On August 2, 2017, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official statement condemning North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile launch into Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The UAE described North Korea’s actions as posing a “genuine threat to international security and stability,” and emphasized the importance of upholding international law as a bulwark against nuclear proliferation.
Despite this harsh anti-Pyongyang rhetoric from Abu Dhabi, a leaked U.S. State Department memo revealed that the UAE purchased $100 million worth of weapons from North Korea in June 2015 to support the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The UAE’s covert arms purchases from Pyongyang can be explained by Abu Dhabi’s belief that North Korea is a potentially valuable missile system supplier, and the UAE’s desire to deter North Korea from selling sophisticated military technology to Iran and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
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Even though the UAE has been viewed by many U.S. defense analysts as Washington’s most reliable ally in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), tensions rose between Abu Dhabi and Washington as a result of the Obama administration’s July 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The UAE was an even more strident opponent of Obama’s attempts to normalize relations with Iran than Saudi Arabia, and 91 percent of Emiratis polled in 2015 expressed their opposition to the JCPOA.
As many Emirati policymakers believe that Iran will renege on its JCPOA commitments and drift inexorably toward becoming a nuclear power, senior Emirati officials, like UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba, have expressed interest in developing an Emirati nuclear deterrent. Even though U.S. officials do not want the UAE to purchase nuclear weapons, Abu Dhabi has maintained commercial linkages with anti-Western nuclear-armed states, so it can respond swiftly to a major Iranian violation of the JCPOA agreement.
In this context, North Korea is viewed as a critical potential supplier of nuclear material to the UAE. The UAE’s military links with Pyongyang date back to 1989, when Abu Dhabi purchased Scud-B missiles from North Korea. These missile purchases occurred in tandem with the UAE’s development of Mirage 2000 and F-16 aircraft systems, which could be used as nuclear weapons delivery systems. While China and Pakistan were initially regarded as the likely suppliers of nuclear material to the UAE should Abu Dhabi request it, the unwillingness of either Beijing or Islamabad to alienate Iran could make Pyongyang a preferable supplier of nuclear technology.
While a major nuclear material purchase from North Korea would be met with animosity from the United States, the UAE has conducted its military deals with North Korea through private companies to ensure that Abu Dhabi is not subject to U.S. sanctions. The UAE’s June 2015 arms deal with Pyongyang was conducted through an Emirati company called al-Mutlaq Technology, which acts as an intermediary for weapons transfers between states.
The close proximity between al-Mutlaq Technology and the International Gold Group (IGG), a leading UAE arms importer operated by the UAE Crown Prince’s close friend Fadhil Saif al-Kaabi, has fueled speculation of state complicity in the UAE’s North Korea deals. However, the ambiguity surrounding government knowledge of the UAE’s North Korea links and Abu Dhabi’s official criticisms of Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests, have allowed the UAE to keep its commercial channels with North Korea under the radar. This ensures that the UAE has maintained the ability to purchase North Korean weaponry and nuclear material on short notice, with little scrutiny from the United States.
The UAE’s Efforts to Contain the Proliferation to Iran and Yemen
In addition to creating a potential back channel for the swift purchase of missiles and nuclear materials, the UAE’s military deals with Pyongyang give North Korea vital hard currency that it needs to remain an economically sustainable state. The UAE’s importance as a North Korean economic partner gives it leverage over Pyongyang’s military activities, and can help Abu Dhabi convince North Korea not to supply sophisticated military technology to Iran and its allies.
To demonstrate that maintaining economic and military links with Abu Dhabi come with strings attached, the UAE has obstructed North Korean weapons shipments to Iran. In August 2009, the UAE seized an ANL-Australia ship carrying a cache of North Korean arms to Iran. This move surprised many regional observers, as the UAE maintains extensive trade links with Iran and is a popular destination for Iranian expats. However, the UAE’s arms seizure had strategic benefits, as it reassured Saudi Arabia of Abu Dhabi’s commitment to blocking Tehran’s access to North Korean military technology.
Even though other GCC states, like Kuwait and Qatar, have confined their relationships with North Korea to importing guest workers, the UAE’s military links with Pyongyang have received little criticism within the Riyadh-led bloc. The GCC’s silence can be explained by Saudi Arabia’s support for Abu Dhabi’s use of its network of ports on the Persian Gulf to halt North Korean arms shipments to Iran. The UAE’s North Korea policy has also been vindicated within the GCC as it has helped prevent North Korea from providing arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The synergy in timing between the discovery of North Korean Scud missiles in Yemen in June 2015 and al-Mutlaq Technology’s deal reveals Abu Dhabi’s concerns about North Korean military technology sales to the Houthis. As the UAE’s arms purchases from North Korea have consisted of light weaponry, like rockets, machine guns, and rifles, it is apparent that Abu Dhabi is attempting to outbid the Houthis to secure access to North Korean technology and control the flow of arms to Yemen.
Even though UAE officials have deflected from revelations of Abu Dhabi-Pyongyang military cooperation by highlighting Qatar’s egregious violations of UN sanctions, the panoply of strategic interests linking the UAE to North Korea suggests that Abu Dhabi is unlikely to voluntarily suspend arms purchases from Pyongyang. As preventing Iran from gaining access to North Korean military technology is a security goal shared by Saudi Arabia and the United States, the UAE could continue to skirt UN sanctions against North Korea for some time to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.