From the Sydney Morning Herald 31 March '09. The author of the article, Peter Hartcher, the Herald's international editor, travelled to the UAE as a guest of the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
Australia has a new friend in the Middle East. It's not the prettiest regime in the world but as Arab autocracies go, it's about as good as it gets. In this case the real estate adage applies - as far as Australia is concerned it's about location, location, location.
The Federal Government has moved to permanently base Australia's various Middle Eastern regional military assets in the United Arab Emirates. In return, Australia has about 30 personnel in the UAE training its fast-growing special forces troopers.
Behind the details of the arrangement are the two countries' larger needs. Australia has decided to stop pretending. Instead of pretending that we are occasional visitors to the Middle East, only rushing in when the US decides to go to war there and rushing out again when it finishes, Australia is now acknowledging that it has permanent interests in the area.
The UAE is a small, young, vulnerable state trembling on the lower lip of the Persian Gulf, anxious for the reassurance of friends and influence.
Both countries are now girding for the coming crisis with Iran, which lies just across the Gulf from the UAE.
The United Arab Emirates is an authoritarian country with a population of 4 million, of whom only 800,000 are locals. The rest are foreign workers, most living in squalid conditions, who can never become citizens.
It's a federation of seven sheikdoms, forged in 1971 when the British withdrew from the region. The silliest of these seven sisters is Dubai, which has become famous worldwide for its flashy extravagance, building lavish hotels and snowfields in the desert.
It's so extravagant that its debts became insupportable the moment the world's lenders decided to tighten credit standards last year. Dubai's bigger, richer, more prudent sister, Abu Dhabi, came to its rescue. Abu Dhabi, also the capital of the UAE, made an initial payment of $US10 billion to keep the emirate of Dubai from insolvency. More payments are on the way.
The source of the UAE's wealth is oil. It is one of the world's 10 biggest producers, pumping about 2.5 million barrels a day, more than Iraq. It has the sixth biggest proven reserves in the world, about 98 billion barrels, more than Russia. The global recession, and the collapse in the price of oil, has dealt the UAE a blow. Its government budget, usually in surplus, is expected to be in deficit this year, and its economy in recession. Still, it will be one of the world's better-performing economies.
Although it is an authoritarian state, it is a relatively liberal one. There is opportunity for women at all levels except, of course, the ruler's. Freedom of religion is guaranteed. The UAE is leading a UN campaign against trafficking in people. The gateway to the compound of the Sandhurst-educated Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is decorated with a metallic artwork - the word "tolerance" spelled out in metre-high letters. All this is enough to have the UAE considered a highly dubious country by its fundamentalist Wahabi Muslim neighbours in Saudi Arabia.
And its foreign policy is pro-US. This simplifies Australia's relationship with the UAE, but it creates tension with the UAE's big northern neighbour, Iran. As the Iran crisis approaches, the UAE leadership is increasingly fearful. Iran continues to develop its nuclear capacity in defiance of the UN Security Council. Although Tehran swears that it is for peaceful purposes only, the rest of the world is unconvinced, and Israel is terrified.
Israel and the US are weighing options for bombing Iran's known nuclear facilities before it is able to produce a nuclear weapon. Speculation centres on the second half of this year or early next. If this should happen, the UAE fears it will be one of the subjects of Iranian retaliation. Specifically, the UAE expects Iran could fire missiles into its cities and activate Hezbollah terrorist cells among the 400,000 Iranian workers living in the UAE.
This helps explain why the emirates are so keen for Australia's help in developing their special forces, the front line in rebuffing any Iranian attack.
The UAE has built special forces of about 2000 men, about the same number as Australia's, and is trying to increase this to 5000 over the next few years. But special forces are the most specialised and training intensive of troops. There is a shortage of eligible emirates recruits for the forces and a shortage of skilled trainers to equip them for their task.
The urgent build-up of the UAE's special forces is a key priority of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, himself a former special forces trooper.
The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, last week set out his understanding of Iran's positioning: "A large part of Iran's behaviour is connected to how they see the international system.
"They think that this is the twilight of the unipolar world" ruled by the US, "and that we are entering a period where US power will be less and less relevant, and there is room for Iran to do two things - one, to be maximalist in its demands; and, two, to increase its influence in the world.
"Australia, the US and others have to emphasise that if Iran sees this shift, it doesn't mean it will be replaced by another system, but by a system of mores and rules that must be abided by."
As the Iran crisis approaches, Australia and the UAE will be facing it together.