The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was given a blunt choice: agree to scrap the condition that US soldiers would be subject to UAE law or there would be no mutual defence agreement with Uncle Sam. The ultimatum was conveyed by US deputy secretary of defence John White to the Abu Dhabi crown prince Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayd al-Nahyan and his brother, Shaikh Muhammad, the UAE’s armed forces chief of staff, on March 28. White also visited Kuwait the following day.
The UAE has a joint defence pact with the US under which American citizens would be subject to its laws. While there is little likelihood that any American soldier would ever be hauled before an Abu Dhabi court, the very thought that Americans would be subjected to someone else’s law is taken as an affront by the arrogant Americans. It was this exemption for Americans from Iranian law that had so much upset the people of Iran during the shah’s reign. Imam Khomeini was able, successfully to point to the shah’s subservience to the US.
Shaikh Zayd, the UAE ruler, wishes to avoid a similar charge but the Americans appear in no mood to give him any comfort. On March 30, about 1200 US air crew and ground troops participated in joint military exercises code named ‘Iron Falcon’ with troops from the UAE. These, however, would hardly make the emirate feel secure if the Americans do not agree to fulfil their obligation under the March 1995 military agreement. France had agreed to a similar demand by the UAE and secured hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of contracts.
White was in the UAE to push for the USS8 billion sale of 80 US fighter planes and four frigates. The emirate is in no position to use these weapons. ‘We would like to see a situation in which the UAE would acquire some of our aircraft that would improve our cooperation... That would enhance training, enhance deterrence,’ White added after the meeting with the UAE armed forces chief.
The jurisdiction issue is the only hurdle in the way of warplane and frigate contracts, said an American diplomat. ‘The UAE has to accept that there is absolutely no way we can do this,’ the US diplomat said. When reminded that France agreed to such a clause in January 1995 and secured lucrative arms contracts, the American official said, ‘The UAE must understand that the United States is the only country with the political will and logistical capability to defend it from an aggressor like Iran.’ he said.
‘If the UAE continues to demand jurisdiction, we will have to drastically reduce our level of commitment to the defence of the Emirates,’ the official said. The American boast is both misplaced and false. American troops armed to the teeth, fled from war-ravaged and hungry Somalia in 1993. Where was the American capability then?
Similarly, the threat from Iran is totally baseless. The Iranians have gone out of their way to assure the jittery Gulf shaikhdoms that they have no intentions of undermining them. Even Bahrain has not been able to provide any proof that there is Iranian involvement in the uprising on the Island. Bahraini propaganda has been taken with a large dose of salt even by the other regimes in the area who have no particular liking for Iran.
It is the American military presence that is the primary source of instability in the region. Besides, Abu Dhabi is host to hundreds of Qatari exiles. The former Qatari ruler has made no secret of returning to power. It is this interference in a neighbouring shaikhdom’s affairs that is likely to cause an eruption of hostility in the Gulf. It is high1y unlikely that the US would come to the rescue of the UAE in the event of clash with Qatar.
Inter-Arab rivalry, rather than any imagined threat from Iran, is like cause war in the Gulf region. The fundamental question is: does shaikhdom really need these weapons. Its amateur armed forces cannot even their existing stocks.
The Americans know that the emirate needs the deal badly enough to succumb to any demand, however unreasonable, from Uncle Sam. What the Abu Dhabi rulers are asking the Americans is to come to their rescue in the event of an internal uprising or if there is a war with a fellow Arab country or even with Iran. Abu Dhabi has crossed swords with Iran over the three islands in the Persian Gulf.
Given their neighbour, Kuwait’s experience with the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Husain, the other Gulf rulers are hoping to secure firm commitments from the west. They are only deluding themselves.
Kuwait and Iraq were a different matter. There the Americans wanted to engage Saddam and destroy his military war machine. The west also knew that Saddam’s ill-motivated army could not put up a credible fight. Iran would be a very different matter and the Americans had dare not even contemplate taking them on.
If it came to crunch, the Gulf sheikhdoms would be abandoned by Uncle Sam while his armada sails into the horizon.
Such is life.
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996