Ahmed S. Hashim
Dr. Hashim is associate professor of strategic studies in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Deakin University in Canberra, Australia.
Dr. Hashim's essay is fully accessible to all readers from the Fall 2020 edition of Middle East Policy.
The international system is characterized by vast disparities in power, and small states are more likely to be reduced to insignificance or to suffer “state death” than larger ones.1 Over the course of history, small states have disappeared in a number of ways: some have been absorbed into a larger entity, others carved up by two or more powerful states. During the Peloponnesian War, little Melos was defeated and doubly eradicated, both as a state and a nation. Its men were killed, and its women and children sold into slavery by the vastly more powerful Athens. According to Thucydides, Melos had been warned to accede to Athenian demands. It chose not to and suffered the consequences.2
Most small states, however, survive and even thrive. Some find room for maneuver among the “wolves” by balancing against or joining a threatening state. As the trajectory of international relations has shown, small states have not gone quietly. Many of them have conducted successful foreign policies that allowed them to keep their independence. According to political scientist Matthias Maass, “Small states are survival artists. In a states system shaped by power politics and dominated by great powers, the survival and especially the proliferation of small states is a remarkable phenomenon.”3 In short, they adopt strategies to ensure their continued existence, including some that are quite unanticipated, such as building military power.
How small states have managed to survive is a question that has been discussed ad nauseam in academic international-relations debates. However, just as interesting is accounting for those small states that have sought military power to ensure their survival and have even fought wars of choice. Indeed, some have defended themselves well against enormous odds, ultimately succumbing to defeat but not outright destruction. Finland’s impressive resistance against Russia in the “Winter War” of 1939-40 is noteworthy, although the Finns’ tactical and operational successes did not lead to victory.4 One of the states addressed here, Singapore, has created “one of the best military forces in the Indo-Pacific.”5 Indeed, its military capabilities have been the subject of extensive analyses over the years.6
The decision by some small states to create military power is a puzzle in international relations: most small states do not try to create meaningful military capabilities. To be sure, many have military forces, but their utility has often been questioned. Indeed, most recently, policy analysts have wondered why the small Baltic countries maintain military forces that together would not be able to withstand the forces that Moscow has deployed in the western theater.
Is it rational for small states to invest heavily in military capabilities? Where and how do they get the resources to “create” military power? Is the buildup just for show? Is it to promote the development of close relations with a stronger patron, or can small states actually create militarily effective capabilities? These issues can be addressed by looking at three small states that chose that pathway. What is apparent is that there is a key rationale for these three states as for any others — acute threat perception — but that there are also other justificatory factors for each one of them. Small states are not undifferentiated actors destined to behave in the same way.
This paper is a comparative study of the national security, defense policies and defense-planning approaches of three small states in Asia: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Singapore. It is not about their foreign policies, on which much more has been written. More specifically, it addresses how and why these three small states sought to promote their national security through the build-up of military power, a pathway considered difficult or even impossible for small states.
The academic debate on what constitutes a small state began decades ago and no consensus has yet been reached. Small states are not all the same; indeed, given the large number of them in the international system, there is considerable variation. The three states in question here are limited in territory, lack demographic weight, suffer from other significant vulnerabilities and are hemmed in by more powerful countries.
National security refers to the states’ efforts, including military means, to protect and advance their core national interests. These do not simply involve preserving their territorial integrity and sovereignty but also upholding their national values, identity and way of life. Defense policy is about external threats and involves ranking them in order of significance, danger, proximity and immediacy. It deals with translating resources into military capabilities and current and near-immediate force structure, as well as formulating and disseminating doctrine. Defense planning, an esoteric subject shrouded in secrecy, deals with assessing future threats and force structure, capabilities and doctrines. Most defense planning is something of a gamble, as those involved in it are dealing with a future environment that, as the estimable strategist Colin Gray writes, “cannot be known with certainty.”7
Small States and Military Power
The terms “small states” and “military power” are seldom uttered in the same breath in international-relations (IR) and strategic-studies literature. According to the dominant IR theory, realism, some states have more capabilities and thus greater power, but most have fewer and thus less power. Powerful states matter, and their foreign and security policies are worthy of study. Realists recognize that there is a great deal of variation among states. There were great powers in the past, two superpowers during the Cold War and one in the two decades following, known as America’s “unipolar moment.” Middle powers with the capabilities to play dominant foreign and security roles in their respective regions have significant impact in the wider international system. Almost no one refers to small states as powers. Small states have traditionally been defined as suffering from a significant deficit of power, particularly military power.8 As the high commissioner of the Maldives in London answered when asked about the size of the standing army of that tiny country, “We don’t even have a sitting army.”9
Small states find it difficult to create security for themselves in an international environment dominated by those with power: territory, economic resources, populations, and military capabilities. However, despite acute vulnerabilities, or perhaps because of them, a number of small states have been able to use economic and other means to transform themselves into “soft powers” and adopt activist foreign policies, punching above their weight in diplomacy.
Very few studies of the military capabilities of small states exist.10 For many small states, foreign policy and diplomacy are often security policy as well, with little daylight between the two. There is also an inherent realist bias: small states cannot do much in the military arena, so it is not worth studying whatever parade-ground military forces they may have. Most studies analyze how small states maneuver themselves around the minefields of the international system through deft diplomacy and clientelistic alliances.
A number of small states have recognized that there is no need to stand up military capabilities, as either they cannot or the cost is not worth it. Nevertheless, most states, including the small, maintain some form of military or paramilitary forces for a modicum of security. Rare is the small state, however, that has the resources and wherewithal to spend on serious military power or makes the decision to do so. Military forces represent significant costs to all states, and small states may reach the limits of their capacity quickly. There are a few exceptions.
From a Nobody to the “Magic Kingdom”
Qatar emerged when a number of tribes from the Arabian Peninsula wandered into the inhospitable territory jutting out into the Persian Gulf. Its birth as a state in the nineteenth century was fraught with danger.11 The ruling Al Thani family found itself embroiled in conflict with virtually all of its neighbors. The Qataris haggled with the Ottoman Empire for protection, then fought it and defeated the army sent against them. Ultimately, Qatar’s rulers sought the protection of the British, which lasted from 1916 to 1971. When financial pressures forced the British to withdraw their military forces from east of Suez, Qatar entertained but later rejected the idea of unifying with either Bahrain or the UAE in favor of independence. Giant neighbor Saudi Arabia, with which it shared a Wahhabi religious heritage, emerged as Qatar’s protector in the 1970s and 1980s.
From the mid-1990s onwards, the obscure emirate was able to transform itself slowly but perceptibly and push back against the looming presence of Saudi Arabia. Its oil and especially its vast natural gas reserves — the third-largest in the world — have enabled this microstate with a native population of just 320,000 to 340,000 out of a total of 2.4 million to develop and accumulate immense wealth. It has been used to provide material comforts for its population, the world’s highest income per capita. Qatar’s foreign-policy activism of the past decade and a half, enabled by its wealth — and its emergence as a significant international player — have caught world attention.12
Qatar simply did not have military power in any measurable sense when it became internationally significant under Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who took power in 1995.13 Under Hamad’s son Tamim, who succeeded him in 2013, Qatar became an exemplar of a “soft power.” It has engaged in national branding and spun a positive narrative about itself to put the emirate on the map. It has pursued an active diplomacy regionally and globally whose primary purposes have been to make as many friends and few enemies as possible — “We don’t do enemies,” one of its ministers reputedly said once — and getting as many big states as possible to have a stake in its continued existence. It has immersed itself enthusiastically in mediation between conflicting parties, often with little follow-through. And it has promoted myriad cultural activities and set up Al Jazeera Media Network, whose critical reporting has dismayed many Arab states.
Beginning in the second decade of the twenty-first century, however, Qatar suffered shocks that made it pay greater attention to vulnerabilities that its activist soft power had exposed.14 Qatar’s role in the Arab Spring in supporting opposition forces in Syria and Libya. and in providing financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammad Morsi in Egypt, made many enemies. Furthermore, its perceived support for Islamist movements and the liberties it allowed Al Jazeera to criticize and deride other regional governments led first to the withdrawal by some of its Arab neighbors of their ambassadors in 2014 and then, on June 5, 2017, to the severing of diplomatic ties and the imposition of an air and sea blockade by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE — the “Quartet.”15 Now, three years later, Qatar has stymied its enemies by prudent economic policies and astute diplomatic maneuvers. However, stunned by the blockade, the Qataris began to think seriously for the first time about the options for creating some kind of security based on military power.16
National Security and Defense
Until recently, Qatar’s military was small, ill-equipped and under-funded.17 The national-security planning process was highly personalized and limited to top members of the Al Thani family. No discernible institutionalized defense-planning process existed,18 and there were very few studies of Qatar’s national-security policy.19
In the past, Qatar had received most of its military equipment from its former colonial patron, Great Britain. It then turned to France, which in the 1980s and 1990s provided 80 percent of Qatar’s military needs.20 Its acquisitions were insignificant; its main weapons platforms consisted of Mirage 2000s and light French AMX tanks, both of which are now obsolete.21 The air force, without foreign aid, lacked the ground support and equipment needed for sustained military operations. During its air operations in Libya, the Qatar Air Force was supported by 35 French ground-operations and maintenance personnel.
Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion and occupation of another small state with mediocre military capabilities, Kuwait, taught Qatar that it could not rely on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — formed shortly after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 — or on Saudi Arabia as a military umbrella.22 Indeed, despite having spent billions on American arms, the Saudis showed their country’s heavy dependency on the United States as a military shield, reflected in the arrival of U.S. forces to protect the kingdom and eventually eject the Iraqis from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm (1991).
Qatari participation in Desert Storm laid the foundation for the implementation of a tight bilateral military relationship with the United States. Dazzled by the display of American military might, Qatar signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) that established the United States as the emirate’s security guarantor. Under the DCA, Qatar became host to thousands of U.S. military personnel at Al Udeid Air Base, when Saudi Arabia indicated that the huge presence of U.S. forces in the kingdom was a lightning rod for criticism. Al Udeid — known to U.S. military personnel as “The Deed” — is a huge and austere but impressive installation literally in the middle of nowhere, as I discovered on many occasions in transit to occupied Iraq in the 2000s.
Unease at U.S. ambivalence during the Obama administration about remaining in the Middle East, coupled with concern over the influence of hostile countries and the indefatigable anti-Qatar lobby groups in Washington under the Trump administration, led Qatar to further diversify its security patrons. Yet, because of its deep pockets, it was able to thwart the efforts to break the U.S.-Qatar bilateral relationship, which the Qataris recognized as simply irreplaceable.23
Between 2014 and 2017, as its relations with its Arab neighbors worsened, Qatar began to think more about defense. After the crisis with the Quartet in 2017, Qatar had an epiphany and has since vastly expanded its links with big powers, not only the United States, but with France, Britain and regional power Turkey, which is building a military installation in Qatar for Turkish forces.24 Thus far, Qatar has beaten the Arab blockade through astute planning and intensive lobbying of powerful allies.25
Qatar is also engaged in a massive arms-buying spree.26 Although it increased its weapons purchases significantly between 2007 and 2011, that half-decade does not compare with 2015-20. It is expanding its air force with hi-tech fighter jets and is undertaking an unprecedented expansion of its tiny ground and naval forces. It purchased 96 fifth-generation Typhoon, Rafale and F-15QA fighter-bombers from Britain, France and the United States, respectively.27 In mid-2019, the first five Rafales entered Qatari service.28 It is building a major naval base south of Doha that will house about 6,000 military personnel and some of Qatar’s newest expensive military purchases.
Qatar is spending billions of dollars on making its military a formidable power on paper.29 However, it is far from creating an effective military. Many observers have questioned the ability of the small Qatari air force to absorb these advanced jet fighters. The number of ground-support personnel will be huge, and maintenance complex. Moreover, Qatar needs to consider the interoperability complication for this mix of fifth-generation aircraft.30 Another question is on the minds of many observers, as a defense journalist put it: “Who will man the systems?”31 She then quoted a defense-industry expert who highlighted the fact that “their air force will now have a total of 96 new aircraft, compared to its current Mirage-2000 fleet of a dozen. The problem faced here is the lack of Qatari armed-forces personnel to operate three top-line fighter types. In order to compensate for staffing shortage, Qatar will inevitably have to recruit foreign forces.”32 It is not only a matter of manning these planes but also of having sufficient ground crew to maintain, overhaul and arm them.
In short, Qatar faces an almost insurmountable obstacle: its demographic deficiency. It cannot generate sizable manpower for all three services from its minuscule native population. To compensate for this shortage, Qatar introduced conscription in 2013, requiring male citizens 18-35 to serve a three- to four-month period, later extended to one year. Nevertheless, demographic constraints will continue to affect Qatar’s force structure.
Many of Qatar’s ongoing purchases, particularly the advanced jet fighters, are of political utility for both the seller and purchaser. Historically, military power has been politically, as well as militarily, useful. As the British-Palestinian defense analyst Yezid Sayigh put it, “For decades, GCC states have concluded massive arms deals with the U.S. and other leading western countries as a form of premium insurance: the GCC helps keep western defense industry jobs, and in return the West protects the GCC from external threats. Recent Qatari purchases are a classic demonstration of this.”33 BAE Systems, which produces the Typhoon Eurofighter, welcomed Qatar’s decision to purchase a significant number of the planes. As a company spokesman anonymously put it, the contract for the Typhoon “is important for the long-term sustainability of high-value manufacturing and engineering jobs in the UK Securing this contract enables us to safeguard Typhoon production well into the next decade.”34
Rational defense planning would require Qatar to consider not just the political utility of the arms purchases but also at least some degree of military utility. Given its almost insurmountable demographic constraints, spending too much on ground forces may not be wise. Rather, it should focus on building a robust deterrent based on its air force and, to a lesser extent, its small naval force, in order to make it clear to the neighbors that they will suffer serious damage to their infrastructure if they attempt an attack.
The United Arab Emirates
For centuries, the region now constituting the UAE was known for its trading ports, which engaged in maritime rivalry and wars with interloping European powers such as the Portuguese and then the more powerful British. The latter turned these mini-emirates into a British protectorate through a treaty in 1819, which remained in force until December 1971, when the UAE emerged as a federation of seven sheikhdoms. The two most important members of the federation are Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the capital and commercial cities, respectively. These two effectively decide all UAE domestic, foreign and security policies.
For much of their history, the so-called trucial emirates were impoverished entities that relied on pearling and fishing for their precarious existence. In fact, they were so poor that many families emigrated to other Arab sheikhdoms, including Qatar.36 The discovery of oil in 1958 changed everything, though it took decades to bring about a massive transformation. This occurred under the aegis of its first independent ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who ruled until 2004. Oil is the factor behind the emergence of the UAE as an extraordinarily wealthy country with a highly developed infrastructure, and as a dynamic small-state actor in regional and international affairs. The UAE has almost 10 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, and recently another seven billion barrels were discovered. The UAE leadership has developed a highly diversified and advanced economic base and built an extensive educational, health and social-welfare infrastructure to bring about a high quality of life for its citizens and ample job opportunities for a large expatriate population of both white- and blue-collar workers. Over the decades, it became clear to the country’s ruling elite that its achievements needed to be protected from threats, both external and internal.
National Security and Defense
When the UAE became independent in 1971, there were several minor defense forces in the federation. The principal one was known as the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS), formed in 1951 to promote internal security. With independence, the TOS became the Union Defence Force. However, full integration of the forces of the various emirates involved a long and uneven process of negotiation. There seemed to be little urgency to create a single integrated force in the 1970s.
The armed forces of the UAE were small, insignificant, under-equipped and under-funded.37 Despite tensions with imperial Iran over disputed islands in the Persian Gulf and with Saudi Arabia over their common border, the UAE did not encounter significant threats to its national security. For many years under its founder, Sheikh Zayed, the UAE kept a low profile in security matters as it focused on economic development and modernization thanks to its bountiful oil resources. It eschewed foreign military conflicts except for the participation of a UAE battalion between 1976 and 1979 in the Arab Deterrent Force to promote peace in war-torn Lebanon.
Matters began to change beginning in the 1980s. The UAE elite began to pay greater attention to conflicts and turmoil that could affect their country’s well-being. Stability in the Persian Gulf, never a sure thing, even when the shah of Iran was in power, collapsed with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iran’s ambitions of exporting its revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, with its maritime dimension, awakened the UAE to potentially serious national-security threats, particularly due to the emirate’s close proximity to the critical Straits of Hormuz. The unsettled climate in the Persian Gulf was what led the Arab states of the Gulf to form the GCC to promote closer political, economic and security ties on the basis of shared values. While the establishment of the GCC by the Arab monarchies may have alleviated some of their security concerns, the ruling elite of the Emirates may have realized that GCC military forces were ineffective at the time. The expansion of the Iran-Iraq War into the waters of the Persian Gulf from 1986 onwards was alarming to the UAE.
The end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 brought little respite. Iraq, whose war effort the UAE had helped bankroll, invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990. The war to free Kuwait of its Iraqi occupiers in 1991 truly awakened the UAE to the inability of the Arab monarchies to defend themselves. The UAE thus began expanding its security horizons by signing defense and security arrangements with major powers. It also began an arms build-up.38 The then-commander of its tiny air force, Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), went to Washington with a massive arms shopping list for the future. More recently, centralization and integration of the armed forces were accelerated — the brainchild of MbZ, now the de facto ruler, and a small group of his advisers. MbZ, who has a rather pessimistic view of international relations, has played the key role in the evolution of the UAE’s foreign and security policies and the development of its military, as well as in efforts to make the regional environment less threatening.
Currently, national-security policy is focused on what the Emirati elite perceives to be specific threats: Iran, all manner of Islamist movements, and disorder and instability in subregions abutting the UAE. Defense policy is now more institutionalized and defense planning more bureaucratic and formal than in the past. The UAE’s oil wealth has allowed it to procure some of the world’s most sophisticated weapons from its closest patrons — the United States, France and Britain — to create a relatively balanced force structure, which has been able to project power beyond UAE borders into Yemen, the Arabian Sea and the Horn of Africa. Among its biggest problems are manpower issues — it has had to use mercenaries of unproven loyalty in the war in Yemen — and its undetermined ability to conduct combined-arms and joint warfare. Nonetheless, it is the most active and combat-proven military in the Gulf at present.40
UAE activism is not only evident in its arms build-up and expeditionary military operations, but also in the development of strong bilateral ties with the strongest military power in the Middle East, Israel. They have had longstanding covert security ties in the past, during which Israel supplied the UAE with surveillance technologies. Closer relations began to develop on the basis of shared “security concerns” in the course of the past decade since the Arab Spring revolts and the growth of Iranian activism in the wider Middle East, including in Iraq and Syria.
Thus, it was not a surprise that the normalization of Israeli-UAE relations was announced on August 13, 2020, by U.S. President Donald Trump on his favorite intellectual platform, Twitter. The agreement to normalize a longstanding covert bilateral relationship with the establishment of full diplomatic relations had all the flair and panache of a tariff agreement, as the Economist brilliantly put it.
Several days later, Trump and the State Department declared it to be the most significant and far-reaching move toward Arab-Israeli peace since the Israeli-Jordanian treaty of 1994. This is risible. The normalization of Israeli-UAE relations has nothing to do with the parties’ quest for or interest in a wider peace in the region. It was a bilateral issue, with the United States as a cheerleader, part and parcel of efforts by the Trump administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get the Arab world to accede to normalization with Israel, irrespective of the resolution of the perennial Palestinian issue. While each side in this menage-a-trois has its own set of reasons for promoting the relationship, those of the UAE are the focus here.
First, Israel and the UAE have never been at war; the UAE has never been an active belligerent in the Arab conflicts with Israel. It simply did not have much of a stake in the matter, notwithstanding the open letter written by the UAE ambassador to Washington urging the Israelis to choose between normalization and continued annexation of Palestinian lands. Netanyahu did choose: normalization and an ideological commitment to continue the annexation process at a later date, even if suspending it at the moment was a welcome respite. Second, with the Arab world in disarray — partly of its own making and partly due to interference by the United States, Israel and Iran in its affairs — the UAE, having rapidly risen to being influential in the Arab world, figured there would be no cost attached to bringing its relationship with Israel “out of the closet.” To be sure, the elite in Abu Dhabi would have expected the time-honored tradition of flag burning, rantings about the “betrayal” of the Palestinian cause and expressions of distaste from Arab intellectuals.
Third, the UAE leadership, like most in the Arab world, has concluded that the road to salvation with the United States — a positive image and more and better weapons — increasingly lies through formal acceptance of Israel as a normal state in the region. For the UAE, the move would also serve to wash away the unease with which the U.S. Congress views the disastrous war in Yemen. Members on both sides of the aisle uniformly welcomed the normalization.
Fourth, the UAE (as well as Israel) stands to gain from this move in the security, commercial and technological spheres. Of course, Israel made it clear that this should not mean the UAE would benefit from the most advanced technology in either the Israeli or U.S. arsenals. Jerusalem indicated its opposition to the sale of the advanced F-35 fighter to the UAE, much to the latter’s pique. It later amended that to the position that it would have no objection as long as the United States guaranteed Israel’s qualitative military edge, should the Arab state receive the F-35. Of course, one of the key questions being asked is whether the security aspect of the relationship is one that is aimed against the Islamic Republic of Iran, a common enemy of both and of their patron, the United States. Years ago, a UAE civilian defense official with whom I was in deep conversation at a workshop on Gulf security, referred to Iran in Arabic as a “balad ‘adwaniyah” (an enemy country). Fantastical stories about Israeli-UAE secret cooperation in the security field with Iran as a focus are not easy to confirm. Without a doubt, they will increase in a wide variety of arenas, but whether the UAE is planning to host Israeli Defense Forces on its territory or engage with Israel in joint military planning against Iran are open questions. Even with this uncertainty, Iran must take UAE intentions and capabilities into greater consideration as it plans its defenses and retaliatory posture should it be attacked.
Only time will tell whether the UAE decision to normalize relations with Israel was a diplomatic masterstroke or a security nightmare. Nonetheless, it is a clear example of a small state’s taking the initiative in the diplomatic and security arenas.
Vulnerable Yet Strong
Singapore is a 721 square kilometer island-state in Southeast Asia with a multi-ethnic population of six million. Unlike the two small Arab states discussed above, its citizen population outnumbers the permanent-resident and expatriate foreign white- and blue-collar labor. Singapore is a majority-Chinese state sandwiched between two powerful Malay-Muslim states to the north and south — Malaysia and Indonesia — with which it has had contentious relations.41
Singapore’s modern history begins with the arrival in 1819 of the British, who remained on the island in various guises until the late 1960s. The British recognized Singapore’s strategic location and transformed it into their major military base in Asia and a commercial and trading center. Singapore came to be made up of a number of ethnic communities — Europeans, Eurasians, Indians and Chinese — who headed there for economic and commercial opportunities, but it remained closely linked to a prosperous British colony to the north, Malaysia (then known as Malaya).
Given its small size, poverty and lack of resources, the logic for this tiny territory would have been to integrate with Malaya, with which it had much in common. In fact, Singapore did join Malaya in the newly formed Federation of Malaysia in 1963, but quarrels over resources and racial tensions between the Malay majority in Malaysia and the largely Chinese elite in Singapore doomed the marriage. Singapore was thrust unwillingly and unexpectedly into independence in 1965. Britain’s declaration three years later that it would withdraw from east of Suez by 1971 was a double blow to Singapore: economically, because the British forces contributed greatly to the weak Singaporean economy, and in terms of security, because Singapore did not yet have a robust military — although its ground forces had grown quite significantly since 1965. 42
These were traumatic experiences for Singapore’s leaders. The ejection from the Malaysian federation was an existential crisis, according to its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. The British “betrayal” — they had promised to stay longer — left the country defenseless. Yet, in spite of its vulnerability and weaknesses, or maybe because of them, Lee and a small group of advisers became determined to set their new state onto the road to success.
Endowed with strong personalities that brooked no resistance, they built the foundations of the tiny state’s success. They created institutions that functioned, and a national education system that would make Singaporeans out of the myriad diverse communities. They destroyed the ghettoes and slums that bred poverty and ethnic animosities. They built a prosperous economy based on making the country a center of international trade, a financial hub, a major port and a producer of hi-tech industries. Last but not least, they focused attention on creating a national-security establishment that could defend the country from both internal and external enemies. In the decades since 1965, Singapore has successfully modernized and transformed itself into Southeast Asia’s most advanced country. The sense of vulnerability remains, but Singapore has achieved no small measure of strength.43
National Security and Defense
An essential component was that Singapore — in spite of its small size, geographic vulnerability and limited endowments — was due to the determination and pragmatism of Lee and a close inner circle — the “founding fathers” — in articulating a specific vision. An essential component of their vision was that Singapore should not lack a military capability. They implemented this vision through an effective national-security strategy and defense policy.44
Singapore has been cognizant of its smallness ever since independence. In 2005, Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean gave a luncheon address at the Singapore Press Club focusing on this very issue. He began by quoting Sir Shridath Ramphal, a former secretary-general of the commonwealth, who once likened small states to “small boats pushed out into a turbulent sea, free in one sense to traverse it; but without oars or provisions, also to perish. Or perhaps to be rescued and taken aboard a larger vessel.”45 Teo pointed out that Singapore is a “lightweight” in international affairs, but this does not mean it cannot defend itself or be proactive in enhancing its ability to survive.46
Singapore did not neglect military power. Initially, it banked on the former colonial power, Britain, to keep a residual military presence in Southeast Asia while it proceeded slowly but surely to develop its military. At the beginning of the 1970s, after London made it clear that it could not maintain a military presence east of Suez, Singapore was faced with little choice. It began a measured build-up of military capabilities, while ensuring this would not threaten to upend economic resources or development. The building of a credible deterrent was the key factor for the country’s leadership. In the early years, the leadership wanted to impress upon potential regional enemies that, though they might succeed in destroying Singapore in an attack, the attempt would not be worth the cost. Later on, Singapore developed sufficient capabilities to withstand an attack and survive. By the 2000s, Singapore had a robust military with the ability to project power beyond its borders and inflict serious damage on an aggressor. Much of this capability was constructed as a result of its close security relationship with the United States, which both parties chose to keep rather low-key. Nonetheless, both have benefited from the relationship, and Singapore, in particular, has gained extensive operational experience from its many military exercises with the United States.
From having almost no military power at the time of independence in 1965, Singapore has come a long way, possessing what is undoubtedly the most hi-tech, best-equipped and best-trained military in Southeast Asia. It has mastered — in theory, because it has never fought a war — combined-arms and joint warfare.47 It is “ready for a fight,” a mindset that deters would-be predators.48 Furthermore, Singapore’s reputation for efficiency and effectiveness, bolstered by its participation in the fight against the Islamic State and in humanitarian operations, has enhanced the country’s deterrent power, as has the perception that it can project force effectively beyond its territory. This is no small feat for a small state.
Singapore has always perceived diplomacy as an important aspect of its national security: pursuing “cooperative, mutually beneficial relationships with friendly countries and playing a constructive role in regional and world affairs help to enhance our security and our strategic weight.”49 Indeed, active and ardent diplomacy is a fitting weapon of the small state in general.
There are some remarkable similarities, as well as some noticeable differences, among the three small states in question. First, they are clearly not “normal”: they have bucked the consensus of how small states should behave in terms of both foreign and security policies. Second, they were all colonies of Britain before it relinquished its military presence east of Suez in 1971. All three, beginning with Singapore, were thus thrust into independence almost unwillingly and with great misgivings about their viability and security in regions of turmoil. However, unlike the two Arab states, Singapore’s rulers put it on a path of modernization and development without the benefit of mineral wealth, and the country was the first of the three to develop hard power, based on the transformation of the only resource it had: people. Singapore was born in crisis and surmounted it. The two Arab states suffered crises much later, and these did help them to focus more on hard power. In all three states, however, foreign policy was also security policy, particularly in the early days of their respective emergence.
Third, since there were few institutions in the early years of independence in any of these countries, it fell on dynamic leaders and their ideas to develop and implement defense policy and national-security policy, including state formation and nation building. Both the UAE and Singapore have gone much further than Qatar in building solid institutions, including those essential for national security and defense policies. While Qatar has built some institutional capacity in some ministries, it suffers from a lack of institutional capacity in the national-security and defense-policy arenas.
Fourth, the trio has paid attention to hard power by developing their armed forces, whereas most small states do not; they simply cannot or do not have the resources to do so. Singapore put stress on military power from the very beginning of its existence, in tandem with nation building and the creation of a state of Singaporeans. From inauspicious beginnings in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Singapore Armed Forces has grown into a balanced force with a small but highly respected niche defense industry.
The UAE and Qatar came late to hard power. Military force played little role in nation building in the early years of independence; rather, the opportunities presented by hydrocarbon resources did.50 Again, as with Singapore, crises and threats forced the two Gulf states to consider their options in terms of military power. When the time came, oil allowed the Gulf states to “create” military power as well as promote massive economic development and modernization.
The UAE, in the view of many, has built relatively capable military forces that can deter and defend it against enemies, has projected power over considerable distances, and has actually fought in medium-intensity wars.51 While Singapore can project military power in Southeast Asia, it has not done so and sees its military as a deterrent. If deterrence fails, it would deliver severe punishment to an aggressor. The UAE has chosen to build an expeditionary military that has and continues to project power in various subregions of the Middle East. Its military experience in the war in Yemen, which it is waging alongside Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels, shows it has faced a steep learning curve, although the UAE forces have, in the opinion of many, acquitted themselves better than their allies in the field.
Qatar was the last of the three to realize the need for hard power. Indeed, military force played almost no part in its foreign and security policies until recently, even though its obsolete Mirage-III jets participated in the Libyan war to overthrow Qadhafi’s regime during the Arab Spring. The shock of the falling out with its Gulf brethren and Egypt in 2017 sent it on an arms-buying spree. However, Qatar is a long way from developing a military that can deter or defend against predators, let alone project power over long distances. It will have to rely on bigger powers to safeguard it for a long time to come.
Finally, all militaries are both reflections and constituent parts of the societies from which they emerge. While technology and financial resources go a long way to stand up a military, these establishments are also made from a society. People are a resource that brings into the military both the strengths and weaknesses of societies. To be sure, militaries seek to excise the civilian out of every recruit, but ultimately all militaries have to work with the demographic cards they are dealt.52
In this context, it is important to understand the sociocultural and demographic contours of each society. All three states are multi-ethnic societies “under construction.” When Singapore emerged unexpectedly as an independent state in 1965, there was no such thing as a Singaporean. Various ethno-religious communities lived side by side but largely without intermingling, though intermarriage did occur. In the main, the relationship between the communities was primarily transactional in the economic sense. It took decades of state programs, including education and obligatory national military service, to create a disciplined Singaporean citizenry, where minorities are full citizens alongside the Chinese majority. A large number of permanent residents or foreigners on various categories of employment passes also live and work in the country.
However, two social issues are expected to worsen over the coming years. Although Singapore still thinks of itself as an exceptional state in Southeast Asia, it is no longer the vulnerable “frontier” society it was 50 years ago. Its status as one of the world’s most highly developed countries likely makes obligatory military service less attractive among its young.53 The second issue is more worrisome: what is referred to in Singapore as the demographic “time-bomb.” Singapore is not producing enough offspring to sustain itself. Its fertility rate has gone from one of the highest in the world in the 1960s to one of the lowest today. This has been thanks to a combination of government policies to arrest excessive growth, which worked too well, and a reluctance among young people to have children in one of the most expensive countries in the world. There are fewer military-age men available for service. Women do join, but they are not yet subject to the draft. The army is more manpower-intensive than the air and naval forces, which are capital-intensive and can benefit from technology to make up for the shortfall in personnel. Singapore is lucky to be advanced in hi-tech and is capable of producing niche defense technologies and advanced weapons systems for its platforms.
Both Qatar and the UAE are below the fertility rate needed for sustaining themselves long term. Furthermore, foreign residents outnumber their respective native populations and cannot become citizens, barring a few exceptions. It is not clear whether either country will begin allowing expatriates to serve in the armed forces as a pathway to citizenship. The fear of being swamped by non-Arabs from the Indian subcontinent and further afield is a worry that is not openly articulated. However, Qatar and the UAE do recruit mercenaries to fill out their forces — attracted by high salaries and benefits and not by the prospect of a new home.
While this study has focused on external threats, it is clear that all three states today face concrete dangers requiring the build-up of other means of maintaining national security. Their vulnerabilities are magnified by the fact that the cohesiveness and resilience of their respective societies is susceptible to erosion and direct military threats. These kinds of vulnerabilities highlight the fact that national-security and defense policy is not merely about security but about creating and maintaining national identity, cohesion and resilience.
1 Of course, “state death” has not been limited just to the smallest members of the international system, but it affects them the most due to the constraints of power and resources. The pioneering work on this is Tanisha Fazal, State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation and Annexation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
2 On the “death” of states, see Charles Tilly (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1975), 38.
3 Matthias Maass, Small states in world politics: The story of small state survival, 1648-2016 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 1.
4 The literature in English on this war on between and a small state and a massive military power is thin, though extensive for obvious reasons in both Finnish and Russian. For English sources, the following are solid analyses: Gordon Sander, The Hundred Day Winter war: Finland’s Gallant Stand Against the Soviet Army (Lawrence, KS: Kansas University Press, 2013); Vesa Nenye, Peter Munter and Toni Wirtanen, Finland at War The Winter War, 1939-40 (Oxford: Osprey, 2015); Neal G. Jesse and John Dreyer, “Finland,” in Small States in the International System: At Peace and at War (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 105-124. For an excellent article dealing with the lessons from the war, see Iskander Rehman, “Lessons from the Winter war: Frozen Grit and Finland’s Fabian Defense,” War on the Rocks, July 20, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/lessons-from-the-winter-war-frozen-gr…. A more niche and specific study explores Finland’s military effectiveness, see Pasi Tuunainen, Finnish Military Effectiveness in the Winter War, 1939-1940 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
5 Evan Laksmana, “Threats and civil-military relations: explaining Singapore’s “trickle down military innovation,” Defense and Security Analysis 33, no.4 (2017): 347.
6 The classic study of Singapore’s military and which is dated yet remains unsurpassed is Tim Huxley, Defending the Lion City: The Armed Forces of Singapore (St. Leonards, New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 2000).
7 Colin Gray, Strategy and Defense Planning: Meeting the Challenge of Uncertainty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1.
8 Talukder Maniruzzaman, The Security of Small States in the Third World, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence (Australian National University, 1982); William Tow and Russell Parkin, “Small State Security Postures: Material Compensation and Normative Leadership in Denmark and New Zealand,” Contemporary Security Policy 28, no. 2 (2007): 308-329.
9 I do not recall exactly where I read this, but it was in a study about regional security in Southeast Asia.
10 Vernon Bennett, “Military force structures in small states: Providing for relevant and credible military capability,” PhD dissertation, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand (2018); Hakan Edstrom, Dennis Gyllensporre and Jacob Westberg, Military Strategy of Small States: Responding to External Shocks of the 21st Century (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).
11 I have relied heavily on two of the best recent books on Qatar: Allen Fromherz, Qatar: Rise to Power and Influence (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017); and Mehran Kamrava, Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).
12 Hugh Eakin, “The Strange Power of Qatar,” New York Times Review of Books, October 27, 2011; Bernd Kaussler, “Tracing Qatar’s Foreign Policy and its Impact on Regional Security, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (September 2015).
13 Roula Khalaf and Martin Dickson, “Qatar: Emir on a Mission,” Financial Times, October 24, 2010; Andrew Cooper and Bessma Momani, “Qatar and Expanded Contours of Small State Diplomacy,” International Spectator 46, no. 3 (2011): 113-128; Hasni Abidi, “Qatar: Une Voie Singuliere,” Geoeconomie, no. 62 (2012): 15-30; Denis Bauchard, “Qatar Un Micro-Etat aux ambitions planetaires,” Politique Etrangere (Autumn 2013): 190-194.
14 Simeon Kerr, “Building its way out of a blockade,” Financial Times, May 17, 2018, 8.
15 Abigail Fielding-Smith and Roula Khalaf, “Qatar-Syria: How a Tiny Gas-rich Gulf State Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution,” Financial Times, May 8, 2013; Trofimov Yaroslav, “Qatar Scales Back Role in Middle East Conflicts: Under Pressure From Gulf Neighbors, Emirate Moderates Ambitions,” Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2014.
16 “Qatar’s New Foreign Policy: How Massive Defense Spending, a Pivot East and Assertive Diplomacy are Beating the GCC Blockade,” Al-Bawaba, March 28, 2019.
17 Paul Iddon, “The Gulf Crisis and the Future of Qatar’s Military,” Offiziere, June 19, 2017, https://www.offiziere.ch/?p=31188. On elite decision-making in Qatar, see Fromherz, Qatar: Rise to Power and Influence, 125-158.
18 See Brahim Saidy, “Qatar’s Defense Policy: Smart Choices of a Small State,” Small States and the New Security Environment, Policy Brief 24 (June 26, 2018).
19 Robert Czulda, “Qatar’s Defense Procurement,” Military Technology, no. 3 (2014): 35.
20 Iddon, “The Gulf Crisis.”
21 Giorgio Cafiero, “Can Qatar Hedge its Bets on Security Guarantors?” Lobelog, November 13, 2017.
22 Julie Bykowicz, “The New Lobbying: Qatar Targeted 250 Trump ‘Influencers’ to Change U.S. Policy,” Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2018.
23 Taylor Luck, “Checkbook diplomacy? How Qatar’s Renewed U.S. Ties Reshape the Gulf,” Christian Science Monitor, August 7, 2019.
24 Bykowicz, “The New Lobbying.”
25 Paul Iddon, “In the Air, on the Ground and at Sea, Qatar’s Military Shopping List is Growing Exponentially,” Offiziere, May 22, 2018, https://www.offiziere.ch/?p=33510.
26 Veronique Guillemard, “L’armee Qatarienne Recoit ses Premiers Rafale,” Le Figaro, June 06, 2019, http://www.lefigaro.fr/societes/l-armee-qatarienne-recoit-ses.
27 “Inquietude et Diplomatie Poussent le Qatar a Acheter Plus D’armes,” Le Point, February 2, 2018, https://www.lepoint.fr/monde/inquietude-et-diplomatie-pousse.
28 Al-Bawaba, “Qatar’s New Foreign Policy.”
29 Zachary Keck, “Why Is Qatar Building a Massive Air Force,” The National Interest, September 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/why-qatar-building-massive-a….
30 Chirine Mouchantaf, “A Huge Military Buildup is Underway in Qatar. But Who Will Man the Systems?” Defense News, December 15, 2017, https://www.defensenews.com/global/mideast-africa/2017/12/.
34 “The Gulf’s ‘Little Sparta’: The Ambitious United Arab Emirates,” Economist, April 6, 2017, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2017/04/06/th.
35 Frauke Heard-Bey, “The United Arab Emirates: Statehood and Nation-Building in a Traditional Society,” Middle East Journal 59, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 357.
36 For the early UAE military, see Athol Yates and Cliff Lord, “Trucial States and United Arab Emirates, 1951-1980,” in The Military and Police Forces of the Gulf States, Vol. 1 (Warwick: Helion and Company Limited, 2019).
37 Heiko Borchert and Shehab al-Makahleh, “Sharpening the Falcon’s Claws: United Arab Emirates Strengthens Its Defence,” European Security and Defence (February 2017): 25-28.
38 David Kirkpatrick, “The Most Powerful Arab Ruler Isn’t M.B.S. It’s M.B.Z.,” New York Times, June 2, 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/06/02/world/middleeast/crown-prince-mohammad-bin-z….
39 Victor Gervais, “Etat et Armee aux Emirats Arabe Unis: Les Enjeux de la Construction d’ une Force Militaire,” Les Champs de Mars, no.23 (2012): 119-135; Hussein Ibish, “The UAE’s Evolving National Security Strategy,” Arab Gulf Institute, Issue Paper no.4 (2017).
40 Bilveer Singh, “Singapore: Success at Home, Challenges from Abroad,” Southeast Asian Affairs (2008), 316-330.
41 K.S.C. Pillai, “Defence Dilemma in Southeast Asia,” South China Morning Post (February 7, 1968), 10.
42 Yee-Kuang Heng, “A Global City in an Age of Global Risks: Singapore’s Evolving Discourse on Vulnerability,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 35, no. 3 (2013), 423-446.
43 See the very informative interview with Lee Kuan Yew in Leonard Apcar, “Excerpts from an interview with Lee Kuan Yew,” New York Times, August 7, 2007, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/29/world/asia/29iht-lee-excerpts.html.
44 “Defending Singapore: Strategies for a Small State,” Mindef, April 21, 2005, http://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/press_room/official_releases/nr/
46 “Combined arms” integrates different combat branches — artillery, infantry, engineers — so that they support each other in combat to achieve more than the sum of their parts. “Joint warfare” involves different services — land, air and naval — contributing to the fight by conducting joint operations to achieve more than the sum of their parts.
47 Charlie Gao, “Singapore Might be Small, but its Military is Ready for a Fight,” The National Interest, August 18, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/singapore-might-be-small-its-mil….
49 Eleonora Ardemagni, “Icons of the Nation: The Military Factor in the UAE’s Nation-Building,” LSE Blog, February 1, 2019; Eleonora 50Ardemagni, “Gulf Monarchies’ Militarized Nationalism,” Sada, February 28, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/78472.
51 Taylor Luck, “New Arab Military Force to Reckon with as ‘Little Sparta,’” Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2019; Guillaume Paris, “Lecons de L’engagement des chars Leclerc au Yemen,” Ultima Ratio, December 2, 2016, ultimaratio-blog.org/archives/8148.
52 I have been enormously influenced here by the writings of Stephen Peter Rosen, “Military Effectiveness: Why Society Matters,” International Security 19, no.4 (Spring 1995): 5-31.
53 I am basing this observation largely on anecdotal evidence from a decade of living there. National service is sacrosanct in Singapore and criticisms of it are not welcome. Its biggest service to the country was to help create a nation; however, Singapore’s existence and sense of nationhood are no longer a matter of debate.
54 An example of this was the cyber-attack on Qatar in 2017; see Edwin Chua, “Political Warfare with Other Means,” Joint Forces Quarterly, 4th quarter (2018): 34-36.