At the end of May, the Associated Press uncovered the construction of an air base seemingly by the United Arab Emirates on the volcanic Mayun Island, also known as Perim Island, in the Bab el-Mandeb strait off the coast of Yemen. Not only is this, as underlined by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, “a reminder that the UAE is not actually out of Yemen,” but it more broadly goes against the narrative of some articles suggesting the UAE is moving away from “a muscular foreign policy.” The country had appeared to be banking on a diversification of its diplomatic portfolio into soft power initiatives amid reports highlighting continuing UAE involvement in conflicts in Yemen and Libya. However, hard power (including the development of a local defense industry) is still a high priority for the country. This was confirmed by the high figures of total arms purchases as well as the partnerships strengthened or created at IDEX 2021 and the recent announcement of a $982 million arms deal for four Falaj-3 offshore patrol vessels for the navy – the largest order to date for Abu Dhabi Ship Building, a local company that is now part of the EDGE Group. The UAE is increasingly looking to the maritime domain as an area of regional and global cooperation but also as a vessel of continued power projection.
In the Gulf Arab states, naval forces have historically been neglected, coming behind the air and land forces, despite the importance of maritime security to these countries’ stability, economic and otherwise. Ken Pollack notes how, in the UAE, they were “receiving less money, attention, or high-quality personnel.” However, the navy (and its arsenal) were not completely ignored. One of the UAE’s first local manufacturing companies was precisely a maritime one. Abu Dhabi Ship Building was founded in 1996 under the vision of Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was then chief of staff of the UAE armed forces, as a naval maintenance company that then developed its shipbuilding line. Among other efforts, the creation of the Abu Dhabi Ports Maritime Training Center in 2012 (since renamed the Abu Dhabi Maritime Academy) also signaled a determination to boost capabilities in this area. However, these developments do not compensate for the sharp and inherent limitations of the UAE’s navy. Christian Heller underlined how a small population and lack of sailors has limited the number of ships that the UAE can man – and thus use – at a time (only half of its corvettes), for instance.
Since the start of the war in Yemen, in a possible attempt to address some of these limitations, the UAE has made clear efforts to boost its navy. This is apparent in the development of new training centers related to maritime security. In 2016, the development of a UAE naval training center by the Canadian company CAE was announced as part of $113 million in contracts. Originally scheduled to open in May 2020, the facility is yet to be inaugurated – with delays possibly due to the coronavirus pandemic. In February, CAE managing director Thibaut Trancart noted that the training center was approaching completion. In 2019 the development of the Underwater Training Centre by the French company Thales, to be located at Al Taweelah Naval Military School like the center developed by CAE, was announced – although no opening date was set then, and there have been no recent updates on the project. In 2019, the UAE and France did launch an advanced maritime strategic course at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. Recent arms procurement by the UAE also illustrate this trend, including the purchase of two Gowind-2500 frigates and Exocet anti-ship missiles from France along with naval surface-to-air systems from the United States in 2019. In 2017, the appointment of a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, Major General Saeed bin Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Nahyan, as commander of the UAE’s navy was another sign of the increased importance being placed on maritime forces.
These efforts to bolster the UAE’s naval forces have been on display in the Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen since 2015, through different UAE missions and specific military equipment used for them. One notable maritime operation was a small amphibious assault on Mukalla in 2016. Additionally, the 2015 blockade of the Hodeidah port was enforced by the Baynunah corvette, manufactured by Abu Dhabi Ship Building. Moreover, the UAE has helped in rebuilding the Yemeni coast guard, notably training new units on the Hadramout coast along with Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, the UAE has continued efforts to forward its interests in Yemen, through its Southern Transitional Council allies, including in the maritime domain, which has sometimes increased insecurity. In particular, the power struggle between the United Nations-recognized government of Yemen and the STC in southern Yemen has had a detrimental impact on the coast guard’s effectiveness in Aden. In May 2020, the STC refused to hand the coast guard control of waters in the Gulf of Aden off the coastal areas STC forces currently hold. Government officials claim this has prevented the coast guard from performing its duties, and they traded accusations with the STC for blame over the failure to prevent a pirate attack on a British-flagged oil tanker. A month later, the STC also seized Socotra, off Yemen’s southern coast, forcing the coast guard and government forces to withdraw from the island. While this deprived the coast guard of a strategic location to ensure maritime security, this really benefited the UAE. Abu Dhabi has reportedly been building military bases on the island, in addition to funding infrastructure projects that connect the people living in Socotra to the UAE rather than the rest of Yemen.
The UAE wants to become an important player in the region’s maritime security, and this explains its interest in building bases in strategic locations such as Socotra and Mayun. On Socotra, following the Abraham Accords, the UAE reportedly began setting up intelligence bases with Israel to collect information on maritime traffic and watch oil trading channels. Mayun is equally if not more strategic, at the heart of the Bab el-Mandeb, described as “one of the world’s crucial maritime chokepoints for both energy shipments and commercial cargo.”
Eye on the horizon, the UAE views the seas as a promising field for diplomacy and cooperation. For example, the UAE participated in missions for maritime surveillance in the Strait of Hormuz and sought to de-escalate tensions with Iran through talks about maritime security in 2019. The UAE is also advancing initiatives on coastal and marine protection as part of an increased interest in environmental matters and human security at large. But the UAE doesn’t seem to be stopping there. As demonstrated through its missions and basing in Yemen, for Abu Dhabi, the maritime sphere seems to be yet another multifaceted vessel for the UAE to project power and influence in the region and on the international stage.