATO arms manufacturers but not the strategic talent to match it. Over the decades the UAE has taken steps to fix that disadvantage, namely by undertaking training programmes with the US and British armed forces, as well as renowned militaries from Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan and Turkey. What is often overlooked, however, is that the UAE's military capabilities remain reliant on the use of mercenaries.
Since the late 2000s, the country has been building up a mercenary army led by Erik Prince, the founder and owner of the American company Blackwater Worldwide. Prince, whose organisation was forced to relocate from the US to Abu Dhabi after its controversial role in Iraq, was granted a $529 million contract by Bin Zayed to build this elite mercenary army and to report to him personally.
When it was revealed in 2015 that the UAE sent 450 Latin American mercenaries, mostly battle-hardened Colombians, to fight its war in Yemen, its method of using an army of foreign fighters became clear. The country's plan to use very few Emirati soldiers is one that is both clever and foolish; it has cleared the UAE of getting its hands dirty directly and has ensured the minimum risk to Emirati nationals, but its reliance on mercenaries is naïve and leaves it open to instability.
It has yet to be seen if Machiavelli was right when he said that mercenaries "are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline." Despite the practicality and cost-effectiveness of mercenaries, it is rare for a stable state to be as reliant on foreign military personnel as the UAE is. Even the Presidential Guard, the highest and most authoritative military unit within the country, is officially commanded by a former Australian army officer.
Independent paradise or hollow outpost?
Instead of polished shopping malls, the extortionate wonders of capitalism and strange festivals about happiness, one would be right to imagine torture and a state ruled by mercenaries when hearing the name United Arab Emirates.
All of its exploits over the past decade – the backing of a separatist Southern Yemen, the capture of strategic islands in the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait and the subtle split from its Saudi coalition allies – have so far been a success and have proven that the UAE is a regional force to be reckoned with. What, though, will the future hold for a country protected by a foreign mercenary army with little love or care towards an outnumbered and docile population, and with ambitions beyond the Gulf coalition's aims? This "Little Sparta" is starting to look more like a Western mercenary outpost than an independent state able to resist the perceived Iranian menace across the pond, let alone any other threat.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.