CAIRO – With soccer sponsorships, record-setting skyscrapers and wintertime golfing, the United Arab Emirates has projected an image of comfort and opportunity in a volatile region. But the quiet expansion of its military footprint is drawing a different kind of attention to the Gulf federation as it wades into some of the region’s messiest conflicts.
The Emirates flatly denied allegations revealed in an Associated Press investigation last week that its forces were running secret prisons inside Yemen where detainees were tortured, calling it “completely untrue.”
The UAE is a key member of a Saudi-led military coalition that is mired in a two-year stalemate against the Shiite Houthi rebels who control Yemen’s capital and much of the country’s north. It is also part of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and backs a powerful general in eastern Libya who rejects a U.N.-backed government. Last week the UAE joined other Gulf nations in a stunning move to boycott and partially blockade Qatar
The growing list of foreign commitments is drawing increased scrutiny to the federation of Gulf monarchies, which hosts some 5,000 American military personnel, as well as fighter jets and drones.
The former British protectorate merged the smaller forces of its seven sheikhdoms into a national military force that took part in the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Since then it has been gradually building up experience and capabilities, sending troops to Kosovo as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission there starting in 1999, and special forces to Afghanistan to support the U.S.-led war against the Taliban.
Today, the UAE hosts Western forces at its military bases, including American and French troops. Jebel Ali port in Dubai serves as the biggest port of call for the American Navy outside of the United States.
The UAE was one of the most prominent Arab members to join the U.S.-led coalition striking IS targets in Syria. Its contribution gained particular attention for the role played by a female fighter pilot early in the campaign.
And while its military only numbers in the tens of thousands, it spends a whopping 6 percent of GDP on defense, allowing it to acquire advanced weapons systems from France, Britain and the U.S. The Pentagon said a new, 15-year defense cooperation agreement signed in May would “enable closer and more agile collaboration against a range of threats.”
“They’re trying to curry favor with the U.S. by taking on more and more roles in the region, to carve out their niche and emerge at the coveted position of being Washington’s Number One Arab Ally,” said Christopher Davidson of Britain’s Durham University.
“They’ve had to make deals with some unsavory characters to protect their flanks in places like Yemen, but in general they’ve proven more deft at keeping a cleaner image than, for example, the Saudis,” he added.
The quagmire in Yemen, and the recent allegations regarding detainees held by the UAE and its allies, could undermine that image, especially as the bloody conflict shows no sign of being resolved.
The UAE has suffered the most wartime casualties in its history in Yemen. The deadliest day came in September 2015, when a missile strike on a base killed over 50 Emirati troops, as well as at least 10 soldiers from Saudi Arabia and five from Bahrain.
Emirati forces were involved in a Jan. 29 Yemen raid ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump that killed a U.S. Navy SEAL and 30 others, including women, children and an estimated 14 militants.
Last week, AP documented at least 18 clandestine lockups across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces created and trained by the Gulf nation. Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants have disappeared into the prisons, where abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the “grill,” in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire.
Several U.S. senators have called for investigations into reports that U.S. military interrogators worked with those forces. Defense officials told AP that the department had looked into reports of torture and concluded that its personnel were not involved or aware of any abuse.
The UAE has been building up a long-term military presence in Eritrea at its port in Assab, according to Stratfor, a U.S.-based private intelligence firm. Satellite images show new construction at a once-abandoned airfield the firm links to the Emiratis, as well as development at the port and the deployment of tanks and aircraft.
South of Eritrea, in Somalia’s breakaway northern territory of Somaliland, authorities agreed in February to allow the UAE open a naval base in the port town of Berbera. Previously, the UAE international ports operator DP World struck a deal to manage Somaliland’s largest port nearby.
Further afield, the UAE also has been suspected of conducting airstrikes in Libya and operating at a small air base in the North African country’s east, near the Egyptian border. Along with Egypt, it supports Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, whose forces are battling Islamic militants as well as factions allied with a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.
Somalia remains a particular focus for the UAE. The Emiratis sent forces to the Horn of Africa country to take part in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the 1990s, while their elite counterterrorism unit in 2011 rescued a UAE-flagged ship from Somali pirates. The unit has also has been targeted in recent attacks carried out by al-Qaida-linked militants from al-Shabab.