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The UAE Keeps Its Military Spending Under Wraps

December 11, 2019

A column of Leclerc tanks of the UAE army in Yemen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In November the UAE’s nominal head of state Prince Mohamed bin Zayed inaugurated a holding company called EDGE. Spun as an incubator that will “reposition the UAE as a notable global player in advanced technology” the organization and purpose of EDGE is far from a departure from the norm. Other than slick branding it follows the same formula for homegrown sate-owned military industries across the region. In fact, all of the five “clusters” overseen by EDGE are responsible for supplying the UAE’s armed forces.

But the crucial difference between EDGE and its counterparts in Jordan and Saudi Arabia is not very obvious: funding. For the last five years, the UAE’s expenditures on its hard power has disappeared without a trace. Why?

The most accessible metric for analyzing a country’s military growth is its annual defense spending under the government’s budget. There are no shortage of resources to examine these for any country but since 2014 the UAE stopped publicizing its own when it joined Saudi Arabia and several other countries in a long war against Yemen’s Ansar Allah, who are also known as the Houthis. That year also saw Abu Dhabi’s involvement in another campaign, the “anti-ISIS coalition” that sought to check the territorial conquests of the terror group. The Emirates’ defense spending at the time reached $22 billion, higher than both Iran and Israel who are the Middle East’s aspiring regional powers.

A rule of thumb for measuring defense budgets is to ascertain their value in relation to a country’s nominal GDP. Between one or two percent is deemed normal for a country at peace. Yet countries embroiled in war or threatened by neighbors tend to pour resources on national security–spending higher than 5% of GDP for “defense” is seen as escalating militarization. Iraq and Saudi Arabia diverted extraordinary sums to their war efforts since 2014 and it’s only now that defense spending in both countries is on a downward trend. For the UAE, with its $403 billion GDP in 2014, its reported defense spending that year exceeded 5%, and this is understandable since it fought two wars on behalf of allies. Even the US government’s own estimates suggests the budget kept rising from 2015 until 2016 when it may have reached $23.4 billion.

In the five years since, however, Abu Dhabi’s expenditures on its military have gone dark and there are few tangible clues on its actual size. Although a staunch US ally with a global reputation unlike rogue states such as Eritrea or North Korea, the country’s role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen may have incurred massive costs. One indicator are the various armed groups aligned with embattled President Hadi who are opposing Ansar Allah. There’s an abundance of online media, whether imagery or video clips, showing southern militias equipped with pickup trucks, MRAPs, and Nimr Ajban 4×4’s; the latter is manufactured in the Emirates. The continuous material support since 2015, when the UAE’s army arrived in Aden to preserve Hadi’s government, could now be untenable if its value totaled more than several billion dollars a year.

Adding to the costs of maintaining its allies is the logistics for the war. Saudi Arabia spent enormous amounts too on its air campaign, border fortifications, and propping up anti-Houthi factions but it was the Emirates that established a logistics footprint spread over different countries. Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia are believed to have leased infrastructure for Abu Dhabi’s exclusive use. Through it all, the Emirates never enlarged its armed forces to a size commensurate to South and East Asian militaries. As of this writing, the total manpower is less than 65,000 personnel and there are few expensive acquisitions of foreign technology since localizing the military-industrial sector is now prioritized. So how big is the Emirates’ military spending? As 2019 draws to a close it’s possible the next budget, when it’s passed, represents 5-6% of nominal GDP or almost $30 billion.

Below is a tabulation of the UAE’s armed forces and their inventory according to IISS’ The Military Balance 2019.

SIZE 44,000 4,500 2,500 12,000
INVENTORY 340 Leclerc MBTs 54 F-16E 1 frigate 50 Leclerc MBTs
76 Scorpion light tank 24 F-16F 10 Baynunah-class corvettes 200 BMP-3
390 BMP-3 66 Mirage 2000 2 LSTs 90 BTR-3
45 Patria AMV 30 AH-64E
650 Oshkosh M-ATV 10 CH-47F (ordered)
2,000+ Nimr Ajban 7 C-17 Globemaster
78 G-6 155 mm SPH 4 C-130H
85 M109A3 155 mm SPH 12 THAAD

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