x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Military prepares to celebrate 35 years of unification

Soldiers look back on 35 years of the UAE military.

ABU DHABI // The men and women who form the UAE's defences will look back tomorrow on a key day 35 years ago: May 6, 1976, when all the emirates' militaries were joined into one federal force.

The late founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed, and the late Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum, saw the move as strengthening the forces and breaking barriers between the emirates. Unification will be marked with celebrations on Sunday.

The result was a military that has participated in many of the major conflicts and humanitarian missions in the region.

Col Rashid al Buloushi was a member of the Navy during the war to liberate Kuwait after Iraq invaded.

"We were in charge of providing logistics for the army in Kuwait," he said. "I believe we played our role even though we were not positioned in Kuwait."

The Armed Forces have a long history of sending troops to other countries when needed. Their first participation was in Lebanon in 1976 as part of the Arab defence forces stationed there to help prevent drastic consequences of a civil war.

The forces went back to Lebanon in 2001 to help clear mines in the south.

In 1991, the military played a role in the liberation of Kuwait as part of the Peninsula Shield forces, representing the six member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). The UAE went back in 2003 to Kuwait to help enhance its defence capabilities.

Currently, Peninsula Shield forces are in Bahrain after the recent unrest that erupted in the kingdom.

The force also stretched its missions to include humanitarian assistance to troubled areas around the world. In 1992, the UAE joined the UN in providing relief and aid to people in Somalia after their devastating civil war. In 1999, camps were set for thousands of Kosovo refugees in Albania.

A brigadier general, who preferred not to be named, said one of the major accomplishments he looked back on in his career was constructing the first airport in Kukes, Albania.

"We had no more than 10 days to build it; we finished it nine days," he said. "As we were waiting for the first UAE aircraft to arrive, I was sitting there on the ground and, out of exhaustion, I picked up a stone and carved on the ground 'Zayed Airport'."

A few minutes later he received a call from an airport official in the UAE.

"As a joke, I told him we named it Zayed Airport. At first he panicked and said, 'How can you choose the name?'"

But a half-hour later, he said, he got another call from the same official saying Sheikh Zayed welcomed the idea and would fund a project to develop the airport.

The increasing role of women also have played a big part in the military. The army opened its doors to accept females when they expressed interest in contributing to the protection of the homeland after the Gulf War.

The first batch of women graduated in 1992 from Khawla bin al Azwar Training College - the first women's army college in the region. Today, women can work in every position in the army except front-line combat.

And the military has continued to expand. US State Department figures put its size at about 50,000 active-duty troops, and this February the Armed Forces spent Dh14.5billion on arms deals during Idex. In 2009, the UAE was also the largest non-American buyer for American defence equipment.

In October, the UAE opened a naval base in Fujairah, on the Gulf of Oman and near the Strait of Hormuz, a major security step after the terrorist and pirate attacks on oil tankers last year.

hdajani@thenational.ae