ABU DHABI // In 1976, five years after the UAE coalesced, the young nation faced a raft of challenges. Tensions were high with Iran, which had seized several small islands on the eve of the nation's formation. Rapid expansion and development swept through, sometimes too fast to adequately plan for. At times, even individual emirates seemed poised to squabble with one another - and each had its own separate army.
A landmark in addressing those challenges came on this date that year - the formation of a unified military. Experts say it marked the beginning of a new era of rapid military development, and underscored the unity of the young federation. In a series of speeches to mark the 34th anniversary of the Armed Forces today, political and military leaders paid tribute to the expanding capabilities of the military and the important role it has played in peacekeeping operations worldwide, from Kosovo to Lebanon and Afghanistan.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, said in a speech published yesterday in Nation Shield, the journal of the Armed Forces: "We feel proud and encouraged with our troops' capacity and rapid absorption of advanced defence technologies and modern logistics systems. We are confident that this effort will continue." The unification merged the Abu Dhabi Defence Force, the Dubai Defence Force, the Sharjah National Guard and the Mobile Force of Ras al Khaimah, as well as small protection forces for palaces and officials in the other emirates.
Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive of the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said: "There were small contingents at that time, very primitive in their logistical capacity,. After the unification, development was very quick." Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, said the unification of 1976 set the country on a trajectory of progress.
"The decision to unify ushered in a new phase in the march of the UAE Armed Forces," Sheikh Mohammed said. The advanced defence systems, state-of-the-art technology and combat capability the forces had developed represented a "qualitative leap" forward, he added. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UAE ranks fourth in total arms purchases between 2005 to 2009, with spending of US$6.5 billion (Dh23.9bn).
"The Armed Forces are still relatively small, but as the population can't mass a large army, the strategy is to have a deterrent force by getting the highest quality of weapons and best military technology available," Mr Kahwaji said. The Armed Forces are now made up of 51,000 personnel; 44,000 in the Army, 2,500 in the Navy and 4,500 in the Air Force, according to figures from the INEGMA. Before 1976, the UAE had about 3,000 regular military personnel.
"The mission of the Armed Forces remains the same, to defend the federation and the UAE, but the geopolitical challenges have changed," Mr Kahwaji said. On Tuesday, army, navy and air force personnel gathered at the Armed Forces Officer's Club in the capital to mark the anniversary. In a speech at the event, Lt Gen Hamad al Rumaithi, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff, said the military was shifting its strategy to adopt more joint operations between different branches of the forces, and build up "back-up and reserve units."
These moves would "lead to the development of fighting capabilities" and "transit to the requirements of modern warfare within the upcoming two decades," Lt Gen al Rumaithi said. As a fledging state, the unification of the services bolstered the young federation, said Dr Fatima al Sayegh, a professor of UAE history at UAE University. "It was a symbol of the state and it strengthened the federation," she said. "It gave people assurance and security."
Since 1991, women have also played a role in the defence of the nation, when the Khawla Bint al Azwar Military School was founded to prepare young women for careers in the military. The Armed Forces uphold the UAE's foreign policy, which rejects aggression and violence and strives for good neighbourly relations. Throughout its history, it has played a major role in humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping operations to countries in need. Nato has commended its role in Afghanistan, where, it says, as a Muslim country, "the UAE has a lot of credibility in dealing with the Afghan people and it enjoys a lot of respect there [for] its participation in reconstruction, building, education, services, aid and peacekeeping missions".
"The UAE's strategy has always been one of non-aggression," Dr al Sayegh said. "There's never been a need for a large army, but it's always been an aim of the UAE to have advanced equipment and technology." @Email:email@example.com