A Return to East of the Suez: Minhad Airbase

OSIMINT (07MAY13) Minhad Airbase, UAE Overview

by Chris B.

General Sir David Richards

General Sir David Richards

New infrastructure developments at Minhad airbase may suggest that the UK is ready to invest more militarily into her Middle East partners as the US begins shifting to Asia.

Over the last year Minhad Airbase has been featured prominently in the press, most notably in the BBC and the Guardian for UK military movements. For the uninitiated, Minhad is the not-so-secret logistics hub for the US and allied forces in the UAE. Ideally situated in Dubai near the Strait of Hormuz makes it a strategic location for the UK to bolster its presence, as it seeks to play a role to enhance regional stability. Despite the importance of location, much of the most recent reporting (PDF) continues to reflect former Chief of Defense Staff, General Sir David Richards’ speech in December 2012 at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

It was there Richards outlined the UK’s intent and role for the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) in the region,

Britain’s JEF will be capable of projecting power with global effect and influence. Nowhere is more important to us than our friends in the Middle East and Gulf and in line with clear political intent we would expect, with other initiatives, for JEF elements to spend more time reassuring and deterring in that region…
Should the need arise for another Libya-style operation, we will be prepared. This would greatly enhance our ability to support allies as they contain and deter threats and, with our naval presence in Bahrain, air elements in the UAE and Qatar, and traditional but potentially enhanced roles in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, would make us a regional ally across the spectrum.

The speech rightfully signaled or, perhaps more aptly, reiterated the UK’s focus on the Middle East and Northern Africa as a primary region of interest for deepening strategic relations. However, the UK’s, shall we say, economic challenges, may make substantive military engagements with the region, outside of training and arms transfers, relatively difficult. [1]

BAE (15MAR13) First Tranche 3 Typhoon

Tranche 3 Typhoon Testing (2013)

The Economics
As a result, one element of deepening relations is based upon the sale of certain defense equipment in order to keep a strong British industrial base as well as subsidize domestic defense acquisitions. [2] At present, the UK is attempting to sell 60 Typhoon strike aircraft to the UAE, in a deal valued around £3bn, as well as 72 more Typhoons to Saudi Arabia valued around £4.5bn. Similarly, Oman’s deal for 12 Typhoon fighters and eight Hawk jet trainers are worth a further £2.5bn. (Beyond aircraft, BAE recently delivered the first of three Khareef class ships to the Royal Navy of Oman.) [3]

The importance of the economic dimension between the UK and the region can not be overstated. Gulf investments in the island country, when taken as a whole, have reached monumental proportions topping £100bn in 2012. Perhaps indicating their respective importance, their contributions broken down show Saudi Arabia with £60bn, Qatar with £20bn and £20bn from the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. [4] These investments have been concentrated in real estate, capital markets and the banking sector, key areas whose improvements are necessary for the UK’s economic recovery.

Then there’s the links to certain global commodities for geostrategic consideration, but that may go too far for the content of this brief.

SAS in Dhofar (1970s)

SAS in Dhofar, Oman (1970s)

The Military
Putting economics aside, the military dimension has been highlighted quite prominently in an April publication (PDF) from the Royal United Services Institute. In the report, Gareth Stansfield and Saul Kelly argue that the UK really never left the Middle East and current talks about a policy shift are perhaps mischaracterized.

In fact, they argue recent developments between the UK and the Gulf states should be seen as a continuation of enduring cooperation, not so different since the declared pullout in 1971 when the US stepped in to fill the vacuum.

This narrative is supported with reference to several key features of the ongoing relationship over the years. For the sake of brevity they are listed:

  • SAS Assistance to Oman’s armed forces (1975)
  • Royal Navy Armilla Patrol (1980-88)
  • Saudi Al-Yamamah I Arms Deals (mid-1980s)
  • Iraq War I (1990-91)
  • Saudi Al-Yamamah II Arms Deals (1990s)
  • Iraq War II (2003-11)

Beyond the report, the recent situation in Syria could have been a potential test case for UK forward deployed assets, especially those at Minhad; however the Cameron leadership failed to obtain the required votes in Parliament to approve military action. Despite the vote, the UK did deploy a flight of six Typhoon fighters to Cyprus-based RAF Akrotiri — co-located with two USAF U-2s — perhaps to shore up solidarity with its ally as talks of a pending strike ripple through the media.

OSIMINT (07MA13) New Shelters Aprons Bivouac

OSIMINT (07MAY13) Minhad Air Base UK UAE FightersThe Imagery
In 1996, the UK and the UAE signed a Defence Cooperation Accord authorizing, among other things, extensive training as well as a joint deployment strategy —though nothing of substance ever developed. The latest satellite imagery from Digital Globe however is starting to suggest that the previous period of cooled relations has ended. If imagery is any indicator, things have now begun to heat up.

Indeed, imagery from May 2013 confirms prior speculation which shows Minhad airbase expanding with additional parking ramps, aircraft shelters, and support areas. With new infrastructure in place to accommodate a full squadron of RAF Tornado fighters, the UK appears to be making a substantive statement about its potential role in the region.

Though a note of caution about hyping the UK’s role is warranted. After all, the UAE already has several foreign partners helping to maintain security in the region. Most significant is the United States, which despite its so-called pivot to Asia, maintains [and will continue to maintain] substantial assets in-country and surrounding Gulf states. And that’s to say nothing of French Navy and Air Force elements also present, as well as Australia’s Middle East HQ co-located at Minhad. [5]

OSIMINT (07MAY13) Minhad AB UAE UH-60 FuselageHowever, there are other indicators that suggest the UK may be taking a more active role. The same imagery also shows the demarcation of a new helicopter apron whose eleven UH-60 are probably deployed from Sas Al Nakhil, the UAE’s army special operations base near Abu Dhabi. Their presence and the timing of the apron’s demarcation suggest they are connected with the UK.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time foreign military elements have been involved with the Emirate. In 2011, it was widely reported that Blackwater/Reflex Responses CEO Erik Prince had setup a training facility and recruited Colombian and South African military contractors. For $529 million, Prince reportedly formed a 800-member strong rapid reaction force to “thwart internal revolt, conduct special operations and defend oil pipelines.” [6]

OSIMINT (07MAY13) CLUs & FightersAlternatively UAE army elements associated with the UH-60 may be related with recent deployments from the United States. In 2012, the US Marine Corp setup a small rotational force for yearlong deployments to provide small arms training, similar to their role in Saudi Arabia. That may certainly help explain the presence of what appear to be containerized living units, similar to those observed at Marine Corp facilities in Djibouti.

Neither view at the moment is particularly clear. However, it may not be too surprising if the UK is helping train army elements — possibly part of the role of the base — as Minhad hosts what is thought to be a counter terrorism fuselage. [7] The fuselage, first observed in 2005, was noted after the one at Sas al Nakhil was removed. This type of counter terrorism training became a priority after Pakistani [Kashmir-based] militant group, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, landed in the UAE with hijacked plane IA 814 during Christmas 1999. At the time, the UAE was ill equipped to handle the situation, though they did manage to free 25 passengers before providing food and fuel to the hijackers.

All things considered, the UAE continues to be a net importer for its security needs. his has provided the opportunity for the UK to expand its influence with the aim to capture future defense contracts as well as additional investments. Although it is highly doubtful the UK will ever take the lead in a situation involving UAE security, its contributions, especially in training and arms transfers, continue to help transform the UAE into a competent military partner.


  • [1] The recent announcement of UK troops pulling out of Germany completely by 2019 may save the MoD additional capital to be spent in other strategic regions.
  • [2] Under the Tranche 3A contract signed in 2009, a total of 112 Typhon aircraft have been ordered for the four European partner nations of Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, with 40 aircraft bound for the Royal Air Force. Deliveries of Tranche 3 Typhoons are expected to start later in 2013. (BAE 15MAR13)
  • [3] In early August, it was reported that the UK is also in talks with Bahrain over a potential Tyhphoon fighter order. At present no details have emerged but analysts suspect a possible order of 12 aircraft to replace their aging T-5 Tigers.
  • [4] The lion’s share of the latter groups investment is the UAE which comes in around £14bn.
  • [5] According to imagery, the US is currently in the process of expanding the nearby Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
  • [6] For additional information on private military contractors and their role in the Gulf see P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors.
  • [7] Also noteworthy, wikileaks cable 09ABUDHABI1067 confirms that the UAE deployed to Afghanistan in early 2002. At the time, the Crown Prince deployed troops with foreign partners to increase their experience and operational capabilities.
This entry was posted in Chris B, Intelligence.

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