|Reports say the UAE is purchasing billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry [EPA]
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been purchasing advanced weaponry from leading suppliers of military hardware at an alarming rate, fuelling what some believe could be a new conventional arms race in the Middle East.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which conducts scientific research into issues of conflict and peaceful resolution, says the UAE was the world's 15th largest arms importer between 1999 and 2003.
However, by 2008, it had become the third-largest, behind China and India.
Mustafa al-Ani, the head of the security and defence department at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre, believes the UAE's new arms strategy is based on what its defence ministry believes is "reliable threat identification".
He says the UAE and other Arab countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council believe that Iran could be a potential threat in case its disagreement with the West over its nuclear programme escalated into military engagement.
"After settling its border disputes with Saudi Arabia and Oman, theoretically, the UAE no longer feels threatened by any of its neighbours. The threat is coming from across the Gulf - Iran," al-Ani told Al Jazeera.
"The UAE's recent arms purchases indicate that it has identified air, missile and naval threats," he said.
UAE's strategic value
In 2005, it was estimated that the UAE's military expenditure was 3.1 per cent of its total GDP of $184.6 billion, which some say is considerable for a country of such small size.
However, some analysts say the elevated rhetoric between the Bush administration and Iran over its nuclear programme spread fears that Tehran could, potentially, strike at US military and civilian interests throughout the Gulf.
Although tiny, the UAE lies along the access point to what is now considered to be the most strategically important body of water in the world - the Straits of Hormuz.
More than 40 per cent of the world's oil supply passes through these straits every day, including 90 per cent of all oil produced in the Gulf region.
In the event any military action is taken against Iran, Tehran has threatened to close down the Straits; though this is unlikely, any disruption - however small - would have significant repercussions on world oil prices.
The Straits themselves are patrolled by the British and US navies with support from Gulf countries, but the specific concern for the UAE lies in its proximity to Iran.
|The UAE sits at the southern entrance to the Strait of Hormuz
All of the UAE's oil fields - and largest cities - lie within range of Iranian missiles.
The UAE, Bahrain and Qatar host several military and naval installations, which could become the targets of a counter-strike by Iranian forces should Iran's nuclear facilities be targeted.
In 2006, Jeffery Kohler, the director of the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, which is part of the US department of defence, told the media that Iran's neighbours were arming themselves by turning to Western arms suppliers.
He said the UAE and Saudi Arabia were among those who sought advanced US weaponry.
But Riad Kahwaji, the director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), has played down the SIPRI report.
"I do not think the UAE's arms purchases are larger than those of Iran, Israel, Russia and many more countries," he said.
"However, we know that UAE's military expenditure is huge, and can lure many arms manufacturers worldwide, but we should keep in mind that our military structure is defensive in nature," he said.
Last December, the UAE concluded a $3.3bn Patriot missiles arms deal with the US.
The US and UAE are also negotiating a $9bn deal that would include air defence systems and Black Hawk helicopters.
Some experts have said that the UAE, like other Gulf nations, faces the potential of internal threats as well.
The Gulf has, for the past two decades, been a magnet for millions of foreign workers, largely young men, who outnumber the region's indigenous populations.
A 2005 census estimated the population of the UAE to be as high as 4.8 million, of which only 19 per cent were indigenous Emirati Arabs.
Non-Arabs, mainly south Asians, constitute half of the overall population. South Asians are thought to comprise 75 per cent of the UAE's labour force.
The UAE has always been keen to send a message that it has a powerful army and internal security forces.
Mutar Jumaa, an Emirati who published several studies on the demography of Gulf Arab countries while working at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), believes the UAE suffers from a serious demographic crisis.
"I can say the UAE and the Gulf are in [an] unpleasant situation, and I totally agree with the need for effective security forces backed by [a] powerful army.
"The fact that our citizens are way outnumbered by foreign working bachelors is something disturbing. We had some unrest last year, disgruntled migrant workers attacked people and used violence to get what they wanted. Some South Asian countries even started to ask us to grant citizenship to their workers in our country."
Source: Al Jazeera