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During the past nine months, the United Arab Emirates has closed deals for the purchase of substantial weapons systems from France, South Korea, China, Indonesia, Turkey, and Israel. If these deals come to fruition, they could mark a new era for Emirati arms procurement, where an emphasis on strategic autonomy and transfers of technology might push the UAE toward an increasingly diversified pool of suppliers, where the United States no longer reigns supreme.
The UAE purchased two GlobalEye spy planes from Sweden’s Saab at $1 billion in January 2021. In December, the UAE agreed to purchase 80 Rafale fighter aircraft and 12 military helicopters from France at $19 billion, in what became the largest contract for France’s combat aeronautics industry. A month later, South Korea signed its largest arms export deal ever, agreeing to sell its KM-SAM mobile surface-to-air missile system to the UAE for $3.5 billion. In February, the UAE Defense Ministry announced it would purchase 12 light attack planes from China, with the option for 36 additional ones, as part of the country’s efforts to diversify its weapons suppliers.
In July, the UAE signed a contract with Indonesia’s state-owned shipbuilder PT PAL for the acquisition of a landing platform dock, which, if built as planned, would become the largest naval platform in the UAE armed forces. In September, Reuters reported that Turkey had delivered 20 Bayraktar TB2 drones to the UAE, and the UAE is reportedly in talks for the purchase of more, potentially 120 as part of a nearly $2 billion deal. Reuters also reported that Israel agreed to sell the UAE the Spyder air defense system. Meanwhile, the UAE has engaged with the Israeli defense industry throughout the past year at various levels: It is jointly developing unmanned surface vessels and a system to counter unmanned aerial vehicles. On top of that, the Israeli subsidiary Elbit Systems Emirates signed a $53 million deal in January to supply direct infrared countermeasures and airborne electronic warfare systems for A330 tanker aircraft.
While the “glitter factor” may have guided Emirati arms procurement in the past, this no longer seems to be a decisive factor. Now, procurement appears to be based on a more complex mix of reasons, including its potential for transfers of technology, effects on strategic autonomy, and utility as a political tool.
Strategic autonomy appears to be one of the main drivers: Diversifying weapons suppliers provides the UAE with some breathing space, especially after the United States has repeatedly halted sales of weapons and ammunition. Moreover, while some of the U.S. weaponry requires a green light from Washington before its use, most other countries do not exercise end-use monitoring on armaments sold to the UAE. One way to assert its strategic autonomy from the United States without deeply upsetting its partner has been to purchase weapons from U.S. allies, such as France, South Korea, Israel, and Turkey, and close partners, such as Indonesia. While the UAE did buy 12 light attack aircraft from Beijing, that is comparatively not that many, and they could eventually be donated to a third country or simply operated in isolation from other systems to assuage U.S. concerns over espionage.
Some of the deals appear to have a political component, as they accompanied broader strategic and economic partnerships or rapprochement initiatives. Indonesia signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with the UAE in July. Israel and the UAE signed the Abraham Accords in 2020 as well as a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in May. After years of tensions, UAE-Turkey ties have become much warmer since the Gulf Cooperation Council countries signed the Al-Ula agreement ending the dispute with Qatar. Both Turkey and South Korea are in talks with the UAE to pursue a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.
However, transfers of technology are particularly key to understanding most of the recent purchases. Along with the acquisition of the missile defense system, the UAE signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea to collaborate on defense technologies, including developing weapons systems. In April, South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development opened an office in Abu Dhabi, and there were reports that a strategic team between the Defense ministries of both countries had been formed to establish several joint military-industrial projects. In Turkey’s case, sources explained that “some of the components of the TB2 might be produced in a Baykar plant in the UAE, if the deal goes forward.” Swedish company Saab similarly announced that it would cultivate key technologies and create high-tech jobs in the UAE.
Abu Dhabi-based defense conglomerate EDGE is also benefitting from transfers of technology through its partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries for the development of counter-UAV and unmanned surface vessel technologies. With France, cooperation on transfers of technology has been going on for some time: In November 2019, Tawazun Economic Council (the UAE defense and security acquisition authority) and the French Directorate General of Armaments set up a joint steering committee to drive research and development cooperation. French defense giants Thales, Safran, and MBDA have all since established centers of “excellence” in the UAE, focused on radar, optronics, and missile engineering respectively. Interestingly, these three companies are all suppliers of key components of the Rafale: MBDA mostly produces armaments, Safran develops modular propulsion and guidance kits, and Thales does mainly electronics, armaments, and avionics. So, even if no particular transfer of technology was disclosed in the Rafale deal, there is a clear connection with these three centers, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see increased transfers of technology as a result of this massive contract’s offsets.
The UAE’s arms purchasing has transformed into a much more nuanced and diversified procurement strategy. This may largely be the result of Tawazun taking charge of the UAE armed forces’ weapons purchases in February 2021. Christian Davies explained that “previously, procurement was undertaken directly by the Armed Forces,” so Tawazun was “only involved toward the end of the contract award process, in charge of managing the offsets of large defense contracts. This meant that Tawazun had little influence in shaping the selection of companies.” The February 2021 restructuring put “Tawazun firmly in the driver’s seat” giving Tawazun full control over all acquisitions for the military and Abu Dhabi Police. “Strikingly, this means that Tawazun will likely be one of the main decision makers for UAE military and Abu Dhabi Police acquisitions and, given their mandate for economic growth, it is likely that their contract award criteria will focus heavily on industrial participation in the UAE.”
To be sure, the UAE’s interest in transfers of technology is not new: The country has obtained military technologies in the past from a variety of countries, including the 150-year-old German gunmaker Merkel, the intellectual property of a light attack aircraft designed by Brazilian company Novaer, and UAV technology from South African firm Denel Dynamics. Tawazun itself, established in 1992 as the “UAE Offsets Group,” has long been working to accelerate the development of the UAE’s domestic defense industry. But now that Tawazun is in charge, transfers of technology could become an absolute condition for defense contracts moving forward, instead of purchasing equipment according to other rationales, such as interoperability needs. The military could also feel alienated as its capacity to influence procurement decisions has likely decreased. During the past year, Tawazun’s influence has been clear in numerous procurement contracts, such as the Rafale deal, which was signed by the CEO of Tawazun. Tawazun also directs the cooperation between the UAE and other countries’ defense industries, which was reflected in various agreements signed recently with the Turkish Defense Industries, Bahrain Defence Force, United Kingdom’s Defense and Security Exports Department, French Directorate General of Armaments, and others.
The success of such deals will likely reinforce the UAE’s autonomy but could complicate U.S. interoperability efforts with the Emirati armed forces, especially if the number of suppliers continues increasing. On the other hand, these moves could also reinforce a trend whereby smaller and middle powers might start relying on one another, moving away from dependence on weapons purchases from one major power.
is a Fulbright scholar and an MA student in Arab studies at Georgetown University.
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