By Alexander Cornwell
DUBAI (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is making a push to develop high-tech military hardware that would give it control over critical defence capabilities and lessen reliance on imports.
Wary of threats from rival Iran, and concerned over moves by some allies to hold up arms sales, the UAE is reshaping a military industry already seen as the region’s most sophisticated.
State defence companies have been brought together to form EDGE, a $5-billion (£4 billion) conglomerate to spearhead development of advanced weapons for the country’s military.
Those ambitions were put on display at this week’s Dubai Airshow where the military handed an EDGE company a $1 billion contract for guided missiles.
“Like many countries, on specific critical capabilities you want to have sovereignty,” EDGE Chief Executive Faisal al-Bannai told Reuters.
The UAE’s defence industry dates back two decades, built through joint ventures and technology transfer programmes.
Much of it now sits under EDGE, manufacturing drones, small ammunitions and providing maintenance.
Despite close ties with the West, the oil-rich Gulf nation has had difficulty acquiring some sophisticated weapons.
The United States will not sell armed drones to the UAE under a longstanding export policy limiting their use. Recently, some European countries have blocked sales to the UAE over its involvement in the Yemen war.
Meanwhile, the UAE maintains close ties and continues to buy weapons from China and Russia.
Abdulla al-Hashimi, assistant undersecretary for support services at the UAE ministry of defence, said sovereign capabilities were a “necessity” for security and the economy.
A series of attacks in the Gulf over the summer, blamed on Iran by the United States, highlighted new threats to the security of Gulf states. Tehran denied involvement.
Oil tankers off the UAE coast were sabotaged and a swarm of missiles and drones temporarily wiped out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in a September attack.
EDGE could develop directed energy technology, Bannai said, which can be used to counter drone threats.
Directed energy weapons emit focussed energy in the form of lasers, microwaves, electromagnetic radiation, radio waves, sound or particle beams.
“The Emiratis not only believe that they can make a profit in this sphere but also that they are well-equipped to understand and counter regional threats,” said Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute.
The UAE is expected to spend $17 billion on defence next year, according to U.S.-based defence analysis firm Teal, up from $14.4 billion in 2014 when last disclosed by the government. Today, just a fraction is spent domestically.
Abu Dhabi, the main petroleum producing emirate, is leading the development of the country’s industry.
There, the move is seen as a step not only towards more diversification of an oil-based economy but towards “greater strategic autonomy with regards to foreign and defence policies,” said Jean-Loup Samaan, associate professor at the UAE National Defense College.
EDGE, which wants to build on joint ventures that developed the country’s defence industry, also has eyes on exporting.
That could draw new scrutiny.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper said Washington would like the UAE to establish greater oversight as it develops its military industry.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Mark Potter)