April 1, 2010:
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) navy had a brief skirmish with a Saudi patrol boat two weeks ago. Two Saudi sailors were wounded in the brief exchange of fire, and the Saudi vessel, and its crew, were captured. A week later, crew and boat were returned to Saudi Arabia. Neither nation will comment on the clash, which is rooted in disputes over off-shore gas and oil deposits, as well as the placement of a UAE gas pipeline. Tensions between the coastal emirates and the interior (Saudi) tribes go back centuries.
In the 19th century, the coastal emirates (city states that depended on trade, pearls and fishing) allied themselves with Britain, for protection against the Turks (who controlled what is now Iraq), Iran (always a threat to the Arabs) and the interior tribes of Arabia. Britain was interested in suppressing pirates (which often operated out of the emirates) and halting Turkish expansion. In 1971, the seven emirates formed a federation; the UAE. There were immediate disputes with Saudi Arabia about where the land and water borders should be. Some of those disputes are still unresolved. The Saudis consider themselves the leader of Arabia, but most of the population (in Yemen, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE) often disagrees. There is lots of friction. Nevertheless, in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council was formed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was the chief organizer of the council, and has constantly quarreled with Saudi Arabia over leadership issues.
Over the last five years, the UAE accounted for a third of all arms imports into the region. Israel accounted for 20 percent and Egypt 13 percent. The UAE is mainly fearful of Iran, as well they should be. But their larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia (population 27 million), is also a threat. Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia has upgraded the equipment and training of its armed forces. Actually, the Saudis have two, separate, armed forces. Overall, the Saudi military has about 200,000 troops. But 75,000 of those belong to a separate force, the National Guard. These are organized into eight brigades (three mechanized and five infantry, for a total of 32 battalions.) There are also another 24 battalions of National Guard reservists. The National Guard is well armed and trained, all of them.
When the Saudi kingdom was being put together a century ago, by a tribal army led the al Saud family, the warrior tribesmen were often difficult to control. The Saudi National Guard were originally, a century ago, the Ikwhan. These were truly holy warriors, being Bedouin fighters dedicated to the strict Wahhabi form of Islam, and killing enemies of Islam. The founder of Saudi Arabia used the Ikwhan as his shock troops. In the 1930s, the new kingdom of Saudi Arabia had to crack down on the Ikwhan, who were continuing to raid outside the kingdom, since there were no more enemies inside the kingdom to fight. The Ikwhan was shut down (with some bloodshed), and some of its members helped form the National Guard. The Saud family, for all their warrior tradition, have been a force for peace and negotiation in a region where war is still the preferred solution for disputes.
The UAE occupies much of the western coast of the Persian Gulf, but has a population of less than three million and armed forces of only 65,000. There are 70 million Iranians, and about half a million of them are in the military. The UAE retained its close ties with Britain, and became an ally of the United States as well. When you are caught between two larger, and often hostile, powers, even more powerful allies are a necessity. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are apparently trying, once more, to work out their differences. Meanwhile, both have to worry about Iran, which for thousands of years has been the local superpower.