On My Visit to the United Arab Emirates

By: George Friedman

I spent last week in the United Arab Emirates, in the city of Dubai. Dubai sits on the edge of the Persian Gulf, which is called the Arabian Gulf by Arab states. This was not my first trip there, but I have never left the city, which means I have only seen the most modern part of the Arab world. I have only had glimpses of how this city interacts with the much larger part of the country that resembles what we think of when we speak of the Arabian Peninsula. Each time I come here I mention this to my hosts, and each time they want to immediately arrange a tour. There is never enough time, and I always promise them and myself to leave the city. I never have.

The meetings I attended this time were convened by the prime minister’s office, which asked me to speak on the shape of the world next year. I spoke to men in flowing white robes and to women in their covering. There is no doubt that power is held by the men, yet there were women who were ministers, and all spoke fluent English. My initial exposure to the idea of an Arab was the movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” made half a century ago about a time a century ago, celebrating an Englishman who thought he had moved beyond what he was born as to become nearly Arab himself. Lawrence was never an Arab; he was an Englishman trying to become one. Still, through the rich landscape of the movie, it was possible to be both utterly enchanted and thoroughly misled by the movie.

A Space Program on the Gulf

At the very least, even the Arab world moves on. In the midst of the pure white robes, a white I have rarely seen in America, I was introduced to a man who was the head of the United Arab Emirates’ space program. The idea that the UAE has a space program is startling, until you look at the city of Dubai. Wedged between the Gulf and the desert is a city of skyscrapers, all of an aggressively modern architecture. Many years ago, when I passed through the UAE on my way elsewhere, there were some buildings and streets, but in a generation, what has emerged is magnificent for its mere presence, and daunting for its almost inhuman size. I can think of no Arab city that approaches it in size, nor in its indifference to Arab style.

What is most striking is that it is a city that was thrown up with the speed of a Texas city, with little sentiment and no apology. Dubai challenges you to accommodate yourself to it, much as Houston does. Arabs are an enormously polite people. In “Lawrence of Arabia,” the prince comments that mercy is a passion for Lawrence (the Englishman) while for an Arab it is simply good manners; the king asks, which is the more powerful force?

The idea of mercy as a matter of custom and propriety is the most striking concept in the movie. While Arabs violate the principle of mercy, as all humans violate their customs, they are as appalled by cruelty as an Englishman is appalled by bad table manners. The manners of those I met were flawless. But they also understand how to wage war, making them very much like the rest of the world.

Therefore, why shouldn’t they have a space program? The Emiratis have one of the most advanced air forces in the world. I also had a nice talk with their minister of artificial intelligence. Few countries have such an air force or such a minister. Why be shocked that they are looking to space, as well? What was interesting about their space program was the reason it began: falcons.

Falconry is a passion of the Arab elite. No matter how well trained, the falcon may choose to go where he will. And finding him is difficult, to say the least. The Emirati space program was started in order to track falcons. Tagging falcons with GPS trackers is one solution. But the Emiratis were more ambitious, wanting to know if the falcon was flying or at rest, and if flying, then at what angle. To do this, they needed to collect data from multiple satellites.

The ancient sport of kings merged with the space age, and the man who made it possible spoke to me about his ambitions to put an Emirati satellite in orbit around Mars. He was quite serious, and is already talking to a private U.S. space company. He was not shy of outsourcing the mission and, as is often the case these days, project management is a bigger hurdle than engineering in going to Mars.

Speaking with a man who was dressed in the flowing robes still common in the Emirates, discussing the subtleties of falcons and planning a space mission in a place that had been regarded as hopelessly backward when I was young, reminded me of my age, and of how geopolitics and tradition intertwine, and take on a life of their own.

The Importance of the Strait of Hormuz

The United Arab Emirates rests on a bulge that juts out into the Gulf at the southern edge of the Strait of Hormuz. The northern landmass is Iran. The Persians and Arabs have had a very ancient feud over this waterway, but in the 1970s the Strait of Hormuz became a global issue. In 1971, I was taking a class in operations research required for my military modeling ambitions.

My professor, well known for his trips to Washington, informed me that my concerns about the Soviets grabbing the city of Hamburg or China dominating Vietnam were all beside the point, not to mention simplistic. The only really significant point on the global stage, according to him, was the Strait of Hormuz and the countries on either side of it. I thought he was buying the cheap Kool-Aid again.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, launching the Yom Kippur War. In solidarity with them, other Arab states declared an oil embargo. The price of oil soared, and the consumers of Arabian and Iranian oil were plunged into recession. This created a huge and complex problem for the United States. The countries that had imposed the embargo were also critical U.S. allies against the Soviets – including Iran, which would be a U.S. ally for another six years.

Pressuring Arab states on oil prices could give the Soviet Union an opening. Doing nothing might do wonders for oil companies, but would end political careers. The lines waiting for gas at those stations that had any seemed to signal the end of civilization.

The key to this was the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf. The fear was that the oil flowing from Iran (which did not join the boycott but enjoyed the higher prices) and the Arab countries on the Gulf’s western coast (which included the UAE and which were also managing to sell oil at high prices) would have their supply lines cut off at the Strait of Hormuz. If the strait were closed, the effect on the United States’ enclosure of the Soviet Union would be shattered, along with its economy. The only force that could conceivably want to do this and had the ability was the Soviets. So, my professor’s dismissal of Europe turned out to be true. I never asked how he nailed that.

It was at that time that the U.S. became fascinated by both sides of the Strait of Hormuz. After the fall of Iran’s shah, and an early Iranian flirtation with the Soviet Union (or one we thought we saw), holding open the Strait of Hormuz became a central concern for the United States. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, sinking tankers in the Gulf became a pastime. The U.S. was so concerned that it sent in naval convoys to escort tankers out of the Persian Gulf, and frankly stated that if either side attacked the convoys, it would mean war. Not long after, the U.S. did go to war with Iraq, and to this day is still toying with the idea concerning Iran.

The U.S. and Its Strategic Allies

And throughout this time, to this moment, the UAE and the city of Dubai remained key strategic assets to the United States. If Iran could take Dubai, it could block the Strait of Hormuz with little challenge. Today, the U.S. operates a major air base in Dubai, cooperates with the UAE’s air force and collaborates respectfully with the UAE on many fronts. The respect in this collaboration is important: The U.S. has trouble working respectfully with allies (a problem going far back in time), and while Arab states may fear Americans and Europeans, they have difficulty respecting them all the same. Oddly, the collaboration works. (Likely in part because the elevators work well in towering Emirati buildings, and for Americans, respect starts there.)

I have noted on several occasions that, throughout history, being a strategic necessity to the most powerful country in the region, be it Rome or Britain, carried with it some risk but also great rewards. After World War II, Germany, Japan and South Korea all were strategic assets to the U.S. All became enormously wealthy, not simply because they had favorable access to American markets and guaranteed access to natural resources, but also because of their own assets, particularly their human assets. This was not because of any virtue of the United States, but simply because the United States needed them to be strong because they were strategic.

The evolution of Dubai into a world-class city had something to do with this. But the need for the strategic alliance was mutual. The UAE needed the Strait of Hormuz open to sell the massive amounts of oil it had. And the U.S. needed Dubai to be robust. As with all such alliances, the interest was mutual. But Dubai did something unexpected.

Germany drew on its own assets, intellectual and cultural. Dubai, on the other hand, went against its inherent culture. It retained the falconer aristocracy, the desert wanderer seeking to be free to make his own way with his tribe. But Dubai went in a different direction. It understood that it was at the chokepoint of the world economy. It understood that it would be standing watch so long as the petroleum economy existed. And it understood that it had vast wealth to draw on. It proceeded to add to its oil economy and to use its strategic position to dramatically enhance its economy, beyond exporting oil.

Instead of the Emiratis sending their money to the Swiss, the Swiss came to Dubai asking for the money. In leaving the Dubai airport, there is a sign advertising a well-known private Swiss banking service. But Dubai has spent its wealth on real estate development to facilitate its rise as the Switzerland of the Middle East, not only in financial matters, but beyond Switzerland – in taking its ambitions in space.

It struck me on this visit how similar Dubai is to Israel. Both are in a way invented countries. Both are now financial and technical centers. Both have close ties with the United States and the rest of the advanced industrial world. Both retain and struggle with older traditions. Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims both circumscribe what is possible to women. In Dubai, I met a minister dressed in traditional garb. She was not more than 30, and perhaps younger. It reminded me of the first time I ran into an off-duty Israeli officer in a miniskirt. The struggle to retain and overcome their traditional lives ought to bind them together.

At this point, I should say that unfortunately they are torn apart by religion. But, in fact, that’s not true. They are aligned in many ways, from hostility toward Iran to business interests, and they make no bones about it. At one end of the Arabian Peninsula is the UAE. At the other end is Israel. In between there is wreckage and insecurity. I have watched both UAE and Israeli air force demonstrations. In a world where mass armies are less important than the sophistication of precision-guided munitions and acquisition of targeting intelligence, large forces simply represent ample targets. Agile forces with advanced munitions and intelligence will defeat them.

This points to an interesting geopolitical possibility. If Israel is the major economic and military power on the western end of the Arabian Peninsula, and the UAE is the economic and military power in the east, then collaboration between the two of them could define the region. That is shooting from the hip, of course, ignoring Turkey and Iran, or the U.S. and Russia. But after this visit it is less preposterous an idea than in the past. When you meet a man who is using space-based assets to track falcons, do not dismiss its significance.

The Arabian Peninsula was shaped by desert and a hunger for water which combined to create a sparse population clustered in small groups, distrustful of the intentions of others. To this day, the UAE contains rival emirs, who collaborate with one another but do not fully trust each other. But the eastern shore of the Arabian Peninsula is rich with oil, and the waters of the Gulf allow the peninsula’s states to sell that oil to the world. But to be rich and weak is the most dangerous thing in the world. So the Arab states of the peninsula have sought the ability to defend themselves from the world, mostly through dangerous alliances, and a few by creating their own power.

But to be powerful in the modern world, you must become part of it, and this is what the UAE has done. It has created its own space program. Even if the program was started to find the falcons.

I repeat the saying of Malraux: Men leave their nations in very national ways.

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